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Checking in on the Western Conference playoff picture

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The Nuggets are currently 6th in the West. Will that change any time soon?

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets have played 19 games, and the vast majority of the NBA has played roughly 25 percent of the season so far. Before, it was too early to make sweeping judgments on how the playoffs might look when April rolls in. Now, trends have started to form, injuries have taken hold of most teams, and some have separated themselves from the pack.

Before the season began, the common thought process was that the Golden State Warriors would steamroll the rest of the NBA. Not much has changed from that train of thought, but Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and company have lost some games they should have won, and the superstar duo didn’t play last night in a loss to the worst team in the NBA: the Sacramento Kings. The Houston Rockets beat them on opening night, and despite the loss of Chris Paul to injury for roughly four weeks, James Harden has been the MVP of the entire league thus far, and the Rockets have continued dominating.

For more information on the Nuggets, let’s take a look at the updated playoff picture:

The expected record comes from my season long predictions in which Daniel Lewis and I predicted the outcome of every single game. The column on the far right expresses the difference between expected record and actual record, with positive numbers meaning the team has exceeded my expectations.

So far, very few teams in the Western Conference have performed at the level I expected, and my reasoning involves player movement and injuries. The following teams are three games below my projections. The Warriors have been without Durant for a few games and dropped a game they normally win against the Kings last night while without Curry too. The Utah Jazz lost Rudy Gobert 12 games into the year. The Oklahoma City Thunder have been a mess in the 4th quarter due to the new additions to the pecking order in Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. The Los Angeles Clippers have been without Milos Teodosic and Danilo Gallinari, lost Patrick Beverley for the season, and Blake Griffin sustained a knee injury last night. The Memphis Grizzlies lost Mike Conley early, and it created enough drama to fire their head coach David Fitzdale. The Dallas Mavericks...well...they are just bad.

It’s been a bloodbath in the Western Conference, and the Nuggets haven’t escaped that drama either. Paul Millsap is out for the foreseeable future with torn ligaments in his left wrist. Fortunately, they have survived early season acclimation and Millsap’s injury so far.

At 11-8, Denver is well positioned in the Western Conference to keep close to the 6 seed until Millsap returns. The bottom half of the West and the entirety of the Eastern Conference are winnable games, and Denver has a bunch of those to wrap up November and all the way through December. Here’s the upcoming schedule through December 15th, a total of 10 games.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Denver goes on a six game road trip, which might look daunting at first glance; however, hidden on the schedule are games that the Nuggets should expect to win if they want to be a considered a legitimate playoff team. Five of the games are against teams with below .500 records. Two of the other five are against the Pelicans, a team Denver scored 146 points on earlier this year. The three toughest games all come in a row against the Pacers, Pistons, and Celtics, but the Nuggets swept the Pacers and the Celtics last season. Both games against the Pistons were before December 15th as well, meaning Denver wasn’t humming offensively at that point.

It’s very possible that the Nuggets, despite not having Millsap in the lineup, can put some distance in between them and the middle tier of the Western Conference. Teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves and Portland Trail Blazers will likely keep winning at a similar pace, but it’s difficult envisioning the Pelicans, Jazz, Clippers, and other potential playoff contenders keeping up given the problems they have or might still have.

It’s also very possible that the Nuggets underwhelm without their defensive ace. Seven of the next ten games are on the road, and Denver could easily go 2-4 or 1-5 on the road, lose a game they should win, and be right back below .500 going into a much more difficult part of their schedule.

So much depends on the consistency of star center Nikola Jokic. His defense has been much improved this year, and his aggressiveness offensively during the last few games has been more pronounced with Millsap out. He is clearly the player the Nuggets look to when things are rough, and if he continues to deliver in big moments, the record in the next ten games will reflect that.

Poll

What will Denver’s record be over the next 10 games?

This poll is closed

  • 3%
    3-7 or worse
    (17 votes)
  • 7%
    4-6
    (39 votes)
  • 20%
    5-5
    (103 votes)
  • 41%
    6-4
    (210 votes)
  • 27%
    7-3 or better
    (139 votes)
508 votes total Vote Now