The Denver Nuggets are 38-17 entering the post All-Star portion of the regular season. Predict the final win-loss record at the end of the year:
Ryan Blackburn (@NBABlackburn): On a quick run through of the schedule, I see about 16 to 20 wins out of 27 games, despite having the ninth most difficult strength of schedule in the NBA. Denver’s schedule really does get tough, and it’s difficult to expect them to keep going about about a 70% win rate. So, let’s call it 18 wins, meaning Denver finishes the year at 56-26 and with a top 3 seed. That would be great for Denver because they avoid the Los Angeles Lakers for awhile and don’t have to strain too terribly hard to accumulate 18 wins over the next 27 games.
Daniel Lewis (@minutemandan): I predict they’ll finish with a 54-28 record. That’ll make anyone who bet the Nuggets over happy, but will it be good enough for the 2-seed? The race for second-best should be one of the biggest storylines of the remainder of the season for both conferences, and Denver is in prime position to secure it thanks to their dominance in the Northwest Division this season (9-0).
Evan Fiala (@eefiala): I think they’ll end up at 55-27. On paper they should be healthy and have really looked good as of late, but still face a pretty tough schedule to finish out the year. Literally any win counts in the race for home court in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Hopefully it will be enough.
When every Nuggets player returns to full health and availability, who should the five starters be?
Blackburn: I wrote a Stat of the Week yesterday about the advanced numbers behind different lineups, and the overarching message was that Denver’s best lineup was their starters to begin the year. Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Paul Millsap, and Nikola Jokic have a lot of experience playing with each other, and the numbers while that quintet shares the court are championship caliber. Denver needs to find extended minutes for Monte Morris, Michael Porter Jr., and Jerami Grant, but they can do that from the bench. It’s time for Denver to go back to their original group, even though mixing and matching remains of the utmost importance throughout games.
Lewis: Murray-Harris-Barton-Millsap-Jokic. Even though they’re the starting lineup, I don’t feel like they’ve had enough minutes together this season. They need to have a three week span of dominance, where they are all healthy and able to play to the best of their ability. It would be nice if they could all collectively snap out of any shooting slumps and be warmed up in time for the playoffs.
Fiala: Not a diverse answer but the starters (Murray/Harris/Barton/Millsap/Jokic). That unit is just too good together, and them starting shouldn’t take away from the talent sitting on the bench in Jerami Grant and Michael Porter Jr. Both guys will still get plenty of run.
Between the Oklahoma City Thunder, Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, and Utah Jazz, which two teams should the Nuggets want to play MOST and LEAST in the first round of the playoffs?
Blackburn: Readers may be surprised by this, but I will pick the Mavericks. Luka Doncic is awesome, and the Nuggets have struggled with teams that have a big playmaking wing/forward in the past; however, I’m less concerned with Dallas due to their supporting cast. The Nuggets have plenty of wing defenders to throw Luka Doncic’s way, and their most dangerous secondary piece, Kristaps Porzingis, is a player Denver can deal with during a series. Without center Dwight Powell, who suffered a season-ending injury, the Mavericks are less threatening. Even if they had Powell, there’s nobody on the Mavericks roster who can match up with Nikola Jokic in a seven-game series.
Lewis: I’d also like the Nuggets to play the Mavericks. Dallas is a wild card because of how many 3-pointers they shoot, but I’m not afraid of JJ Barea at this point of his career. I’m willing to take my chances on Tim Hardaway Jr. and Justin Jackson trying to stop Will Barton from getting into the paint, possession after possession.
The team I’d like to see the least in the first round is Houston. Even without Capela, they still have Russell Westbrook and James Harden, and I don’t want two former MVP winners to take over a series. I’d much rather see them face the Utah Jazz in the first round and get dominated by Gobert and co., setting up a matchup with the Jazz and Nuggets in the second round.
Fiala: The Nuggets should want to play Dallas or OKC most, but I for personal reasons I want to face Utah. Doncic is otherworldly but this would also be his first trip to the playoffs, and we all know Porzingis can’t even hold a candle to the Joker. OKC is a bit of an unknown in that the only game played between them and Denver came early this season when the Thunder were really struggling. Obviously since then they have done a 180-degree turn.
Even with Clint Capela jettisoned to the the Atlanta Hawks I would still be wary of the Houston Rockets. James Harden and Russell Westbrook are still a very dangerous backcourt that can cause problems.