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NBA Power Rankings: A light week and a bad loss lead to a dip

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Even with the league’s best defense, Saturday’s loss in Sacramento hurt Denver’s ranking

Denver Nuggets v Sacramento Kings Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Things looked good for the Nuggets during the early parts of Saturday’s game against the Sacramento Kings. They were about to cruise to a seventh straight victory until a lapse on both sides of the ball led to a Kings’ run and eventual win in overtime. Though frustrating, all teams suffer bad losses and in the grand scheme of things it will mean little to the Nuggets and their playoff goals.

Across the national media, however, the perception is a bit different. What should have been a cush week has resulted in the Nuggets slipping in the power rankings almost universally across the board, even if Denver surprisingly has the best defense in the NBA. Read why below:

ESPN

Nuggets Rank: 4
Last week: 4

After a six-game win streak, the Nuggets finally had a letdown against the Kings. It’s the kind of game that falls firmly under the “it happens” category, in which you blow a 17-point lead to lose in overtime and you move on. There were symptoms in that contest of some potentially larger issues that might need attention (late-game execution, namely), but for now, it’s an ugly loss for a team that is rolling along near the top of the West.

Sport’s Illustrated

Nuggets Rank: 5
Last week: 4

Shoot the ball, Nikola Jokic. The Nuggets’ center went 3–11 from the field in Saturday’s 100-97 loss to the Kings, making just one of six attempts in the fourth quarter and overtime. Jokic is of course a passing savant, but his scoring threat unlocks the floor for Denver. Three of Denver’s four losses this season have come when Jokic attempts fewer than 12 shots. Denver’s offense leaps another level when he’s aggressive.

Bleacher Report

Nuggets Rank: 6
Last week: 5

Denver’s winning streak stopped at six on Saturday as the Kings sniffed out Jamal Murray’s last-second attempt to find Will Barton in the corner for a potential game-tying three. Time expired, the Nuggets lost and Murray caught some flak for what should have been more fairly termed a team-wide failure to institute a Plan B once the first option went bust.

Still, the Nuggets are a sterling 13-4 on the year, propelled through Nikola Jokic’s ongoing offensive struggles (he was just 3-of-11 with seven points in 36 minutes against the Kings) by the league’s No. 1-ranked defense.

Jokic had better get into shape and start impacting the offense soon, though, because Denver’s elite D might be a mirage. Though the Nuggets are holding opponents to the league’s second-lowest effective field-goal percentage, the shots they surrender should have them ranked 21st in that statistic. The Nuggets’ defense is inarguably improved, but they’ve been a little lucky.

The Athletic

Nuggets Rank: 7
Last week: 4

Positive takeaway: I’m not sure this team has played all that well and yet it’s still racking up wins. It’s funny to say the Denver Nuggets haven’t played all that well when they’re surprising everybody with the best defense in the NBA. That’s pretty amazing and something I’m not sure anybody saw them relying on to win games. But their offense ranks 18th in the NBA. They don’t shoot free throws. They don’t shoot a lot of 3-pointers. And they’re actually pretty terrible at making shots in general. The Nuggets look nothing like the offense we’ve seen in the last two seasons. With all that said, they’re finding ways to win games and that’s a skill they’ve developed. Winning ugly.

Negative question: Will Nikola Jokic eventually get into shape this season? It’s kind of stunning at this point that Jokic has been so disappointing. His numbers are still good enough. He’s 16-10-6 every single night. This is also the least efficiency we’ve ever seen from him and almost everything from him is down this year. He just doesn’t look like he wants to dominate out there. I’m not sure how long the “he played for his country” explanation holds throughout this season. Where is the dominant Jokic?

Why did the Nuggets fall this week? Nothing really wrong with Denver this week, aside from losing on the road to a lesser Sacramento team. But the teams above it have been surging more than they’ve been stagnant, and the Nuggets had a bit of a light week schedule-wise.

CBS Sports

Nuggets Rank: 7
Last week: 4

In a light week, the Nuggets handled the Wizards before blowing a 17-point lead to lose to a solid Kings squad. Denver continues its diverse offensive attack, with five players now averaging double-digit points. Nikola Jokic has yet to find his stroke from downtown, shooting just 23 percent from beyond the arc this season, but Denver’s league-best defense has made up for some offensive lulls.

NBA.com

Nuggets Rank: 6
Last week: 2

The Nuggets have the league’s No. 1 defense and are in second place in the West, just a game in the loss column behind the Lakers, who they host on Tuesday. But their offense, which scored just 33 second-half points as they blew a 17-point lead in Sacramento on Saturday, continues to disappoint. Only the Warriors (-10.3 points per 100 possessions) and Magic (-5.7) have seen a bigger drop in offensive efficiency from last season than the Nuggets (-5.3), who were one of five teams with a top-10 offense in each of the last three seasons. Despite drops in usage rate and true shooting percentage for Nikola Jokic, their starting lineup has been efficient enough (111.4 points scored per 100 possessions) in its 317 minutes (75 more than any other lineup in the league has played). But, though the Nuggets are seemingly the deepest team in the league, bench minutes have been a struggle. Monte Morris remains at the top of the league in assist-turnover ratio, but is one of four Denver reserves - Malik Beasley (from 58% to 51%), Torrey Craig (from 53% to 39%) and Jerami Grant (from 57% to 50%) are the others - who have seen big drops in effective field goal percentage from last season (Morris has gone from from 56% to 45%). Denver’s bench ranks 22nd in aggregate (estimated) NetRtg, with only the Warriors having seen a bigger drop from last season (when the Nuggets ranked 10th).