Kudos to the NBA for putting together what was one of the better NBA All Star weekends in memory. They once again had a great lead up to the All Star game itself (Aaron Gordon got robbed) and the actual game was a combination of a fresh take on the exhibition format as well as a perfect way to honor the late Kobe Bryant. Of course I selfishly wanted Michael Porter Jr. to be part of the Rising Stars Challenge and sure it would have been nice to see Nikola Jokic dominate the All Star game, but outside of that it really was a great event. For the Denver Nuggets, the lack of exposure may have been noticeable but that also meant more time for rest and relaxation, which perhaps is more important. The break offers the Nuggets a chance to get healthy and hopefully field a full roster by the time play resumes on Friday. It should also offer them the opportunity to prepare themselves mentally. Once the All Star festivities are finished the stretch run begins and for the Nuggets this may be the most important stretch run they’ve had in a long time.
No, Denver is not fighting for their playoff eligibility like they did just a few seasons ago, but they could be fighting for their playoff survival. It is quite truthful to say the Nuggets can benefit more than usual from securing the top seed in the Western Conference. The one seed gives them the best position to advance in the playoffs not only from the view point of home court advantage throughout, but more importantly from the view point that it would allow Denver in all likelihood to avoid at least one Los Angeles team. Argue until you’re blue in the face about Denver’s talent and ability to overcome anyone, there is no doubt that the Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Clippers offer the most difficult playoff series both in terms of the matchup with Denver and the sheer talent of the roster. The Nuggets are currently four games back of the Lakers for the top seed while just a game ahead of the Clippers. To position themselves the best for a run to the NBA Finals, getting the one seed and hopefully setting up a second round where the Clippers and Lakers are forced to play each other is undoubtedly the goal. There is no more time for slip ups either, making up four games with twenty-seven to go is no easy task and the Nuggets schedule will do them no favors.
For the most part, Denver did what they needed to do pre-All Star break. They’ve positioned themselves with a chance to win the conference. However, that position could be much greater had the team not had such gaffes like the especially painful trio of home losses to the Cleveland Cavaliers, New Orleans Pelicans and Atlanta Hawks. Those type of slip ups could prove extra costly with the Nuggets stretch run in front of them and very few easy wins remaining. The Nuggets have sixteen games in March, ten of which will be played on the road. They’ll go a through a twenty day stretch where they have nine road games to just two home games, including a lovely four game road trip that starts in Oklahoma before going to Canada and ending in South Beach (with one of Denver’s two back to backs in March squeezed in there). April will offer some reprieve in terms of travel, the Nuggets play just two road games, but of their eight games in the final month of the season only three are against teams that are not currently in the playoffs and one of those will be on the road against their division rival the Portland Trail Blazers who very well could still be playing for the eight seed. All the way to the very end it will be difficult for the Nuggets who finish the season on the road against the Utah Jazz on the second night of a back to back. The “No Excuses” mantra will have to be in full effect for the Nuggets to seize the ultimate regular season goal of securing the one seed.
Make no mistake, the one seed should unequivocally be the goal for the Nuggets right now. Beyond just it’s strategic advantages and the accomplishment it would be to overcome the schedule and pull it off, there is still the old standard for Denver to play for: it’s never been done before. The Nuggets have never been a one seed in the NBA playoffs and I think sub-consciously that contributes to the viewpoint by many that Denver is a second class NBA citizen, a fun team to watch but not one to take seriously. The Nuggets have never established themselves as the top powerhouse in a conference. Now, even if they do pull off the one seed this year it’s not likely to change most people’s viewpoint of the L.A. teams are the ones to beat, but it could be the springboard to that change. For example, it’s very hard to ignore Jokic as an MVP candidate if the Nuggets have the best record in the West. It’s even harder to ignore Denver’s place among the elite if they end up using that homecourt advantage to knock one of the L.A. team’s off in the playoffs. There are many paths to national legitimacy for the Nuggets this post season but the best is, well, to be the best. Another smaller prize to be won is the Nuggets have a real shot at setting the franchise record for regular season wins, something that a strong close to win the top spot in the conference would almost be guaranteed to accomplish.
There will be things that are out of the Nuggets control of course. They could do everything right, earn the top seed in the West, and still end up seeing the Clippers in the second round because the Jazz overtook them in the standings. Denver could earn the one seed to set up an advantageous path to the Western Conference Finals and get knocked off quickly in that round by the Lakers or Clippers (or any other West team for that matter) which would greatly mute any regular season accomplishment. The true ultimate goal is, and should always be, to win the NBA championship but getting the top seed in the West is the next stepping stone on the journey. Denver has the chance to seize that goal right in front of them, they’ll need to play the best ball of their careers to get it.