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NBA Power Rankings: Holding steady in Week 5

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NBA: Denver Nuggets at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Save for lone home loss to the Atlanta Hawks, the Denver Nuggets put up a solid week going 2-1 after redemptive victories over the Brooklyn Nets and Memphis Grizzlies. Denver sits pretty at 9-3 and in third place in the Western Conference.

How does this translate across the national media’s perspective of the team? See what they’re saying below in this week’s power rankings:

ESPN

Nuggets Rank: 7
Last week: 6

Other than providing the opportunity for Trae Young to stunt on his haters, the Nuggets had another steady, solid week. They’ve won six of seven, and it’s been a little something different in most of those. On Sunday, it was Jamal Murray with 39 points and eight assists in one of the most complete games of his young career. Against the Nets a few nights earlier, it was stingy defense and balanced scoring with seven players in double figures. That’s the unique element to the Nuggets: They don’t rely on any one player to beat you, but at any moment, they have a couple of players that can do it anyway.

Sport’s Illustrated

Nuggets Rank: 6
Last week: 7

Nikola Jokic doesn’t need to be even a league-average shooter from three for Denver to be effective, yet his current 24.1% mark is proving problematic for Mike Malone and the Nuggets. Defenses are sagging with abandon, mucking up passing lanes and daring Jokic to pull the trigger. A potential antidote: feed Jokic below the foul line. His post-ups haven’t been terribly efficient this season–just 0.85 points per possession–though added volume could get the Serbian star back on track.

Bleacher Report

Nuggets Rank: 6
Last week: 6

Opponents are begging Jokic to shoot from the perimeter, which makes sense considering he’s considerably under 30 percent from three this year. You’d think giving Jokic so much pressure-free room to scan the floor would allow him to carve up the defense with his passing, but when his man is effectively zoning up in the lane, his options diminish.

That’s just part of the explanation for Denver’s strangely inverted route to success. The Nuggets, a top-10 offense in each of the last two seasons, are 9-3 because of their top-five defense. On offense, where a bevy of scoring options and Jokic’s facilitation should be producing elite numbers, Denver is below average.

If you’re searching for the driver of Denver’s increasingly gritty identity, look no further than 34-year-old Paul Millsap. When the Nuggets have needed a spark on either end, Millsap has often been the one to provide it.

”Paul is playing like he’s 21, not 77,” Jokic told The Athletic’s Nick Kosmidor. “He’s a beast right now.”

Denver’s early season has been a little strange, and far from perfect, but you look up and see a 9-3 record with six wins in its last seven games. Most teams would love to “struggle” like this.

The Athletic

Nuggets Rank: 7
Last week: 8

Will Barton has been phenomenal for the Denver Nuggets so far this season. He had a really tough go of it individually a year ago while the team experienced incredible success. He agreed to a four-year, $53 million deal in the summer of 2018. Sounds great, right? Barton wanted to prove last season he was worth the money, all the while helping the Nuggets get to where they needed to be. A little over halfway into his second game last season, a core injury that required surgery knocked him out of action until mid-January. By the time he came back, Torey Craig had seemingly taken his role. Barton would start the last half of the season, but he was basically out of the starting lineup when the playoffs got rolling.

Barton was patient and played the good soldier. He came into camp this year joking about how he didn’t know the starting small forward position was up for grabs. So far, he’s started every game he’s played and shown the small forward position is his and his alone. He’s shooting a career-best 46.2 percent from deep and he’s scoring (14.8) more than Gary Harris (10.2) and Paul Millsap (14.1). The Nuggets outscore their opponents by 14.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor and they’re getting killed when he’s on the bench.

CBS Sports

Nuggets Rank: 6
Last week: 6

Nobody thinks that Denver has played anywhere close to its best basketball this season, yet it still sits at 9-3. The offense has struggled at times, but perhaps a 131-point explosion against the Grizzlies, in which Jamal Murray scored 39 points and dished out eight assists in 31 minutes, will get them going. If that happens and the Nuggets can maintain their top-five defense, they’ll reclaim their spot among the league’s legit title contenders.

NBA.com

Nuggets Rank: 4
Last week: 4

The Nuggets are apparently that team that, in the span of three days, will lose a game (against Atlanta’s 29th-ranked offense) in which they scored 121 points on 100 possessions and win a game (against Brooklyn’s better-than-average offense) in which they scored just 101 on 99. It’s not clear what you’re going to get from this team from day to day (take Jamal Murray’s last two games, for example), but the bottom line is that they’re just a game in the loss column behind the Lakers and they have the best record (4-1) in games played between the 14 teams that are currently over .500, having held their opponents to less than a point per possession over those five games. The defense will continue to be tested, because in the span of seven days (starting Wednesday), four of the league’s top-five offenses will visit the Pepsi Center.