On paper, things look promising for the Denver Nuggets. They hold the No. 3 spot the West and they’re just a game and a half behind the Clippers for the No. 2 seed heading into the eight-game regular-season slate in Orlando. But just 2.5 games separate them from the No. 6 Rockets, and as you’ll see from their bubble schedule below, it’s anything but a cakewalk.
Their record also belies the fact that it’s been something of an up-and-down season. During the first two months, Nikola Jokic looked like a shadow of the player who led his team to the second round the season before, though a hot start in the win column helped distract from his lackluster play, and he eventually returned to his dominant form.
Before the shutdown, the Nuggets were in prime position heading into the season stretch, despite some faltering against top-flight contenders. As the bubble circumstances have leveled the playing field for everyone, they have as good a shot as anyone in Orlando.
Michael Porter Jr.
Saturday, August 1 — 1:00 pm ET — vs. Miami Heat
Monday, August 3 — 4:00 pm ET — vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
Wednesday, August 5 — 4:00 pm ET — vs. San Antonio Spurs
Thursday, August 6 — 8:00 pm ET — vs. Portland Trail Blazers
Saturday, August 8 — 3:30 pm ET — vs. Utah Jazz
Monday, August 10 — 9:00 pm ET — vs. Los Angeles Lakers
Wednesday, August 12 — 9:00 pm ET — vs. Los Angeles Clippers
Friday, August 14 — TBD — vs. Toronto Raptors
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)
WHAT DOES SUCCESS LOOK LIKE?
The first goal is to survive the eight-game slate without plummeting down the standings. But Denver clearly has aspirations beyond that. Whether they’re a legitimate sleeper threat to take the West will depend on a number of factors. Jokic — who contracted COVID-19 while in Serbia this summer but has since recovered — has transformed his body during the shutdown, reportedly shedding 40 pounds and looking slimmer than we’ve ever seen him. It remains to be seen whether that slimmer figure will aid in this endeavor. Jokic himself has admitted that prefers to be on the heavy side so he can body his defenders in the post more effectively. A conference finals appearance is certainly in play if everyone stays healthy and a few things go their way over the next two months.
After Bol Bol’s eye-popping debut in Orlando this week, it’s tempting to slot him in here. He was a monster on the defensive end against the Wizards, logging five highlight-reel blocks, but the 7’2 center also showed off his versatility in the open court and even knocked down a pull-up three in transition.
But the bigger X-factor could come in the form of another versatile youngster. Michael Porter Jr. has been limited by injuries in his early career, but he’s shown flashes of what once made him a surefire lottery pick, and given the right circumstances, could be difference-maker for Denver in Orlando.
BIGGEST ON-COURT QUESTION
During their opening scrimmage last week in Orlando, the Nuggets trotted out one of the most physically-imposing lineups ever assembled, featuring Jokic starting at the point. Once the season resumes in earnest and players clear quarantine, Mike Malone will likely revert to a more traditional configuration that includes actual wing players.
That’s where Jamal Murray, Will Barton, and Gary Harris fit into the equation. They’re going to need consistent and efficient contributions from them to keep the offense humming and take some of the burden off Jokic. Fortunately, the Nuggets have several other offensive weapons in Paul Millsap, Jerami Grant, Monte Morris, and others.
The question is whether they have the combination of size and quickness required to at slow down elite wing players like LeBron James, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, etc.