The Denver Nuggets had an up-and-down start to the 2020-21 season, but at the halfway point this week sit at a respectable 21-15 record. Nikola Jokic is making a very compelling case for MVP. Jamal Murray is playing his best basketball since the bubble. Michael Porter Jr. is possibly starting to emerge as the team’s third scoring option.
Denver went 4-0 on the road to close out the first half of the season and will look to build off that starting Thursday against Memphis. Many questions still remain, though. Are the Nuggets finally turning the corner or will the inconsistent play continue? Will Denver be able to improve its seeding and catch Phoenix, both Los Angeles teams or even Utah? What will happen when injured players like Gary Harris, Paul Millsap and JaMychal Green come back?
Where does Denver’s 21-15 record place them against the rest of the league at the season’s midway point? Check out what the national media is saying below in this week’s roundup of power rankings
Last week: 9
Sounds weird to say that about a team coming off a Western Conference finals appearance, but Porter really could elevate the Nuggets to another level. Nikola Jokic has played at a historic pace for a center and Jamal Murray is showing signs of getting healthier and back to his bubble form, scoring 22 or more points in 12 straight games. The Nuggets have been hit by injuries and COVID-19, so it isn’t all on Porter. But when Porter plays with force and consistency, Jokic and Murray are even deadlier. Porter has a double-double in five of the past six games. The Nuggets won four of those five games.
Last week: 9
The Nuggets headed into the All-Star break with a four-game winning streak, all on the road. Last week, they were able to dismantle the Milwaukee Bucks and pull out a win against the Indiana Pacers. Nikola Jokic is continuing to make a run for MVP, and Jamal Murray has returned to form.
But Denver is still looking for a consistent third option.
During that four-game road trip, Michael Porter Jr. stepped up. He scored 18 points per night on 61.4 percent shooting from the field, including 55.6 percent from three. On top of all of that, he’s been pulling down 10.8 boards per game, providing the type of production for which the Nuggets have been searching.
The emergence of a third scorer was not the only reason for the surge. Denver’s defensive rating improved from 111.1 to 103.8 during the streak. If the Nuggets can defend like that and consistently count on Porter, they will rise in the standings.
Last week: 11
Moving on from one MVP candidate to another, Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets enter the All-Star break on a four-game winning streak and are beginning to figure out the fit of their roster a little more. The turnover from just before the trade deadline a year ago is drastic.
It has taken the Nuggets time to get back to that elite level, but they are starting to do just that. Nikola Jokic may be the most widely appreciated MVP candidate in the league as for a time it seemed that he was not getting the recognition (or contributions from his teammates) he deserved. His statistical leap this season is eye-popping, averaging 27.1 points, 11.0 rebounds, 8.6 assists and 1.6 steals per game.
Those are career highs across the board and have catapulted the Nuggets big man into a new stratosphere. Jamal Murray has come on of late as well. After a slow start to the season, Murray is playing like he did against the Utah Jazz in the playoffs, averaging 29.5 points, 5.0 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game over his last 10 outings. He is the walking embodiment of the fireball emoji, sporting shooting splits of .574/.506/.929 over that time period. The Nuggets are back.
Last week: 9
Is Jamal Murray on a hot streak or taking a leap?
Murray is in the middle of his hottest stretch of the season. In his past 12 games, he’s averaging 28.5 points on 47 percent from 3. It’s a small sample, and his shooting percentage will drop at some point, but Denver has decided to feed him shots: He was taking 15.4 shots per game prior to this run and 18.5 during it.
Nuggets head coach Michael Malone tweaked his rotation to put Murray on the floor for 2.1 more minutes each game, and nearly doubled his time playing without Nikola Jokic, from 5.7 minutes to nine. He’s using this additional solo time to destroy bench units, scoring 31.3 points per 36 minutes overall.
The Nuggets are 8-4 and have the NBA’s fifth-ranked offensive rating during this time. Murray showed how special the Nuggets can be in the bubble, and he’s doing it again now. Just imagine if he finally starts producing like this consistently.
Last week: 12
For all of the injury issues and inconsistent play, the Nuggets finished the first half just two games behind the Lakers for the No. 3 seed in the West. Nikola Jokic has been much more aggressive looking for his own shot, which has led to an MVP-caliber year with averages of 27.1 points, 11 rebounds and 8.6 assists on 42 percent 3-point shooting. Jamal Murray was banged up to start the season, but came on toward the break by putting up 29.5 points per game on 51 percent 3-point shooting in his last 10 games. If they get healthy, the Nuggets are poised for a second-half run.
Last week: 8
The Nuggets finished their pre-break schedule with a 4-0 road trip. It was their best four-game stretch of defense (103.8 points allowed per 100 possessions) this season and included a shellacking of the Bucks in which (playing a lot of zone) they held the league’s second-ranked offense to just 97 points on 97 possessions. The offense, with their starters all shooting better than 53%, wasn’t bad either.
The Nuggets have climbed into the top six in the West and, when you consider their point differential and strength of schedule going forward, their ceiling could be a lot higher than that. In addition to it being relatively soft in regard to opponent strength, their remaining schedule is the most home-heavy in the West. A five-game homestand begins Saturday with the toughest of the five games.