For what seems like a decade now the Western Conference has been stacked. When the Los Angeles Lakers started to slide with Kobe Bryant’s inevitable decline, the Golden State Warriors were putting together all the building blocks of a super team. When the Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams Utah Jazz core didn’t work, the Los Angeles Clippers created a more potent PG/PF combo in Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. The seven seconds or less Phoenix Suns burnt out and the Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook Thunder rumbled into prominence and yes, when the Denver Nuggets decade of playoff appearances finally came to an end, Damian Lillard and the Portland Trailblazers were right there to take their place as a perennial playoff but not championship contender.
The cycle doesn’t seem to be nearing an end. Because while the Dallas Mavericks look like they’ve got barely anything left in the tank and the Memphis Grizzlies have questions surrounding them, the Jazz have overhauled their roster into an exciting young team, the Minnesota Timberwolves have three top five overall picks from the past three drafts and the Houston Rockets are going with one of the most unstoppable one on one basketball players in the world as their point guard. Yet, seemingly lost in this deluge of good to great basketball teams is the Nuggets, a team who may be lacking on big time stars or top overall picks but through a combination of smart drafting and retaining their top players has created a roster that is not only deep (and we do mean deeeeeeeeeeeeep) but also is pretty damn talented.
On Friday night the Warriors came to town in an non-televised affair which was truly a shame because Nuggets fans would have got a first hand look at just how competitive this team can be. Against what is almost unanimously considered (save for those in the city of Cleveland) the best team in basketball the Nuggets didn’t just hold their own, they were better. Now yes, the Warriors did end up winning in overtime but it wasn’t until both teams were playing the ends of their bench when Golden State took the lead. What most people didn’t get to see is a Nuggets team who utilized their big combo of Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic to combat the “death lineup” of the Warriors and not only survived, but excelled. They took their punches with Jokic covering Durant and were able to stay ahead because, just as we saw in the playoffs last year, Denver’s size punished Golden State’s small ball on the boards for easy put backs on offense and one possession trips down the court on defense.
The unable to view audience also missed out on something else that won’t show up in the box score but I definitely noticed from the press box, Emmanuel Mudiay is going to give opposing point guards problems on offense. Stephen Curry isn’t exactly a defensive stalwart but Mudiay gave him everything he could handle and consistently was able to blow by the all-pro to get into the lane. Though he still struggles with turnovers and finishing at the basket, the Nuggets young point guard has undoubtedly improved his handle and feel for the game. The audience also missed out the show that Jamal Murray put on at the end of the game when he went clutch shot for clutch shot with Patrick McCaw.
Really, Murray is going to be the key for this current iteration of the Nuggets to reach the pinnacle because while Jokic was so impressive for the Nuggets last season, its become increasingly rare for a big man to be the #1 option on a championship team. Outside of the Mavericks championship in 2011 when Dirk Nowitzki put together one of the greatest month long strings of basketball the world has ever seen, you have to go back to the early 2000s when Shaquille O’neal and Tim Duncan were destroying teams while in their prime. Scoring wings has been the name of the game when it comes to finding points and victories in the playoffs, whether its been Curry, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Kobe Bryant, it’s always been a high scoring wing, usually a two guard, leading a team to the promise land. For the Nuggets, that guy could very well be Murray.
The best part about it? Though the sample size is incredibly small, it’s starting to look like he might just have it in him to be that guy. Beyond what he did against Golden State on Friday, Murray has failed to reach double figures just twice this preseason, not coincidentally those two games also happened to be the two where he played the fewest minutes. He’s also closing out games with the deep reserve unit, where the opposition knows he’s the biggest threat on offense and keys on him. Yes, he hasn’t lit anyone up for thirty but go back and look at the rookie season of Curry or Wade or James Harden or almost any of the big name star players on championship contenders this season not named LeBron, none of them put up huge scoring numbers when they were rookies. Make no mistake, they put up very good numbers but virtually none of them were getting over 20 points a game on average and it wasn’t because of lack of minutes. Granted guys like Harden or Klay Thompson weren’t getting over 30 minutes a game as rookies but even by year three when they were they still were under 20 points a game. Point being, if Murray just maintains the scoring rate he’s had in the preseason, the odds are going to be in his favor that he’ll put in the league leaders for buckets very soon.
Even if he’s not, the Nuggets likely don’t need him to be because while many will point to the 04’ Detroit Pistons as an anomaly, they forget that the 14’ San Antonio Spurs weren’t all that different in makeup. A team with a lot of very good players playing very cohesive basketball CAN win a championship, even if they are bereft of a guy like a Curry or LeBron who simply can’t be stopped. While Jusuf Nurkic is no Tim Duncan, its not infeasible to think he could produce at the same level as Tim did on his last championship team when he was a 15 and 10 guy with a VORP just under 3. Same could be said when making comparisons of Mudiay to Tony Parker or Will Barton to Manu Ginobili. Obviously there’s a lot of luck involved as well and sometimes the cards don’t fall the way you need them to but the great part about that is the Nuggets have mitigated that risk as much as possible.
Maybe Murray doesn’t end up being much more that a shooting specialist, but Malik Beasley might just be a diamond in the rough. Maybe Jokic’s phenomenal rookie year was a fluke, but maybe so was Nurkic’s sub-par sophomore season. Danilo Gallinari is headed towards the wrong side of thirty but Juancho Hernangomez isn’t giving the coaching staff any choice but to play him because he’s done so well in Summer League and the preseason. Barton, Murray and Beasley all might never make it to everyday starter on the Nuggets because they are going to have to overcome the 22 year old defensive ace that is Gary Harris. On and on it goes, where one guy might bust, there’s almost always two more ready to take his place.
So yes, there’s a lot of competition just to make the playoffs in the West, but by no means does it mean that the Nuggets don’t have all the right pieces in place to become a contender. While we’re still just in preseason we’ve seen this team put its regular season rotation up against the defending Western Conference champs and get the better of them. They rested three starters against a Blazer’s team that made the playoffs last season and they beat them. They opened the preseason against last year’s #2 seed in the Eastern Conference in the Toronto Raptors, and they beat them. Is it just preseason? Is there a lot of work to do? Do they still struggle to defend my dead grandmother at the three point line? Yes, but this team is going places, and they might just get there a lot faster than everyone thinks.