The Denver Nuggets kind of seem to get glossed over in the discourse about the Western Conference, no? The Los Angeles teams are the Los Angeles teams. The Rockets have a pair of MVPs, the Mavericks have a future MVP, the Thunder are the feel-good story in the conference, the Jazz saw one of their players kickstart the American response — to whatever meager extent there has been one, mind you — to a global pandemic.
And then there’s Denver, which sit in third place in the Western Conference as of this writing and coming off of a campaign where they won 54 games. They’re just a really solid basketball team, with a bunch of good players around one of the most uniquely-skilled big men that we’ve seen. The question — and the thing that could define their stint in the bubble — is what their ceiling is.
Michael Porter Jr.
1. Los Angeles Lakers: 49-14
2. Los Angeles Clippers: 44-20 (5.5)
3. Denver Nuggets: 43-22 (7.0)
4. Utah Jazz: 41-23 (8.5)
5. OKC Thunder: 40-24 (9.5)
6. Houston Rockets: 40-24 (9.5)
7. Dallas Mavericks: 40-27 (11.0)
8. Memphis Grizzlies: 32-33 (18.0)
9. Portland Trail Blazers: 29-37 (21.5)
10. New Orleans Pelicans: 28-36 (21.5)
11. Sacramento Kings: 28-36 (21.5)
12. San Antonio Spurs: 27-36 (22.0)
13. Phoenix Suns: 26-39 (24.0)
Saturday, August 1 — 1 p.m. ET — Miami Heat
Monday, August 3 — 4 p.m. ET — Oklahoma City Thunder
Wednesday, August 5 — 4 p.m. ET — San Antonio Spurs
Thursday, August 6 — 8 p.m. ET — Portland Trail Blazers
Saturday, August 8 — 3:30 p.m. ET — Utah Jazz
Monday, August 10 — 9 p.m. ET — Los Angeles Lakers
Wednesday, August 12 — 9 p.m. ET — Los Angeles Clippers
Friday, August 14 — TBD — Toronto Raptors
WHAT DOES SUCCESS LOOK LIKE?
Make it farther than they did last season. During the 2019 postseason, the Nuggets had the 2-seed, battled against the Portland Trail Blazers in the conference semifinals. It was a tight series, but during a Game 7 in Denver, the Blazers were able to come out on top and Denver started golfing a little earlier than they planned.
Now, this year might be more difficult for the Nuggets to make the conference finals due to the emergence of both Los Angeles teams, and barring something unforeseen, they’d have to beat one of them to make it farther than they did last year. Still, Denver wants to be among the conference’s elite, and with that comes with high expectations. They are 1-1 against the Clippers and 1-2 against the Lakers, but have back-to-back seeding games against both squads in the bubble.
Gary Harris: The former Michigan State standout is in the second year of a four-year extension that netted him $84 million. He got this deal because he’s a solid player, but the 25-year-old has hit a wall this season, averaging 10.4 points, 2.9 rebounds, and 2.4 assists in 31.8 minutes per game while hitting 42 percent of his shots from the field and 33.3 percent of his triples. As Michael Pina of SB Nation noted earlier this year, the Nuggets need Harris to be good for them to compete for titles, and it hurts Harris a ton that he’s dealing with a hip injury that will keep him out of the team’s first game and he was late to make it into the bubble.
The thing with Harris, as has always been the thing with Harris, is that he is still the guy that scored 17.5 points per game, connected on nearly 40 percent of his triples, and is a willing and versatile defender. Him finding that form makes Denver dangerous. Him continuing to languish makes the Nuggets a team that might not be able to make it out of the first round.
BIGGEST ON-COURT QUESTION
How healthy will they be? Bad news for those of us who wants eight games and a playoff run of the gigantic lineup: The Nuggets have all of Harris, Jamal Murray, and Will Barton in the bubble, even if they won’t play (or, in Murray’s case, might not play) in the team’s opener against Miami. A healthy and in-rhythm Denver team is going to be a tough out in the playoffs, but there are questions about how much time they’ll have to get guys healthy and ready to play.
The good news is that Nikola Jokic is an incredible basketball player. The number of guys who are his size with his pure level of skill and basketball IQ is awfully short, and those two things have made it so he’s able to dominate games despite his lack of speed or quickness. This year, he’s been an All-Star and will make a whole lot of All-NBA ballots after going for 20.2 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 6.9 assists per game.