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Denver Nuggets: Firing on all cylinders

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Your favorite basketball team comes out of the All-Star break not having been at full strength for 57 games. That may finally change for the last 25.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Denver Nuggets
The last few hoped-for pieces are falling into place for the home stretch....
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
@#$&^$&#

I never looked that happy walking up to one of these when I owned it. Worst effing car I ever had. I’d gotten it second- (or third- or eighth-) hand. It had a few... idiosyncracies. Like:

  • It was ugly. Like a giant sat on an AMC Pacer. Girls were NOT impressed when you pulled up next to them in this car. Smooth.
  • It smelled like cat pee when the Colorado weather was warmer than 80 degrees.
  • None of my friends could drive it, as the stick configuration was upside down of EVERY OTHER CAR ON THE PLANET, and having first be down-and-to-the-left seemed to be tantamount to nuclear fusion.
  • The backseat had existed once, but someone had done something pretty drastic back there an owner or two back, and now it was suitable for non-flat storage.
  • The stereo had a short in the dash. When the music stopped, I could get it going again by punching the top of the dash as hard as I could. It had happened often enough it had developed a soft spot.

Worst of all, the engine was, in theory, an inline four-cylinder. Because it had been mistreated, all four cylinders usually fired, but the poorly balanced engine made for a pretty rough ride. On the car’s last day, one of the cylinders skipped so badly that the car backfired. It was the loudest backfire I’d ever heard. I pushed it to the side of the road and into a parking lot and caught the bus home. The garage it was towed to called, and the owner tried to explain that the backfire had actually melted the distributor cap. I was secretly thrilled. Good riddance, you stubby crapmobile.

I’d known nothing about engines going into this adventure, but came to hate that one so vehemently that I came to desire its polar opposite, anything that ran with a V12. Although they’ve now primarily gone away, they used to be what powered luxury cars for smooth and powerful rides. When a V12 is humming, it is pretty perfect for some crazy mathematical reasons.

Your Denver Nuggets have always managed to have five players on the floor all 48 minutes of every game this season, though you’d have thought even that feat might be a challenge with all of the guys who have been injured or suffered through inconsistent play. Somehow, this has still been an astoundingly successful season thus far. Coming out of the All-Star break, Denver may be as healthy as they’ve been all year, with 25 games to get themselves into a cohesively powerful and smooth-running hoops engine. Here’s the Denver Nuggets V12, with how much they’ve been able to put into each “cylinder” this season, and how much they could fill it up at their best:

Nikola Jokic

The Joker has had his finest season to date, coming out of his first (of hopefully many) All-Star appearances, where he acquitted himself nicely amongst the league’s best. Aside from a questionable suspension and a couple of down games, Jokić has carried the team through some vastly different circumstances from game to game all season long, often being the catalyst for Denver’s revolving roster to still outmatch their competition. Though Jokić will certainly improve his game as his career matures, he is performing at top capacity, and is the skeleton key that unlocked this Nuggets season.

Paul Millsap

Millsap has missed 11 games so far thus season due to injury, and though he’s had a less-productive scoring season, he’s still managed to put up 12.2 points a game while anchoring the defense so crucial to the team’s overall success. His three-point shooting percentage is at it’s highest point since the 2014-15 season, and he’s also putting up his best WS/48 numbers since that same year. Should Paul bump his scoring up over these last 25, he’ll make life very difficult for whoever is on the other side of the ball.

Will Barton

Counted on to be one of the primary pistons driving this Nuggets engine this season, Barton’s season re-started a scant seventeen games ago, and he’s just discovering his rhythm again. Even so, he’s still averaged 12 points a game this year, and has been a difference maker in several recent games. If Barton reagins full mojo over as the season wraps up, he should make an already-dangerous Nuggets team that much more difficult to deal with. Denver can make it to the playoffs without Barton’s best, but the sooner Will the Thrill emerges for good, the better chance the Nugs have of securing home court, maybe even for a couple rounds.

Gary Harris

Denver’s most consistent player has had his most inconsistent campaign, only due to the rash of injuries that have plagued his fifth season. To his credit, Harris has still put up nearly 15 points per game when on the court, and is still counted on to lock down the opponent’s best guard on the defensive end. Denver will need peak Harris to close out the season, and his return to the court on Friday will be one of the best pieces of news Denver can have to close the season strong. How long it will take Gary to get back to full speed will be one of the more interesting pieces of Denver’s success on the way out.

Jamal Murray

Murray is back on the court after his first extended injury stoppage in his career. He must have been hurting to have been gone so long, after playing through a double sports hernia through most of his rookie season. In the few games since his return, Jamal has had few opportunities to break out the Blue Arrow, seeming tentative and unsure of himself as his shot has been spotty at best. No one on the team may have needed the break more than Murray, if only to get his injuries and mindset in the place he wants them to be. Happily, he’s long had practice at getting a handle on his game and mental approach, and should return to form well before season’s end. When at his apex, Murray can quickly drop 30, 40, or soon-to-be 50 on an opponent no matter how they’re working to stop him. When Jamal and Jokic are both playing at their peak, Denver has made a habit of winning decisively this season. If the Blue Arrow can hit a postseason target, Denver could go far.

Monte Morris

Possibly Denver’s second-most consistent source this season, (barely not a) rookie Monte Morris has simply been a revelation in his ability to contribute to the bottom line of the Nuggets success this season. At season’s start, Morris was the bridge that would hopefully get Denver over the hump to Isaiah Thomas’ return from injury. By the time IT was fully healed, Morris had stacked up a ridiculous assist-to-turnover ratio, had developed a soft-as-a-pillow floater, and had the highest VORP of any guard on Denver’s roster. Given that he’s only played 60 career games in the NBA, Morris’ future is exceedingly bright, but as long as Monte can maintain this season’s pace, he’s already making a massive difference.

Malik Beasley

If Morris has been a revelation, Malik Beasley has been a chrysalis, emerging into 2018-19 in ways he’d only hinted at in his first two seasons. His abilities from beyond the three-point arc and above the rim have both been saving graces several times this season when Denver needed a secondary spark. Though typically the off-ball guard, Malik also keeps his turnover rates low, and keeps teams honest on the defensive end with his athleticism. Beasley’s output at this level is so new as to have little data to compare it to. If this is Malik’s new normal, he’ll be a key part of why the Nuggets can maintain a top two seed in the West this season, even in the face of a brutal last month-and-a-half.

Mason Plumlee

Plumlee is the other player who could contest with Morris as the second-most consistent contributor to the team all season, rotating rather seamlessly between roles as Jokić’s backup or frontcourt mate. Mason has developed chemistry with so many of the guards on the squad (Joker included), that he’s probably the team’s favorite lob finisher, and statistically the team’s best defender. Plumlee has gone above and beyond to add value to every combination he’s been a part of this season, and seems like one of the surest bets to carry his exceptional performance into the postseason. As Coach Michael Malone is fond of calling out, Plumlee is a former starting center for a playoff team, and plays like it.

Juancho Hernangomez

Wherefore art thou, Juancho? Hernangomez’s difficult middle third of the season has bedeviled Nuggets Nation, but probably not as much as it’s troubled the likable Nuggets forward. In the first third of the season, Juancho’s pinpoint three-point shooting and rebounding were keys to several early wins along the way. Should Hernangomez rediscover his stroke by season’s end, he could ensure that the Nuggets would simply come at you in waves until they overwhelm you.

Trey Lyles

Lyles has also struggled through an inconsistent season thus far, having moments he buoyed the Nuggets with scoring and aggressive play, and others where he simply seemed out of synch. Lyles had made a decided step forward last season, looking to be at least a solid backup big with a ceiling for more. This year’s regression may be about more than we on the outside know, or may just be the byproduct of a tough year. A return to last season’s Lyles would be a real gift to Denver’s late season.

Torrey Craig

Craig’s most valuable gift may be his good-natured ability to take things in stride, as he’s been asked to be everything from starting stud-stopper to benchwarmer, depending on the nature of what is needed for the good of the team. He’s got the best defensive rating of any of the guards on the team, and can still get hot every now and again as a scorer. You know what sort of output you’ll get from Craig nearly every time he steps on the floor, and he’s as likely to be an unlikely playoff hero as any guy on the team.

Isaiah Thomas

A tantalizing 13 minutes, wasn’t it? IT looked like he was ready to be back on the court, and said he’d be spending the break getting his game back. There’s no way to just yet know what Thomas will bring to the team this season, nor how consistently he’ll be able to bring it, but the smile on his face after the game said a lot about what he felt might be possible. If Denver gets IT back at two-thirds of his Celtics peak, he’ll be one of the steals of the season, and a last straw for Nuggets opponents.

It seems impossible, doesn’t it? That all twelve of these guys could be playing their best basketball over the next 49 days? Implausible, to say the least. But most of this 2018-19 Denver Nuggets season has bordered on the edge of what anyone would have thought possible, and here we are. Should Denver get all 12 of these cylinders firing, they’ll have the smoothest running and strongest engine in the NBA, and something that could carry them far into the playoffs, possibly even to a finish line.

Poll

Assuming the Nuggets get to the postseason this year, how many of their players will be performing at playoff-ready levels?

This poll is closed

  • 9%
    5
    (51 votes)
  • 7%
    6
    (39 votes)
  • 15%
    7
    (82 votes)
  • 21%
    8
    (116 votes)
  • 15%
    9
    (83 votes)
  • 15%
    10
    (82 votes)
  • 2%
    11
    (12 votes)
  • 1%
    12
    (10 votes)
  • 10%
    13 (Go Jarred Vanderbilt!)
    (55 votes)
530 votes total Vote Now