If it hasn’t been clear before, it should be now: nobody really believes in the Denver Nuggets outside of the mile high city.
On The Hoop Collective podcast this week, Brian Windhorst spoke to Ramona Shelburne and Tim McMahon about the developing playoff picture in the Western Conference. Born from a conversation about the Oklahoma City Thunder potentially being a first round opponent of the Nuggets, Golden State Warriors, or Houston Rockets this year, Windhorst had this to say about Denver:
“When you talk to teams in the West, they don’t fear the Nuggets...the Nuggets are a half game back of the Warriors, so you don’t know whether they are going to be 1 [seed] or 2 [seed]...everybody wants a shot at the Nuggets.”
Now, Windhorst is simply conveying what he has heard from other teams, not speaking his own opinion. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone though. The Nuggets lack the experience of other playoff teams, filled with tested veterans that have been in high pressure situations before. Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and Will Barton have started zero games in the playoffs.
It’s an understandable narrative. The Oklahoma City Thunder needed a first round exit in 2009-10 - Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden’s first season all playing together - so they could learn what it takes to advance in the postseason. The Golden State Warriors upset an injured Nuggets roster in 2012-13 in their first playoff experience, but were a first round exit the year after before going on their personal tear through the basketball continuum. The Nuggets, with a young core of their own, could certainly be that way. The difference of course is that this Nuggets roster is simply better than those teams at the time.
“Here’s what people say to me: my retort is, you better be careful what you ask for. The Nuggets, if they’re not the best home team in the league, they’re one of the top two or three in terms of record, and [the Nuggets] are going to have home court for the first two rounds. But what people will say is that their best player, which is [Nikola] Jokic, is more neutralizable in a playoff setting they feel than a guy like Durant or Curry or [Donovan] Mitchell or James Harden or Paul George. They feel like in a playoff setting you can defend him. I don’t know if that’s fair or not...but that’s what people are saying, and if the Nuggets want to use that as a battle cry and have themselves think that they’re an underdog, even though they’re going to be a higher seed the first two rounds, that’s fine but that’s just the reality.”
Well, Windhorst is definitely right about one thing: the Nuggets, and Nuggets fans, are going to use that underdog mentality for sure. Our own Adam Mares wrote about Michael Porter Jr. being forced to embrace an underdog mentality back in July of 2018 and how the Nuggets are quite simply a collection of underdogs, and stated simply, “The Nuggets are embracing the fact that they always are and always will be underdogs in the NBA.”
This whole season has a dreamlike quality to it. The Nuggets have been floating on air for five months now. The majority of national media outlets have predicted Denver’s demise for months. Many see them as the most vulnerable of the top teams in the West because they haven’t been there before. Clearly, as Windhorst alluded to above, potential playoff opponents view Denver that way as well.
But what if - and hear me out - what if the Nuggets are what their record says they are? Last year they were three games away from the 3rd seed in the West with Paul Millsap, their defensive anchor, missing 40 games. This season he has missed just 11 games. Lo and behold, the Nuggets are a good defense. The jump they have made this year wasn’t unforeseeable by any means. All anybody had to do was take a closer look.
The Nuggets may be underdogs when the playoffs come around but only because of experience. In reality, they have just as much talent as any team in the West outside of the Warriors. They have an MVP candidate in Nikola Jokic, as their own coach stated today.
Michael Malone was asked what people really mean when they don’t consider Jokic an MVP candidate: “That’s he not athletic. That he’s not a guy that’s on ESPN every night.” Then says his passing, scoring, playmaking, rebounding and IQ are all off the charts and he is MVP candidate— Mike Singer (@msinger) March 21, 2019
They have multiple players who can carry them offensively. They have transformed into a top-ten defense with their best performances coming in the clutch, but their doubters are legion.
Time will tell whether Denver’s lack of experience will hurt them. They may lose in the first round. That seems to be the common path for teams with a strong young core. Don’t be surprised if they shed the underdog label sooner rather than later though, because this Nuggets team is hungry, and they are hunting.
Listen to The Hoop Collective Podcast with Brian Windhorst here.