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Stiffs Mailbag: Tiebreakers, Nikola Jokic’s fatigue, playoff scenarios, and more

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Answering questions from Nuggets Nation.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets are really good, so I decided to answer some questions about them. Happy Friday mailbag!


Here’s how the first set of tiebreakers look right now.

As of now, the Houston Rockets have lost the tiebreaker with the Portland Trail Blazers, but the tiebreaker between the Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder won’t be solved until April 9th, when the two face off in Houston on the second-to-last day of the regular season. That one will likely be up in the air until the last week of the season, just in case divisional tiebreakers make the head-to-head matchup moot.

The standings and remaining strength of schedule for each of the above teams:

Houston: 42-26 (26th ranked SOS)

Portland: 41-26 (17th ranked SOS)

Oklahoma City: 42-27 (4th ranked SOS)

Now for the second grouping.

The Utah Jazz have won both tiebreakers against the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers. Even though the Jazz and Clippers play again, Utah has already won the season series. Combine that with Utah’s easy remaining strength of schedule, and I still expect the Jazz to earn the 6 seed. Because the Clippers and Spurs are tied in their season series, it will likely take the conference tiebreaker to decide the matchup if both teams are tied. Right now, the Spurs have 27 wins in conference, while the Clippers have 25.

The standings and remaining strength of schedule for each of the above teams:

Utah: 38-29 (30th ranked SOS)

San Antonio: 39-29 (24th ranked SOS)

Los Angeles: 39-30 (23rd ranked SOS)


The Nuggets and Indiana Pacers haven’t met this season, but they are exactly the kind of team that Denver can struggle with. The Nuggets are mostly a finesse basketball team, working the ball around with beautiful ball and player movement, but the Pacers have the defenders and athletes to make that way of life difficult. When the Pacers had Victor Oladipo healthy, the Nuggets had nobody (except Gary Harris) to match up with him. That said, Nikola Jokic usually wins his individual matchup with Pacers center Myles Turner, and Mason Plumlee has the fortitude to stick with backup center Domantas Sabonis.

I expect the Nuggets to split their two upcoming games with the Pacers. It’s hard to win both matchups when they come so close together, and the Pacers are a good, underrated squad. Bojan Bogdanovic is a great player. He has stepped up in Oladipo’s absence, averaging 17.8 points per game on 50/43/81 shooting splits this season. If Denver can shut him down, they will have a great chance.


There aren’t a lot of opportunities for rest if Denver wants to make a serious run at a top 2 seed, possibly even overtake Golden State for the top spot. The Nuggets current sit 3.5 games ahead of the Rockets for the 2 seed, and the Magic Number (combined Nuggets wins and Rockets losses) to clinch a top 2 seed sits at 12. Unfortunately as I mentioned above, the Rockets have an easy closing schedule with few opportunities to take a loss down the stretch.

If the goal is to get a top 2 seed in the playoffs and try to maintain Denver’s home court advantage through the first two rounds of the playoffs, then I don’t see many opportunities for Denver to rest Jokic until the last few games of the season. Maybe on the second night of the back to back in New York versus the Knicks? If the Nuggets win 9 of their next 12 games or so including their final contest versus Houston on March 28th, then it’s possible to sit Jokic for the final three games of the year. Still, I doubt Denver does it.


If one of the trio of Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, or Will Barton plays poorly in a game, then Denver has the luxury to turn to Monte Morris or Malik Beasley late in the game. Morris has shown the ability to play both on and off the ball late in games, while Beasley has hit perimeter shots in the clutch himself.

That said, Denver’s best configuration is with their starters. Barton is the scoring playmaker off the dribble. Murray is the flamethrower with the ability to win a game by himself. Harris is the steady two-way presence who makes winning plays on both ends. The combination of those three is the most versatile the Nuggets can be in the playoffs, and Barton provides the height at small forward to at least make life difficult for tall small forwards like Paul George, DeMar DeRozan, and Joe Ingles. Denver’s ceiling occurs with Murray, Harris, and Barton on the court this year.


Why?

The Nuggets will likely face the Clippers, Spurs, or Jazz in the first round. The Clippers are an easy match for Denver, as the Nuggets match up really well against them. Jokic and Murray should dominate that series. Sure, the Nuggets lost to the Spurs twice at San Antonio, but it took a lot working against the Nuggets for it to happen the first time, down three starters with just four points from Jokic. Denver should beat San Antonio in a playoff series. I have no doubt. Finally, Utah is a great team, but I don’t think they have the scoring to take down Denver in seven games. The Nuggets can throw multiple guys at Donovan Mitchell, and as long as they limit Joe Ingles as a facilitator and Rudy Gobert as a rim runner, they should be just fine.

I understand the skepticism, but I’m not worried. Denver needed to make the playoffs this season, and they will. They will continue to maintain an upward trajectory for the next few years, and as Murray, Jokic, Harris, Morris, Beasley, Porter, and others continue to get better, no other team can match that level of depth and star potential in their young core. If Denver does lose in the first round it’s not the end of the word. Denver’s taking the long road to playoff success, and even if there are bumps along the way, the destination is not for another couple of years.


Let’s evaluate this scenario.

This would be a successful season for Denver. Getting back to the playoffs, winning a playoff series, and exiting in the second round is exactly the progression Nuggets fans should be hoping for. Even if they falter in the second round of the playoffs, they aren’t supposed to be that good at such a young age. The group would probably stay hungry, look to take the next step in their development curve, getting better individually and as a unit.

With that in mind, I would expect Denver to basically bring the band back together, and that would be an ideal offseason. Keeping Millsap and continuing to develop the young core is extremely important, but integrating Michael Porter Jr. and Jarred Vanderbilt into the fold is also of paramount importance with Denver’s lack of cap space going forward.

I would think they let Trey Lyles and Isaiah Thomas walk, sign a reserve point guard and big man to replace those guys, and go forward with the same group, hoping for improved performance and health across the board. The point guard could be a veteran like Shelvin Mack or Jeremy Lin, while the big man could be Anthony Tolliver, Patrick Patterson, or Jason Smith. Players that would be comfortable being culture guys rather than permanent rotation pieces.


Poll

Can this Nuggets team go to the Western Conference Finals?

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  • 80%
    Yes
    (438 votes)
  • 19%
    No
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547 votes total Vote Now