The NBA schedule has been officially released, and the excitement in the air is palpable. Basketball is returning, and with the players, teams, owners, and league office all on board, it appears that the basketball will be pretty good. There will be errors here or there, and shooting percentages may slip, but this war of attrition will be more than enough to crown a legitimate champion in my eyes. Just as long as Giannis Antetokounmpo doesn’t get coronavirus right before the NBA Finals.
In the meantime, we are going to speculate over every single detail we can before Denver Nuggets players go to Orlando on July 7th, which means we need to talk about the eight games they will definitely play. The NBA released the official schedule on Friday evening, and the Nuggets have one of the toughest eight game segments in the league. There is some fool’s gold there to how tough the schedule actually is though, so let’s dive deep into every game and what Nuggets fans need to know, starting with the Miami Heat.
Game 1 - Miami Heat (8/1 at 11:00am MT)
Current Win-Loss Record: 41-24 (8th in NBA)
Current Net Rating: +3.0 (10th in NBA)
Where the Heat stand: The trade deadline additions of Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder to the back end of Miami’s rotation were supposed to give the Heat an outside shot at cracking the NBA title race. Jimmy Butler has proven to be a solid primary playmaker, while Bam Adebayo’s leap to All-Star status gave Miami another high quality talent to compete in the front court with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Pascal Siakam, and Joel Embiid.
The Heat played a fairly weak schedule after the All-Star break and still disappointed with a 6-5 record, despite a win against the championship contending Milwaukee Bucks. During that stretch, all five of Butler, Adebayo, Kendrick Nunn, Duncan Robinson, and Goran Dragic averaged between 16 and 18 points per game. The Heat are versatile with several quality contributors and don’t rely upon any one player too heavily, outside of Butler offensively and Adebayo defensively.
How the Nuggets match up: Butler is on the borderline of “wing too big for the Nuggets starters to defend” and performed poorly the last time these two teams faced way back in November. The Heat shoot a high volume of threes and have the best made three-point percentage among NBA teams. The Nuggets tend to give up shots on the perimeter which could be an issue against a sharpshooter like Robinson, who shoots 44.8% on 8.4 threes attempted per game.
The Nikola Jokic-Jamal Murray two man game projects to fair well against Miami, even if Adebayo spends most of the game covering Jokic. If Jimmy Butler slides over to guard Murray, Will Barton will also have a great opportunity against rookie Kendrick Nunn to score some points. If Jokic plays like the best player on the floor, none of the matchups matter though. He and Murray have the capability to score in tight spaces against this Miami roster.
The benches will clash with Monte Morris and Jerami Grant leading the way against Goran Dragic and Andre Iguodala. Miami’s bench is more threatening than Denver’s and could certainly swing this game. Kelly Olynyk and Tyler Herro are dangerous volume shooters, an archetype Denver’s bench tends to struggle against.
Win-Loss Prediction: Loss (0-1)
Game 2 - Oklahoma City Thunder (8/3 at 2:00pm MT)
Current Win-Loss Record: 40-24 (9th in NBA)
Current Net Rating: +2.5 (11th in NBA)
Where the Thunder stand: Entering the season as an afterthought in the Western Conference playoff picture, the Thunder have rounded into form nicely around the backcourt duo of Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Those two are the engine behind OKC’s success, while Danilo Gallinari and Dennis Schroder also provide efficient and effective scoring. Throw in Steven Adams, an underrated defensive big man, and the Thunder have pieced together an elite five-man unit that serves as the backbone for everything the Thunder do. That lineup has outscored opponents by 126 points, the fifth highest point margin in the entire NBA.
Take away that lineup though, and the Thunder have little else to boast about. All other lineups have netted +32 points during the entire season and speak to weaknesses outside of the primary group. Terrance Ferguson and Luguentz Dort have split duties at starting small forward, Nerlens Noel has served as a decent backup center, and the rest of the roster is unproven or incapable. The Thunder were 7-2 after the All-Star break, with wins against the Nuggets and Celtics and losses against the Bucks and Clippers.
How the Nuggets match up: This is a team the Nuggets match up well against as long as Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant are firing on all cylinders. Denver’s backcourt of Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and Will Barton can go toe to toe with Paul, SGA, and Schroder, while Nikola Jokic has had a ton of success against Steven Adams in his his career. As long as Gallinari isn’t dishing out revenge against his former team, the Nuggets can match up with the best five of the Thunder.
Where Denver can generate an advantage is their bench. Though the Thunder stagger Paul and Adams to bench units frequently, the Nuggets have five solid contributors who could provide tangible impact there. If Monte Morris and Michael Porter Jr. can generate good offense while Jokic sits, the Nuggets have a wrinkle the Thunder just can’t account for. Porter’s size and athleticism make him a major threat against OKC.
Win-Loss Prediction: Win (1-1)
Game 3 - San Antonio Spurs (8/5 at 2:00pm MT)
Current Win-Loss Record: 27-36 (20th in NBA)
Current Net Rating: -1.5 (19th in NBA)
Where the Spurs stand: With LaMarcus Aldridge having season-ending surgery to repair a right shoulder injury, the Spurs are in a difficult spot. San Antonio sits four games behind the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth and final playoff spot, and they will be competing with several other teams for both the eighth and ninth spot to at least force a playoff game. The Spurs will play the Sacramento Kings, followed by the Grizzlies and Philadelphia 76ers before facing the Nuggets. If the Spurs don’t take advantage of their first two games against West teams competing for the eighth spot, they could very well be 0-3 heading into their bout against the Nuggets and all but eliminated from the playoff picture.
How the Nuggets match up: The Spurs do present some challenges for Denver, especially in the backcourt. Dejounte Murray is an excellent defensive guard with some good moves offensively. Bryn Forbes remains a sharpshooter, though less dangerous this season shooting 39% from three rather than 42% the year before. DeMar DeRozan is the offensive engine, and he will get his, but it doesn’t necessarily mean good things for the entire offense when he does.
The Spurs were down to 24th in defensive rating this season, and though they improved post All-Star break, the problem remains that Forbes, DeRozan, and former Nugget Trey Lyles will all play major roles and hurt the defense in the process. Jakob Poeltl will likely assume a larger role, but it won’t matter that much. Denver’s guards should gain a distinct advantage on the offensive end, and as long as Nikola Jokic plays the way he can, there’s little the Spurs can do to keep up with the Jokic-Murray two-man game.
Win-Loss Prediction: Win (2-1)
Game 4 - Portland Trail Blazers (8/6 at 6:00pm MT)
Current Win-Loss Record: 29-37 (17th in NBA)
Current Net Rating: -1.5 (20th in NBA)
Where the Blazers stand: The Blazers may bring back a completely different look to Orlando with Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins getting healthy. Both players were highly impactful when last on the court, and they provide more versatility than Hassan Whiteside at center. The Blazers were really treading water right before the hiatus, and getting back reinforcements changes everything for them.
What the Blazers decide to do with their rotation is a mystery, with Nurkic, Collins, Whiteside, Trevor Ariza, Carmelo Anthony, and rookie Nassir Little competing to make an impact in the front court. Still, the Nuggets know better than anybody how dangerous Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum can be, and any roster featuring those two scorers is a threat to generate an upset.
How the Nuggets match up: The Nuggets have won all three of their matchups with the Blazers this season, two of which came by at least 15 points. In all three, Jokic accumulated at least 20 points and 10 rebounds. He looks to have figured out how best to manipulate Portland’s defensive scheme with Whiteside at center. In addition, Barton has played fairly well against the Blazers this year.
Ultimately, Nurkic and Collins will change the dynamic of this matchup. If Millsap struggles against Portland’s front line, Grant has had success in his three matchups this year. There are no big wings the Nuggets have to fear, and if the Blazers have struggled up until this point, they may fold sooner rather than later in a difficult environment.
Win-Loss Prediction: Win (3-1)
Game 5 - Utah Jazz (8/8 at 1:30pm MT)
Current Win-Loss Record: 41-23 (7th in NBA)
Current Net Rating: +3.3 (8th in NBA)
Where the Jazz stand: The Utah Jazz are the team at the center of the entire pandemic, and they are certainly the team that has been most affected since the league wrapped up. Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert have had chemistry issues following the initial incident (with some reported amends made over the last couple of months) but the biggest change is Bojan Bogdanovic. The sharpshooting forward had season ending surgery, much like LaMarcus Aldridge, and will not be available for the Orlando bubble.
Couple those factors with already shaky play post All-Star break (5-5 record, -2.3 net rating) and the Jazz appear to be one of the playoff teams at highest risk of collapse. Jordan Clarkson has given them a scoring threat off the bench, but the incremental loss of Bogdanovic in both starting and bench units will be a major blow for Utah’s offense. It remains to be seen what Utah’s rotation will be without Bojan, as he played 63 of the 64 regular season Jazz games. In all likelihood, the Jazz will ask the world of three guards (Mitchell, Clarkson, and Mike Conley) to carry the scoring load.
How the Nuggets match up: The Nuggets used to be on shaky ground matching up with Utah. Now, they are in great position. Denver’s guard tandem of Murray and Harris will spend time defending Conley and Mitchell respectively, and Joe Ingles pick and rolls against Will Barton just don’t mean the same with Ingles being 32. Royce O’Neale is a solid defender, but he’s not Derrick Favors. Forcing Gobert to guard Jokic for the entire game has prevented Utah from using Gobert as an off-ball paint protector. Jokic’s game has thrived as a result.
How the Nuggets defend Jordan Clarkson will be interesting, and whether they can get Michael Porter Jr. on the floor against the Jazz will be interesting. In his only game against the Jazz this year, Porter played 25 minutes primarily at power forward, scoring 12 points on 11 shots and grabbing 12 rebounds. This was with Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Paul Millsap, and Mason Plumlee sitting out, so when everyone is back in the rotation, it remains to be seen how the Nuggets will play.
Win-Loss Prediction: Win (4-1)
Game 6 - Los Angeles Lakers (8/10 at 7:00pm MT)
Current Win-Loss Record: 49-14 (2nd in NBA)
Current Net Rating: +7.1 (2nd in NBA)
Where the Lakers stand: It’s difficult to criticize the way the Lakers have performed during the 2019-20 season. They ranked top five in net rating by month during every single month of the season. Led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Lakers have been consistently great. The two superstars are the only two players on the roster to exceed 30 minutes per game on the season, and only one other Laker averaged double digit points (Kyle Kuzma, 12.5 PPG).
Relying so heavily on two players is a recipe for disaster in a shaky environment like the one we will see in Orlando. There could be injury, or James/Davis could contract coronavirus, or a meteor could hit the Grand Destino hotel. Whatever the case, if the Lakers lose one of James or Davis, or one of them is weakened in any way, LA’s title odds go way down. Still, it’s very clear that the Lakers are the opponent that scares teams the most, and having maybe the best player in the world helps.
How the Nuggets match up: Stopping the James-Davis pick and roll in clutch time is a fool’s errand for almost every team. The Nuggets have been no exception to this point. The spread pick and roll with a point forward that can pass at an elite level and an athletic, skilled big man is the crux of Denver’s defensive weakness. Both players attack the rim with a combination of aggression and smoothness that few in history have ever matched.
Denver’s starting lineup has obvious deficiencies against this attack, starting with Will Barton and Gary Harris trying to stop LeBron. If all players are healthy on Denver’s roster, then Denver will have to get creative with their personnel. Jerami Grant and Torrey Craig would see more time at small forward, and the more the Nuggets have to match up with the Lakers, the more it puts Denver’s offense out of its element.
The one major factor potentially saving Denver in this game is that the Lakers will likely have top seed in the West locked up at this point. Their magic number to claim the top spot is 3, meaning they need a combination of three Lakers wins or Clippers losses to solidify their hold on the top spot. At that point, the Lakers may start treating the bubble games like prolonged exhibition matches and give both LeBron and AD extended rest.
Win-Loss Prediction: This may sound crazy, but I have a feeling the Lakers give LeBron and AD some rest so they don’t show Denver their pick and roll sets for a third time.
Game 7 - Los Angeles Clippers (8/12 at 7:00pm MT)
Current Win-Loss Record: 44-20 (4th in NBA)
Current Net Rating: +6.4 (3rd in NBA)
Where the Clippers stand: If there was any team truly coming into their own late in the season, it was the Clippers. They went 7-2 after the All-Star break and had the best net rating in the league during that stretch. Kawhi Leonard was leading the way, while Paul George offered up an efficient supporting role on both sides of the ball. In addition to those two, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell maintained their signature pick and roll chemistry while a variety of players filled supporting roles in the rotation. It took awhile for the Clippers to get healthy, but in games that everyone played, the team appeared unbeatable.
With the Nuggets at 43-22 and the Clippers at 44-20, the only way for the Nuggets to catch the Clippers in the standings is if they make up two full games in this bubble. Winning this particular one would help, but unless the Clippers flub a couple of games on their schedule, don’t expect them to give the Nuggets any help. After an initial bout with the Lakers, four of the Clippers’ next five come against the Pelicans, Suns, Blazers, and Nets. With matchups against the Mavericks, Nuggets, and Thunder also in their eight-game schedule, it’s possible the Clippers drop enough games to help the Nuggets out. It’s just not likely.
How the Nuggets match up: As Denver saw in their last matchup in Los Angeles, the Clippers present some major problems for Denver’s defense. Kawhi and PG are walking mismatches at their size, and the Clippers have enough depth for scoring to come from unique places. Marcus Morris, Reggie Jackson, and JaMychal Green are also on this roster, and they are all playoff tested vets that will assist the primary rotation players wherever needed.
The Jokic-Murray two-man game also takes a hit in this matchup due to the number of quality defenders the Clippers can always throw at Murray on the perimeter. Ivica Zubac is no slouch either, with the size and surprising agility to contest most Jokic shot attempts. Will Barton has also struggled in this setting against athletic wings with immense size and defensive capability. Unless Murray takes a leap forward as a playmaker, it’s hard to envision the Nuggets having enough firepower to contend with a locked in Clippers squad. They are elite athletically, can assume different styles, and have one of the best players in the world.
Win-Loss Prediction: Loss (5-2)
Game 8 - Toronto Raptors (8/14 at TBD)
Current Win-Loss Record: 46-18 (4th in NBA)
Current Net Rating: +6.4 (4th in NBA)
Where the Raptors stand: Left for dead in the NBA title race after Kawhi Leonard departed for Los Angeles, somebody forgot to tell the Raptors that they were supposed to get worse. Pascal Siakam has taken his game to another level as an All-NBA caliber player. Kyle Lowry remains an All-Star. Fred VanVleet is very good as a combo guard next to Lowry. Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka provide a nice center tandem for 48 minutes a night when healthy. OG Anunoby may be the best 1-on-1 defender in the entire NBA versus any player, guarding point guards and centers as often as he guards prized playmaking wings and forwards.
Sitting pretty in second place in the East, the Raptors have a three game cushion on the third place Boston Celtics. Though the Raptors have a tough eight game stretch ahead of them, they only need to pick up 3 to 4 wins to ensure they stay ahead of the Celtics. That means that when the eighth and final game of the regular season comes around, the Raptors may have already locked up the 2 seed. At that point, they may choose to rest players, much in the same way the Lakers may choose to rest LeBron and AD. If that happens and the Nuggets are facing a watered down Raptors roster, they will have a good chance to win.
How the Nuggets match up: If the Raptors are at full strength, they do present some challenges. Pascal Siakam is too athletic for Paul Millsap and too long for Will Barton, so Denver may go to Jerami Grant off the bench, who had a nice game the last time these two teams met and helped hold Siakam to 6-of-21 shooting from the field. With Lowry and VanVleet having strong versatility, the Raptors may also move Anunoby to guard Murray, a matchup Murray has had trouble with in the past.
Then there’s Marc Gasol, who made Joel Embiid look like Kwame Brown offensively on several occasions in the playoffs last year. He did it again this year, holding Embiid to 0-for-11 shooting in a matchup in November. Gasol has had success defending Jokic as well and does a great job in the post against big players. If Jokic can use some agility to maneuver around Gasol, it’s probably in his best interest.
Overall, the Nuggets could definitely lose this game if the Raptors go for it because the Raptors are good. I don’t think the Raptors will be going for it though.
Win-Loss Prediction: Win (6-2)
That 6-2 projected record would put the Nuggets at 49-24 on the season, a 55-win pace that lines up relatively well with expectations both internally and externally. There will be an outside shot at the 2 seed if that happens, though it’s less important for the Nuggets to get the 2 seed than one may think. Unless the Clippers fall flat and sink to fourth place or below, the Nuggets will have to face either the Clippers or the Lakers in the second round no matter what.
Will the Nuggets be prepared for the eight-game bubble schedule? We will just have to wait and see. Many Nuggets have things to prove, scores to settle, and new contracts to earn, and the best way they can do that is showcase how valuable they can be to Denver over the next few months. Some teams will bond during this difficult time. Some may fall apart.
Let’s see which team the Nuggets choose to be.