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Can the Nuggets be title contenders?

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Led by a MVP candidate, with a top 10 offense and defense, are they more than just a playoff contender?

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NBA: Denver Nuggets at Miami Heat Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets are almost at the halfway point of the season, and to the surprise of many, sit one game ahead of the Golden State Warriors for first in the Western Conference.

While there have been injuries, rotation questions, concerns about which player takes control at the end of games, and shooting slumps, the sum of those negatives haven’t been enough to knock them off their game. They have the seventh-best point differential in the league at +4.9, and they’re winning games this season that they wouldn’t have won last season.

On the Lowe Post Show, with Zach Lowe of ESPN, the aforementioned host spoke about the Nuggets title odds with Bill Simmons, creator of The Ringer, a sports and culture website. While Simmons gave a shoutout to our site (hi Bill, yup, these are your listeners) during the podcast, the former ESPN columnist does not believe in the Nuggets as title contenders. Their discussion is worth a listen, but the question is one that deserves more discussion than a short conversation between two of the most perspicacious basketball analysts out there.

The Action Network published updated title odds yesterday, and the Nuggets have the fifth-best odds in the league (odds via Bovada) behind the Warriors, Rockets, Lakers, and Thunder. It’s obviously something that Vegas acknowledges, but also knows isn’t as likely.

With that in mind, here are some reasons for and against the Nuggets case as title contenders.

What do they have in their favor?

They have an identity. Think about the other teams listed above the Nuggets in the Western Conference as title favorites. The Lakers identity? LeBron. The Warriors identity? The Splash Brothers. The Rockets identity? James Harden and Morey-ball. The Thunder identity? Defense and athleticism.

What about the Nuggets? Their identity is Jokic-ball. It’s a system where every player is a scoring threat, where there are possessions with double digit passes and zero dribbles once the halfcourt set is initiated. It’s games where they finish with 80 percent assist rates, shooting a high percentage at the rim, with a healthy number of free throws and three-pointers.

While other teams in the conference are struggling to figure out who they are, the Nuggets know every single night, “This is Jokic’s team, and this is how we’re going to win.” It has helped them pile up 27 wins in 39 games, despite a heap of injuries that has resulted in 11 players starting a game for them this season. They even got positive contributions from Nick Young - Swaggy P!

They have an MVP candidate. It goes hand in hand with Jokic-ball, but Jokic is definitely worthy of being included in the MVP conversation this season. While he may not have the raw stats of a James Harden or Anthony Davis, his impact on the team is undeniable. He’s the best player on the best team, and while I’m not even comfortable putting him above other candidates like Giannis Antetokounmpo or Harden, he’s definitely earned an All-Star nod and is a strong competitor for an All-NBA spot.

What do they have working against them?

They are too young. The Nuggets are the third-youngest team in the league (although that’s likely influenced by Michael Porter Jr. and Jarred Vanderbilt, who don’t play), but while that youth helps them during the regular season, it does mean they lack experience, which is more of an advantage in the playoffs.

They do have a few experienced players that are key parts of the rotation in Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee, and Isaiah Thomas is a steadying voice on the bench, but IT isn’t playing, and their other core players - Harris, Murray, Jokic, Craig, Beasley, Hernangomez - have no playoff experience. Even if a team like the Utah Jazz are able to secure the 8-seed and the Nuggets held onto the 1-seed, that’s a team that made the playoffs last season and won a round, returning several of the same players for this season.

They don’t have consistent guard play. While part of this can be chalked up to injury, it is a reality that the Nuggets aren’t getting consistent production from their guards. While Murray is the second leading scorer on the team at 18.4 points per game, Gary Harris has settled into the 16 points per game range. That’s fine as a fifth option, but the Nuggets need Harris to be more of the third or fourth option as a scorer.

This is one of the areas where the healthy return of Will Barton could really help the Nuggets. The initial timeline for his return was 6-8 weeks, but it’s looking to be closer to 12-14 at this point. It is extremely important to not rush back a player that signed a four-year contract in the offseason, but the Nuggets could really use his 22 points per 36 minutes production that he gave the team last season. It is also a situation where the Nuggets might be inclined to give Isaiah Thomas minutes over Monte Morris once the veteran is healthy, because Thomas is much more of a scoring threat than Morris is.

Is the defense for real? To start the season, the Nuggets defense was great - third best in the league from October 17 to December 7. After that loss against the Hornets, where Millsap injured his toe, requiring him to sit out a couple weeks, the Nuggets defense has been tied for fifth-worst in the league.

There are a lot of reasons why the defense has slipped. The team is still winning games, so it hasn’t been too bad of a regression, but it does show how much of a weakness the defense can be. This is a team that has to execute at a high level, avoid foul trouble, and secure defensive rebounds. In the playoffs, their starters are going to have to perform better for an extended period of time — so far it doesn’t look like they’re able to give maximum effort on defense for a full 36 minutes a night.

They’re deep, but not stacked. I love the players on the Nuggets roster, but if we’re being honest, Jokic isn’t so transcendent that he’s going to take a roster starting Torrey Craig to the Finals. The Nuggets are going to be a great regular season team because they don’t have any bad players 1 through 9 on their depth chart. They’ve got a great player (Jokic), a very good player (Millsap), three pretty good players (Harris, Murray, Barton), and then a lot of solid players (Hernangomez, Craig, Morris, Lyles, Beasley). In the regular season, they’re going to succeed because those bench guys are going against bad players. In the playoffs, you’re getting the seven or eight best players on a team — if you’re bad, you don’t step on the court.

A stacked team is a lineup like the Warriors, who have three All-Star players, or the Thunder, who have a former MVP and an All-NBA player. You need to have a guys (plural) that are All-NBA caliber players with role players that are able to step up in the moment.

So you’re saying there’s a chance?

It’s mathematically possible for the Nuggets to win a championship this year. Once the ball gets tipped, both teams have a chance to win. The Nuggets have a lot of talent, a good system, and they are hungry.

I think there’s something to the Nuggets position as the team nobody believes in. They missed the playoffs last year by a single game, and they don’t want to be on the outside looking in again this year. I think they have a locker room that is united in a goal of making the postseason, and not just getting a participation ribbon, but winning a series or two.

No one has said it better than Will Barton. “It has to stop some day — why can’t it stop with us?” The Warriors dynasty will come to an end some day, just like the Spurs dynasty or the Lakers dynasty. There is always a new challenger to the throne, someone that will rise up and overthrow the ruler who underestimated their opponent.

Even as Nuggets fans, we’re used to our team being considered a joke across the league. The title of our blog is self-deprecating, a reference that is part of the Nugglife we all have lived as Nuggets fans.

But Nugglife is over. We don’t have to be the lovable losers anymore. What if this is our year? What if this is our chance? If now isn’t the Nuggets time, they’ll come back again next year, stronger from the adversity.

Can the Nuggets be title contenders? Maybe they already are.