Take a brief time-traveling trip with me, won’t you? Let’s just say we’d had a multiple choice quiz right before the 2018-19 NBA season began, and it went a little something like this:
Which of the following will be true in the Western Conference after the first quarter of the season?
a) The Denver Nuggets will start the season 9-1
c) The Golden State Warriors will run into struggles they’ve not seen in four seasons
d) The Houston Rockets will be in second-to-last place, instead of second place
e) The Nuggets, Clippers, Thunder, Lakers, Grizzlies, and Mavericks will all be in the top eight seeds, while teams that made the playoffs last season in the Pelicans, Jazz, Spurs, Timberwolves, and Rockets will all be on the outside looking in
f) The Nuggets will be in the conversation as the best team in the West (4:16)
g) The Nuggets will go from a bottom-five defense to a top-five defense
h) ok, one more... The Nuggets defensive rating would outrank their offensive rating while both would be in the top 10?
i) All of the above
Be honest. Before this season started, how many of you would have answered i) All of the above? Anyone with their hands up, here is your next task. Please go to someone you love and trust, and contritely explain to them why you just lied to us all. In return, I’ll apologize deeply for an nine-item multiple choice test. Unconscionable.
In other words, how could anyone have expected the way this season has shaped up on the Western side of the NBA?
Much of Nuggets Nation came into this season with a sense of anticipation, as the team had slowly been building steam over the last three seasons, and the lion’s share of observant fans expected this was the year they might finally crack back through that glass ceiling, and back into the playoffs. Instead, they have fairly shattered that canopy thus far, and have many national pundits saying words most of us dared not hope for like “home court advantage” or “Conference Finals” or even... Well, I still can’t say it, but just drop that Conference part.
Before the season started, several pro hoops prognosticators predicted this might be the toughest season in the West yet. That was saying something, given just how brutal it has been for years now, but those predictions turned out to be prescient. 14 of the 15 Western Conference squads have designs on the playoffs, and the separation between Team One and Team Fourteen is only a four-and-a-half game rift. The opening these Nuggets thought they’d be filling in two or three seasons is suddenly tantalizingly close. How the young squad will handle that shortened timeframe will be one of the most intriguing stories of this season for Nuggets fans. Several of the teams that will challenge Denver for playoff seeding have more experience and may be more capable of maintaining consistency over the last three-quarters of the season.
What makes the prospects slightly more tantalizing for Denver Nuggets fandom is knowing how much better the team can be than it already is, and in a few ways:
These wins are coming while several of the starting four of Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap, Gary Harris, and Jamal Murray have played through injury and/or have enjoyed wildly fluctuating offensive output. This team absolutely has another gear or two it can hit when each of those four hits their stride at a more career-average frequency. Millsap already seems to be doing so. That should scare the pants off of the rest of the league.
Speaking of injury, these Nuggets have played primarily without the services of fifth starter Will Barton, and still have Isaiah Thomas, Michael Porter, Jr., and Jarred Vanderbilt waiting in the wings. With one of the best bench units in the league already at their disposal, Denver may be deeper than the Marianas Trench.
Speaking of that bench, not many were talking about them before the season began, but Mason Plumlee, Monte Morris, Juancho Hernangomez, Trey Lyles, Malik Beasley, and Torrey Craig have all contributed very meaningful minutes for Denver this season, and often kept the team afloat in tough games.
The Nuggets seem to keep learning their lesson in wins and losses being tied to their team defense, as briefly illustrated here:
One of those horizontal lines stays fairly consistent, doesn’t it? The other... well, let’s just say that W’s seem to be firmly attached to D at this point. That’s who the Denver Nuggets seem to be. As shocking as it sounds, you’d have to think there might still be another gear for this team’s defense as well, if only in that this excellence is so recent. They’ve been playing solid offense for most of the last three seasons, to the tune of .402, .488, and .561 winning percentages, respectively. Though we’re only a quarter of the way in, this season’s .667 sure makes clear how important a component defense has become, but it would seem there may still be more cohesion to achieve, if only via further repetition.
Things are very different in the Wild West these days, Nuggets Nation. Everyone saw this sort of efficiency as a goal for the future, but the future may just be now. How much of what we’re seeing is reality this far into the season remains to be seen, but there are certainly some patterns emerging. Let’s hope these young Nuggets can keep playing the game that’s gotten them here thus far. With all of the tumult across the Western Conference this season, is it possible the Denver Nuggets timetable just got bumped up a little bit?
An old teacher of mine taught me you should bookend your papers with the same argument you opened it with, a la hamburger architecture. In the spirit of the hamburger I now must eat later today because one briefly crossed my mind, and with a little more brevity:
Which of the following will happen in the Western Conference over the last three quarters of the season?
This poll is closed
a) What we’ve seen thus far is the new reality of the Western Conference, with several surprises
b) There is now so little distance between 1 and 14 that anything can happen
c) A little column A, a little column B, but Denver is for real on both ends of the court
d) All of the above
e) None of the above