The 2018-19 season has brought many surprises across the NBA spectrum, but none have been more surprising (in a good way) than the Denver Nuggets.
At 42-18 through 60 games, through the chaos of a five game winning streak, and a variety of contributions from the entire Nuggets rotation, the good guys are in position to collect a high seed in the playoffs this season. Currently sitting in second place in the Western Conference, the Nuggets defeated the third place Oklahoma City Thunder 121-112 last night in a statement game — the Nuggets are here, and they aren’t going away.
Here are five takeaways I have on Denver’s current standing in the West:
A strong win profile
With only one losing record against individual opponents, the Nuggets have done a great job of taking care of business against every team in the conference thus far. Outside of the Houston Rockets and of course the Golden State Warriors, the Nuggets have no reason to fear anyone. That may change in the coming 22 games if the Nuggets lose to the wrong team, but at this point, Denver’s win profile bodes well for winning a round in the playoffs if they avoid the Warriors or Rockets in the first round.
In addition, the Nuggets have taken care of business within their division, an extremely important factor in the Northwest division especially. With an 8-1 combined record against the Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers, Utah Jazz, and Minnesota Timberwolves, tying with a divisional opponent in the standings becomes more palatable given that Denver should own the division record tiebreaker.
A Top 2 seed appears more likely than ever
With a 42-18 record, the Nuggets effectively own a five game lead over the Thunder in the standings with 22 games to go. This includes the current four game margin and the head-to-head tiebreaker Denver owns, meaning Oklahoma City would have to exceed Denver’s standing rather than simply tie them. A five win margin in 22 games is tough to make up in the standings, and the fourth place Blazers would run into the same problem. Denver needs to win a reasonable number of games going forward to maintain that lead, but things are looking more likely that Denver is either the 1 seed ahead of the Warriors or the 2 seed on the opposite end of the bracket.
Of course, the ramifications of being a Top 2 seed go beyond just avoid the Warriors. The Nuggets will likely face one of the last five teams listed above — the Clippers, Spurs, Kings, Wolves, or Lakers — if everything holds. That would be big for Denver, as the Nuggets would avoid whichever of the Thunder, Blazers, Rockets, or Jazz fall to the 6 seed, saving a series with one of those four squads for a potential second round showdown. For an untested playoff squad, the Nuggets could use a lesser team to get accustomed to the moves and countermoves of a playoff series. Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and company could definitely use that experience.
Get the starting lineup reacquainted during March
The Nuggets finally played their five initial starters together for the first time since mid October last night, playing in crunch time together for roughly four minutes and closing the game, going plus-8 as a unit. It was great to see that group play together again, and Nuggets fans should get used to great performances from this team when they do.
Eventually, Denver will return Gary Harris to the starting lineup and complete the transition. Harris played 23 minutes last night and is still on a minute restriction, but once the training wheels come off, Denver should be able to run this unit for 20+ minutes every game for the rest of the year if they so choose. That will go a long way in solidifying Denver’s crunch time lineup in the playoffs.
Continue experimenting with bench power forward
While Trey Lyles remains out with injury, he hasn’t exactly inspired confidence when he’s out there. The shooting has left Lyles entirely this year, and his positional size isn’t enough to make up for deficiencies on both ends. In his place have played Juancho Hernangomez and Torrey Craig, though neither guy has established a hold on the position and has major weaknesses. Hernangomez has played poorly individually and has lost confidence in his jump shot, while Craig at power forward hurts Denver on the boards and doesn’t necessarily help anywhere either.
Whatever Malone ends up deciding, the Nuggets need to find a player to steal some minutes from Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokic, and Mason Plumlee down the stretch. If those guys wear out or sustain an injury, the Nuggets are in a really bad place come playoff time. Whether it’s Lyles, Hernangomez, Craig, or another option like rookie Jarred Vanderbilt, playing one of those guys on average 15 minutes per game for the next 22 games saves the Nuggets big man rotation 330 total minutes of wear and tear. That could be the difference between a fresh versus worn down Nikola Jokic in the playoffs.
The remaining schedule
Among the 22 games left, the Nuggets play the majority of their games against top level talent. 11 of the 22 come against top 6 seeds in either conference, including another two contests versus Golden State. According to Tankathon, Denver’s remaining games comprise the sixth toughest schedule in the NBA. 12 of those games will come on the road, from interspersed road games to close the year, to a three game road trip coming up soon, to a stretch of seven games featuring six on the road, including a road back-to-back against the Rockets and Thunder.
The best thing that Denver could possibly do is to take care of business as much as possible in the month of March and turn April games into a formality. Fighting for the top seed in the Western Conference playoffs is great, but staying healthy and gearing up for a playoff run is probably just as important. If Denver cracks 50 wins during March, they can then strategically rest their starters, especially Jokic, down the stretch of the regular season.
Predicted Win-Loss Record: 55-27
The Nuggets are on a roll, and they are getting healthy at the right time. Currently sitting at 42-18, Denver would have to close the season 13-9 in order to hit my predicted 55-win threshold. A tall order against one of the toughest schedules in the NBA, but the Nuggets have risen to the occasion time and time again. They will win the games they are supposed to win and enough of the games they aren’t supposed to in order to claim a top 2 seed in the West this year. Whether they oust the Warriors as the top seed remains to be seen, it’s clear that Denver’s regular season is one of the best in Nuggets history. Denver’s regular season record is 57 wins, and while I don’t think they reach that lofty goal, they will come close.
55 wins is certifiably insane. None of the Denver Stiffs writers were as high on this Nuggets team as this latest prediction. ESPN’s BPI projects Denver to win 54 games. Five Thirty Eight’s projections have the Nuggets winning 55 games. Basketball Reference’s projections have the Nuggets winning 54 games.
It is not unreasonable anymore. This Nuggets team is legit. Plain and simple. The first 60 games have proven that through and through.