As the dust settles from an exceptionally busy 2023 NBA trade deadline and the league’s attention shifts to Salt Lake City and All-Star Weekend, the Phoenix Suns are in the center of the frame. Granted, the Suns earned additional focus in the wake of a blockbuster trade earlier this month, acquiring one of the best players in the world in Kevin Durant and unquestionably going all-in on a core that still includes Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, and Chris Paul. In fact, Phoenix is now the betting favorite to win the Western Conference at virtually every outlet, even as the Suns have only a small lead on a jumbled Western Conference middle, to the point where a bad week could send Phoenix sliding into the play-in mix.
It makes perfect sense that Phoenix would rise near the top of the spectrum, simply because Durant is really that good and Booker remains an All-NBA player. Ayton and Paul give the Suns a tremendous top four and, even amid legitimate concerns with depth and defense, it stands to reason that the Suns’ expectations would fly through the roof once Durant is back and healthy.
Still, Phoenix’s ascent, as well as the power of the past, have seemingly thrown many off the scent of a team that appears for all the world to be the favorite on paper: the Denver Nuggets.
The team enters the All-Star break with a 41-18 record. Die-hards will certainly know that regular season win-loss record is never the only vessel by which contender status is measured, but Denver currently has a five-game lead on the rest of the Western Conference and the best net rating (+4.5) in the conference. The folks at Cleaning The Glass paint an even more optimistic picture that includes a +5.0 net rating when removing garbage time, and FiveThirtyEight now projects the Nuggets to finish several games ahead of the West field in the regular season with a similarly prominent gap to odds to reach the NBA Finals. If you simply covered the column that lists team names, it would be quite difficult to understand why the team with the best statistical profile wouldn’t be considered the favorite.
The reality that “defense wins championships” is the dark cloud hanging over Denver’s candidacy, and that is a legitimate concern. However, the Nuggets bring the league’s best offense to the table, scoring 117.6 points per 100 possessions this season. Denver’s ball movement is tremendous, as 66.1 percent of their field goals come off assists, they generate 29.1 assists per game, and have 1.95 assists for every turnover this season. Michael Malone’s team leads the NBA in effective field goal percentage (58.2 percent), field goal percentage, and three-point percentage, which is difficult to do, and the Nuggets also boost efficiency with 55.2 points in the paint and 16.8 fast break points per game.
In short, there is little reason to think Denver can’t keep up with any team on the offensive end, even in a playoff setting when the game historically slows down. The largest appeal for the Nuggets is the presence of the two-time reigning MVP in Nikola Jokic. While some remain inexplicably skeptical of Jokic’s individual brilliance, he leads the NBA in various advanced metrics, including EPM and RAPTOR by comfortable margins, this season. From a “traditional” standpoint, he is averaging a triple-double with 24.7 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 10.1 assists per game, and Jokic is an efficiency monster, shooting 63.2 percent from the field and regularly delivering high-quality looks for his teammates with his obscene passing.
When Jokic is on the court, the Nuggets are fantastic. Denver is 38-13 in games when Jokic plays, and the Nuggets are scoring 124.7 points per 100 possessions under his leadership. That leads to a ridiculous +14.3 net rating and, while the Nuggets have scuffled without Jokic on the floor for years, he projects to play more minutes in the postseason and this year’s Denver team is investing well into the luxury tax to support increased depth.
It would be fair to suggest that the Nuggets have had relatively solid health this season, but it isn’t as if the Nuggets have a spotless health record, with Jokic missing eight games, Jamal Murray sidelined for 14 games, and Michael Porter Jr. on the shelf for 17 games. Denver will certainly need the best possible performance from Murray and Porter, in addition to various supporting pieces, to get over the finish line. In the case of Murray, he has a strong playoff track record, and Jokic has single-handedly flummoxed various opponents in the postseason, even when the Nuggets were overmatched elsewhere.
On one hand, it makes perfect sense that some would remain skeptical of Denver. After all, the Nuggets haven’t reached the NBA Finals with this group and last year’s team exited in the first round of the postseason. It is noteworthy, though, that the Jokic-Murray Nuggets do have a conference finals berth in the not-so-distant past, and Denver is arguably playing its best basketball of the entire Jokic era this season, as evidenced by the aforementioned regular season profile.
In a playoff series against the Suns, Grizzlies, Warriors, or other potential contenders, the Nuggets will be forced to prove they can generate enough defensive stops to survive. Jokic has improved dramatically as a regular season defensive anchor, and the metrics support that, but he does have physical limitations in space, and the Nuggets have other potential defensive issues with both Porter and Murray. Denver has been a solid defensive team by regular season standards but, with few exceptions, title-winning teams usually bring elite-level defense to the table by the postseason, and it may be hard for the Nuggets to get there.
While the Nuggets may not be quite as big of a favorite as the current regular season profile suggests, they do, however, boast clearly the best metrics in the Western Conference right now and, with the understandable rush to anoint another team with clear potential drawbacks in the Suns, Denver is being overlooked. This isn’t a season in which it would be wise to take any single team in the West against the field, and that is likely the case for Denver as well, but the Nuggets are doing all they can do to assuage doubt in the regular season and playing a lot like a legitimate contender as the All-Star break arrives.