Following a close but much needed victory over the Miami Heat, the Denver Nuggets are still mathematically alive in the playoff race - but with just six games remaining, time is certainly running out on what has been a tumultuous season. Things don’t necessarily get easier for Denver from here, either. The final week-and-a-half sees the Nuggets play against both New Orleans and Oklahoma City twice, with dates in Houston and Dallas in between. Just two of the remaining games are at home.
A lot can happen in six games. And these six games could be enough to alter the destiny of the Nuggets franchise, for better or for worse. With that, here are six things to ponder
What will it take for the Nuggets to sneak into the playoffs?
It’s sobering to think that nearly two weeks ago, Denver controlled its own destiny and had a stranglehold on the eighth seed, yet now is on the outside looking in. Portland is currently two games ahead in the standings but since the Trail Blazers own the tiebreaker, in reality the Nuggets have to make up three games to grab the final spot.
Making up a three game deficit in just six games is a very tall task, but it’s not impossible. The problem is, even if Denver wins out it might not be enough. It all depends on how the Trail Blazers fare in their final six games as well. If Portland wins four games, it’s over. If Portland goes 3-3, Denver can get in by winning out. If Portland goes 2-4 or 1-5, Denver needs to go 5-1 and 4-2 respectively. And if the Trail Blazers somehow lose their final six games, the Nuggets still need to go .500 in their final contests to secure the spot.
It’s a long shot, but it ain’t over til it’s over.
Was Emmanuel Mudiay’s big game in Miami a fluke?
With Jameer Nelson sidelined last night, Jamal Murray got the starting nod but it was the resurgence of Emmanuel Mudiay that propelled Denver to a win. In the first time playing significant minutes since January, Mudiay took advantage of the opportunity by putting together arguably his best game of the year: 17 points, nine assists, four rebounds and just two turnovers. Not only did he stuff the stat sheet, he looked pretty darn good doing it.
But was this game the actual resurgence of a once lottery pick, or was it a fluke? Will Jameer Nelson return and delegate Mudiay to the bench again, or was this enough to put himself back into the rotation? Mudiay’s play as a whole has been a cause of disappointment on the year, but seeing him come out after so many DNP-CDs and ball like this gives me hope that not all is lost for the young guard. He still needs to perform at a high level consistently, but this was a stark reminder that it’s far too early to call him a bust. He can still be an integral part of this team moving forward. Hopefully all he needed was another chance.
Give him minutes for the rest of the season and see how he does!
If the Nuggets get eliminated, should the Nuggets sit Nikola Jokic?
The emergence of Nikola Jokic has without a doubt been one of the highlights of this season, so it makes sense to want him to play out the year just because he’s so darn fun to watch. But it might make more sense to shut the Joker down if Denver does get eliminated. Jokic has already been playing basketball pretty much non-stop for well over a year thanks to his incredible Olympic run with Serbia, and it’s clear that he’s not in the best shape right now. Earlier this season, there were even reports about him being fatigued from all that has gone on.
Will Jokic playing two or three more games than necessary really hurt in the grand scheme of things? Probably not, but can you imagine if something happened and he got seriously injured in a meaningless game? Not worth it.
If the Nuggets get eliminated, where will they end up in the draft order?
It does suck being back in this position year after year, when tankathon is actually relevant in your life. As of this morning, the Nuggets sit in the 13th spot and have a 2.2% chance of landing a top-three pick in the lottery. Given Denver’s unfortunate lottery history (they’ve never moved up), and given the strength of this year’s draft (don’t they say that every year?), these final games might be a good opportunity to hop on the tank train. Don’t get me wrong - I think Denver needs to go hard for the eighth seed. But if the Nuggets do get eliminated, playing out the season primarily with Jamal Murray, Juancho Hernangomez and Malik Beasley is an opportunity both for these guys to get more experience and for the team to improve its draft position, even if every so slightly.
Regardless of where the Nuggets end up on the draft board, fans should take comfort in knowing that Tim Connelly has flourished with mid first-round draft picks, most notably by flipping the 11th pick in 2014 for Gary Harris and Jusuf Nurkic, and selecting Juancho Hernangomez and Malik Beasley in 2016. In such a deep draft, no matter where the Nuggets end up they will likely get a quality player. It’s also worth noting that a higher pick could be better trade bait should Denver go the route of packaging a pick with veteran players to either move up or go after someone else.
Are these Danilo Gallinari’s final games in a Nuggets uniform?
The spotlight will most certainly be on Danilo Gallinari this summer, as the Italian forward has the right to either exercise a player option and come back to the team next season or to enter unrestricted free agency. Gallo is on the record as saying, “I would love to end my career in Denver. I would love to see when I’m old my jersey retired at the Pepsi Center. Is it going to happen? I hope so. I don’t know.”
While it’s easy to interpret that as Gallinari declaring his intent to opt in, his comments don’t necessarily make this a reality. Gallo has a lot more to gain by entering free agency – with the new salary cap he will command a lot more money on the open market, and could even be rewarded with a max contract. Will the Nuggets be the team to offer him that kind of cash? I don’t think it makes sense to bring him back unless it’s on a team-friendly deal, and even then I’m not sure if that would be worth it. Wilson Chandler is still under contract for at least another year and it’s time for Juancho to get regular minutes.
Gallinari has been an integral part of this team for past six years, leading the Nuggets to a 57 win season in 2012-13 and most recently moving up to third on the franchise’s “most three-pointers made” list. He’s a fun player to watch and has been playing some great basketball this season, but his time in Denver could very well be coming to an end. Enjoy the final six games with him while you can - they could be his last.
Who else might be playing their last games for the Nuggets?
This is where things get interesting and purely speculative. The obvious one is Roy Hibbert, who has played a total of about five minutes this year for Denver and will be an unrestricted free agent. From there, it all depends on the direction the Nuggets want to go. Tim Connelly indicated earlier his intent to re-sign restricted free agent Mason Plumlee, but the question is whether or not Plumlee will be worth the money he’s offered by other teams to play as a backup center in Denver long term.
The other key player that comes to mind is Wilson Chandler. It’s likely that Chandler’s fate depends mostly on what happens with Gallo; if Gallinari returns then it doesn’t seem prudent to keep Wilson as well, but if Gallo leaves then having a veteran forward seems logical. The caveat is that Denver would have to trade Chandler as he is still under contract.
Of course, the elephant in the room regarding Chandler is whether or not he even wants to be in Denver anymore. One rumor earlier this year indicated that Chandler hasn’t been happy with his role this season, but he also told Chris Dempsey that he was looking for consistency more than anything. Regardless, Chandler has had a phenomenal year and is a solid two-way player that would provide consistent value for any team to which he belongs. I for one hope he stays.