The Denver Nuggets are playing the Los Angeles Lakers tonight, which means that many of you reading this article are just scouring local coverage to learn enough about the Nuggets to pretend that you’ve been following them all season. Because I’m always looking to help out my fellow journalists and NBA fans, I’ve compiled a list of five points to get you through a difficult night where you will be forced to watch a small-market team.
No thank you is necessary. Tweet and copy as much of this as you like — the Stiffs are here for you.
The Nuggets have beaten your championship pick
Who ya got this year? If you picked either the Lakers or the Clippers to win it all, who could blame you? But you may be surprised to learn that the Nuggets are 2-1 against the LA teams, with a chance to go up 3-1 tonight in Denver.
Maybe you picked the Bucks and their Greek god? The Nuggets just beat them handily in Milwaukee on the second night of a back-to-back while missing three starters and a key reserve. If you went for more of a long shot, perhaps you picked the Jazz, Rockets, Sixers, Celtics, or Heat—the Nuggets are 7-4 combined against those hopefuls.
Not surprisingly, then, Denver has the best record against teams above .500 in the NBA. Better than the Clippers. Better than the Lakers. Better than the league-leading Bucks.
Jokic may be the best player in basketball right now
The main reason the Nuggets have been so good against elite NBA competition is because Nikola Jokic (a.k.a. The Joker, Big Honey, and The Fat Serbian Man) has played like an MVP for the majority of the season. Sure, he came in a bit overweight and out of shape, and that probably led to his poor shooting in November. But since December 15th (which Nuggets fans have dubbed Jokic Day in honor of his being named a permanent starter over Jusuf Nurkic in 2016-17), Jokic has carried a battered team to big win after big win.
Over his last 15 games, Jokic is averaging 24 PPG, 11 RPG, and 8.5 APG on 54% shooting. Last week, all he did was put up 27 PPG, 14 RPG, and 8 APG with 2 blocks and 1.7 steals, leading a Nuggets team missing half their key players to a 3-0 record en route to a sixth Player-of-the-Week honor. The high-water mark came against the Jazz when Jokic torched two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert to the tune of 30/21/10—a historic achievement. The Nuggets had 6 other players active in that game. Murray played on a bum ankle. And the game was in Utah.
This stretch of MVP-caliber play led the Nuggets’ GM Tim Connelly to declare last week that Nikola is the best player in the NBA right now. A hot take from a homer? Maybe, but it’s probably not as hot as it sounds.
I could go on about Jokic’s clutch shooting, which is among the best in the NBA. I could talk about the love affair that advanced metrics have with his game. I could note that he’s one of the most unselfish players the league has ever seen, that he is perhaps the best passing big man of all-time, or that he threatens a triple-double every night while maintaining greater efficiency than many of his stat-hounding colleagues. I could even kindly point out that he is not a bad defensive player; in fact, he’s borderline elite.
Or, I could just let you watch the game tonight and witness his greatness for yourself. I’ll warn you: it may not look pretty. But the MVP isn’t given to the player with the best physique and sweetest shot, right? It’s given to the most valuable player. And right now, at this very moment, no player has offered more value to their team than Nikola Jokic has to the Nuggets.
The Nuggets are the deepest team in the NBA
That’s right, I said it. The only other teams in this discussion are the Clippers and Bucks, but Denver’s depth is more versatile than either of the other two contenders. On the bench, Jerami Grant is a lanky, sharpshooting big man who is athletic enough to guard nearly every position and who would be starting for most teams in the league. Torrey Craig has a nose for the ball and the big play, showing an uncanny ability to frustrate some of the league’s best shooting guards and small forwards. Monte Morris and Mason Plumlee are an efficient and effective PG/C duo who always provide solid effort and smart play. Not to mention the recent additions of Jordan McRae, Keita Bates-Diop, and Noah Vonleh, who provide additional matchup options on both sides of the floor.
And then there’s the ultimate wildcard, perhaps the most interesting player heading into the playoffs: Michael Porter Jr. The 6’10 phenom is shooting over 50% from the field, 43% from 3 in his inaugural season. His offensive game and rebounding are already elite, but he has shown the ability to be a difference-maker defensively, as well. If MPJ continues to progress, he and the rest of the 12-deep squad will give Coach Malone all the options he needs to craft rotations that can score against and defend any team in the NBA, top to bottom.
The real “process” story is in Denver
As Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons continue to squabble amidst a disappointing season in Philly by their standards, the Nuggets have emerged as the true process success story. Their duo of Murray and Jokic are homegrown, elite, and complementary. Gary Harris and MPJ are key contributors who the Nuggets stole in the draft. And Torrey Craig, Monte Morris, and now P.J. Dozier — all G-League finds by the front office — are proving that Connelly and crew are unrivaled at locating diamonds in the rough.
The Nuggets have been so good at building their team through the draft, in fact, that they’ve been loading up other teams. Ask the Timberwolves how they appreciate Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez already—two guys the Nuggets drafted and developed who couldn’t get on the court this season.
The Nuggets have proven that even second-round picks and free-agent rookies can have a big impact with the right coaching and organizational philosophy. Whether the Nuggets can break through the Western Conference this year or not, they are a model of how to build a bad team into a perennial contender.
The Nuggets are going to surprise you
Probably tonight. Probably throughout the rest of the year. And probably during a deep playoff run. This team is good. They have the best record through 54 games of any Nuggets team ever, and it’s not a fluke. They’re deep, they’re hungry, and they have a lot of grit.
And they’re going to surprise a lot of people this year. Just not the people in Denver.
To the Nuggets fans who already know all of this, thank you for supporting this team. Thank you for supporting the Denver Stiffs, for supporting these articles and The Dig with my co-host Jeremy Poley, and for supporting all the other voices in the fandom who are covering a memorable ride this year with a special team.
There’s something about this group—something that stats or clever arguments or highlights can’t fully capture. It’s something you feel watching them gut out a win in Utah with 6.5 warm bodies, or from the confidence in Coach Malone’s voice when he talks about his young team, or from the humility of a superstar who we don’t deserve after he’s hit another game-winner.
Whatever happens this season and beyond, I’m totally invested in this group and am happy that basketball fans around the country get to jump on for this ride, even if just for a night. Because it’s been great at 5,280 feet this year.