Just how good are these Denver Nuggets?

Doug Pensinger

In this article, we make an attempt to compare these Nuggets to the better teams of the past, including the 2008-09 squad that took the Los Angeles Lakers to six games in the Western Conference Finals.

This is the best Nuggets squad, ever.

Wait, what? Surely this team isn't better than the 2008-09 Denver Nuggets that finished with the No. 2 seed and breezed through the first two rounds of the post-season? The same team that stole home court from the soon-to-be NBA champions and came within two games of facing the Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals? How can this team be better than one featuring Chauncey Billups, Carmelo Anthony, Nene, and Kenyon Martin and friends?

The answer is hopefully in the numbers.

The two "power ranking" systems I like to use are Simple Rating System (SRS) and the Saragin Ratings. While I prefer SRS, it fails to account for home/road splits, and therefore isn't as good at ranking in the middle of a season when teams have unequal home/road schedules. Jeff Sagarin's ratings add three extra points for every home team, and therefore will be the more accurate rating system for a partial season. Theoretically these ratings will yield almost identical results at the end of the season, and because of this I will be flip-flopping between SRS (previous full seasons) and Sagarin (current partial season). I prefer these to W/L records because they are a more accurate predictor of future success, and a much better indicator than playoff seeding.

Here's how some of the memorable Nuggets teams ranked :

Team Significance NBA RANK # of Teams
1994 8vs1 upset over Karl's Sonics 16th 27
2008 First 50 with season of the since 1988 11th 30
2009 Western Conference Finals 8th 30
2010 52 win season, First round exit vs. Utah 8th 30
1988 54 win season 6th 30
2013 ??? 4th 30

As you can see, this team ranks favorably versus any former Nuggets squad, and is a full four spots higher than any of the Billups led teams that we all reminisce about so fondly. The 2013 Nuggets are even more impressive when you compare each team's winning percentage against the top 10 Sagarin ranked teams from their respective seasons.

2008-9 - 15-16 (.484)

2009-10 - 18-12 (.600)

2012-13 - 17-7 (.708)

Despite a shaky start, this years Denver Nuggets team is poised to have their best record ever against "good" teams, which in theory should bode well for the playoffs. So if this is the best Nuggets squad ever, why are most experts predicting a second round ceiling? Furthermore, why did the 2010 team, with virtually the same players and I higher ranking, get bounced in the first round?

The answer, in my opinion, is luck.

The 2008-09 squad was incredibly lucky, and here's why:

1) They won more games than they should have. The WCF Nuggets won 54 games, but they had a Pythagorean record of 50-32, meaning they came out on top of their close games more than usual. One can argue that this is due to having "clutch" players, but that's an whole different argument for another article. Let's just say that one of the most clutch players in the game, Kevin Durant, is part of a team that's running really bad this year with respect to actual wins vs. Pythagorean wins.

2) They won the right games. The 2008-09 Nuggets ended the season in a three way tie with the Blazers and Spurs, however the Nuggets held the tiebreaker despite the Blazers having the best head to head record amongst the three, and being the best team (5th in SRS vs. 7th for SAS and 8th for Denver) overall. Denver's record against divisional opponents really saved their bacon that season, and pretty much doomed Portland.

3) Holding the tiebreaker gave them a VERY favorable draw. Denver's divisional record, and subsequent divisional win was, in my opinion, the biggest reason they made it to the Western Conference Finals. Securing the No. 2 seed allowed Denver to face the Hornets (13th in SRS) in the first round. The Spurs in turn faced Dallas (11th), and Portland, the No. 4 seed and 5th best SRS, drew the 6th best Houston Rockets. As expected, Denver won the series against New Orleans rather easily, which should have set up a heated match-up between the No. 2 seed (8th SRS) Nuggets and No. 3 seed (7th SRS) Spurs, a team that had their way with the Nuggets in the past...

...except it didn't happen. The Spurs lost to the Mavericks, meaning Denver got to play the 13th and 11th best teams in the NBA on the way to the Western Conference Finals.

To put this into perspective, imagine this year's Nuggets facing the 13th best team (Knicks) in round one and the 11th best team (Bulls) in round two, both with home court. I'm pretty sure every Stiff here would be punching their tickets to the Western Conference Finals if they knew that.

If we compare it to the following year, the infamous 2010 "meltdown", we can further see how much luck plays a part in playoff success. That team was every bit as good during the regular season, however rather than facing such easy opponents, they drew the THIRD ranked Utah Jazz. That's similar to playing this year's Spurs in the first round--hardly a reward for winning the division. Yes, that team may have under-performed for various reasons, but their tough draw did them no favors.

So what does that say about this years team? The bad news is that their draw will be much tougher than it was in 2009. They will likely face a top-7 team in the first round, and then have to face the three top teams in each subsequent round. The good news? Even if they don't manage to get home court, they will be playing against a team with a lower ranking, and should have a great chance at advancing to the second round regardless.

The 2008-09 season was a magical one for us Nuggets fans, but I'd take the 2012-13 Denver Nuggets over those guys all day.

***

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