Mason Plumlee has a blog. The Denver Nuggets’ big man uses it to post musing on whatever he’s got going on, and during this past offseason, he took a moment to reflect on the disappointing end to the 2017-18 campaign, one which saw Denver’s season end by losing a play-in game to the Minnesota Timberwolves.
“I’ve had a bit of time to process last season and the bottom line is there are no excuses,” Plumlee wrote. “We should have made the playoffs and we need to get there this year.”
Fast forward to last Tuesday night in Boston. The Nuggets picked up a hard-fought road win against Kyrie Irving and company, a 114-105 win in which an otherwise hostile crowd at TD Garden paid reverence to one of Plumlee’s teammates, Isaiah Thomas. His return dominated the evening, to the point that it somewhat slid under the radar that Denver — one year removed from letting an appearance in the postseason slip away — became the second team in the Western Conference and fifth team in the league to secure a playoff berth.
Sitting next to Plumlee in the jubilant Denver locker room following the win, I asked about that quote off of his blog. In response, Plumlee made it clear that the Nuggets’ priorities shifted over the course of the campaign.
“I think about midway through this [year], we realized that playoffs really isn’t the goal,” Plumlee said. “It’s something that we have to accomplish in order to go where we want, but that’s too easy, right? I shouldn’t say too easy. It’s not too easy, but we have the potential to accomplish so much more. So, I don’t want to say too easy, but for us to get to the playoffs is not enough.”
While it’s not a surprise that the Nuggets would have loftier goals considering the year they’ve had, the fact that they’re in a place where their expectations could be raised to this point is eyebrow-raising. Getting healthy was obviously huge — this was especially the case for Paul Millsap, who appeared in 38 games during the 2018-19 campaign — but there wasn’t a huge free agent signing, and their first-round draft pick, Michael Porter Jr., has played in as many NBA games as I have.
Sometimes the right answer is the simplest one, and for Denver, the team’s improvement stems from the fact that it has just found ways to get better. The biggest jump has been on defense, where the team went from one of the worst squads in the league to a solid, if unspectacular, bunch. The Nuggets were 24th in the league in adjusted defensive rating in 2017-18, but have jumped up to 10th in the NBA this year. The former saw an adjusted defensive rating of 111.50, the latter is an adjusted defensive rating of 109.91.
It also helps that opponents are not hitting shots against them — opposing teams hit 47.6 percent from the field and 37.8 percent from three last year, both the worst marks in the league. This year, Denver is 15th in defensive field goal percentage (45.7 percent) and third in opponent three-point percentage (34 percent). These numbers aren’t gigantic improvements (although the one about opponents not hitting threes is pretty impressive), but for a squad with an offense as potent as the Nuggets, they’re huge.