With only seven games remaining on their 2020-21 regular season schedule, the Denver Nuggets are barely closer to figuring out their playoff path than three months ago. At 44-22, the Nuggets have found a rhythm in the second half of the season. A 18-4 record since Aaron Gordon first arrived in Denver, is a great testament to that. Nikola Jokić and company have figured things out, and the only two things that have slowed down the tidal wave the Nuggets are putting out there are injuries and Stephen Curry. Fortunately, they (most likely) only have to deal with one of those in a playoff series.
Here are the updated Western Conference standings:
The Nuggets are currently slotted into the third seed, and with the Los Angeles Lakers currently positioned in sixth, the two teams would face off against each other in the first round of the playoffs if the season ended today. The Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks would face off in the fourth vs fifth matchup, while the Portland Trail Blazers would slide into the play-in tournament. This would be a poor draw for the Nuggets heading into the playoffs as I will explain in just a moment.
For this article, I (Ryan Blackburn) will be ranking Nuggets playoff opponents in terms of Denver’s likelihood to win a playoff series. This will range from least favorable (least likely to win a best-of-seven series) to most favorable (most likely to win a best-of-seven series) based off of my own personal criteria and expectations of an outcome. If you disagree with the rankings, then comment below which teams are least and most favorable playoff matchups.
The Nuggets likely won’t face any of the teams currently in eighth, ninth, or tenth, so they have been eliminated from this exercise. That leaves the six other teams in the top seven, so let’s talk about them.
Los Angeles Lakers (least favorable)
The record sort of speaks for itself here. Since the 2019-20 season in both the regular season and the playoffs, the Nuggets are 3-9 against the Lakers, the lowest winning percentage the Nuggets have fielded against any opponent. That is of course aided by last season’s 4-1 playoff series in the Western Conference Finals, though it was an important piece of evidence.
The Nuggets CAN beat the Lakers in a playoff series. They were without several guards in the last matchup, and they acquired Aaron Gordon for this specific purpose. Michael Porter Jr. and Nikola Jokić are both better defenders than they were in last season’s playoffs, and this time around, Denver has better defensive guards anyway.
Still, it’s difficult to foresee Denver stopping LeBron James and Anthony Davis entirely, and the Lakers have the best defense in the NBA. They have bothered Jokić, partially due to the physicality of various bigs, and partially due to Denver’s lack of surrounding shooting talent and playmakers in this last game. If Denver was at full strength, things might have been different; however, it’s too much of a gamble in this case.
If Denver can avoid this matchup, they should do so.
It’s been awhile since the Nuggets last played the Jazz, and the last memory Nuggets fans have of this matchup is Nikola Jokić dropping 47 points directly onto Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, and whoever else the Jazz threw at him. Denver would definitely have a good chance in this matchup if only because Jokić can do things to Gobert that nobody else in the league can.
And yet, the primary concern with Denver isn’t how they’d score, but how they’d defend the Jazz. Utah features the perfect spread attack that pulls help defenders away from the paint and could put Jokić on an island defensively. Six of Utah’s nine rotation players shoot above 38% from three-point range, and Jordan Clarkson shoots 34.2% from three on 8.6 attempts per game. They will do their best to win the math game against the Nuggets, maximizing shot attempts behind the three-point line, at the rim, and at the free throw line. The Nuggets lost one of their best perimeter defenders in Gary Harris at the deadline, and there’s nobody that makes sense in the starting lineup to match up with Donovan Mitchell.
Aaron Gordon wasn’t brought in to help against Mitchell, Clarkson, and Mike Conley. He might help on Joe Ingles and Bojan Bogdanovic, but asking Monte Morris, Will Barton, PJ Dozier, Facundo Campazzo, and Austin Rivers to match up with Utah’s backcourt defensively is a tall task. Not having Jamal Murray to counter Utah’s backcourt offensively hurts. Maybe Denver can rise above it, but I have concerns.
Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers are at this part of the list because of how the Nuggets have played them after the Aaron Gordon trade. Denver is 2-0 in games against Los Angeles, both on the road, and neither of them felt like fluky performances.
This is the matchup the Nuggets knew they needed Aaron Gordon most for, as an approximately sized defender against both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. When Gordon locks in defensively, he does a nice job of disrupting big wings in isolation, post up, and pick and roll situations. That’s what the Clippers wings like to do most. Michael Porter Jr. has also done a good job in this matchup, and though the Clippers might look to disrupt him more on the offensive end, Porter has responded well to adversity.
Still, the biggest factor is Jokić. His dominance over the Clippers center options dating back to The Bubble should give the Nuggets a ton of confidence that Jokić can handle this series, even without Jamal Murray. Nobody on the Clippers roster can handle Jokić in the post, and once the Clippers start sending double teams, Jokić will pick those apart.
The Suns were the most difficult matchup to rank on this list. On one hand, they are untested in a playoff environment as a collective team, having not gone through a seven-game series before. On the other hand, they have Chris Paul who has plenty of playoff experience, as well as Devin Booker, who projects to be a great playoff player with his versatile offensive game. There’s no reason to think those two won’t be great in the playoffs.
So why rank them here? Well, the frontcourt is concerning. Mikal Bridges is an awesome wing, and Deandre Ayton has taken steps forward defensively this year, but the question of which of those two can step up and score 18 to 20 points consistently as a third option is a fair one. Paul is a good but not overwhelming scorer, and there’s only so much Booker can do efficiently. The Suns offense works in a similar way to the Jazz offense, but rather than Ingles and Bogdanovic on the perimeter and Gobert at the rim, the Suns have Bridges and Jae Crowder on the perimeter and Ayton at the rim. It’s not quite as potent, though still dangerous to be clear.
In addition, it’s difficult to trust Ayton to guard Jokić effectively for an entire playoff series. Jokić has too many moves and will get Ayton into foul trouble on multiple occasions. Ayton’s backups are Dario Saric and Frank Kaminsky, meaning it gets a lot easier for Jokić to dictate double teams in those situations.
Do the Suns advantages in the backcourt outweigh Denver’s advantages in the frontcourt? If Denver can at least get some of their guards healthy, I don’t think so.
Let’s get this out of the way: Luka Doncić is incredible. Ranking the Mavericks as the second most favorable matchup mist seem like slander, but it is in no way directly at Luka. The young wing is another player for the Nuggets acquired Gordon to match up with this season, and Gordon will surely do his best. There are few players in the NBA that truly give Luka problems, and Gordon might be one of them...he also might not be.
And yet, the Mavericks rank this favorably for Denver for several reasons, beginning with the supporting cast. Kristaps Porzingis, though he can present some issues for Denver and Jokić specifically trying to cover a Luka-KP pick and pop, isn’t the most reliable player. Porzingis has played just 40 out of 65 games for the Mavericks this season, and even when he’s on the floor, he has only shot 36.2% from three-point range this season, not nearly enough for Denver to panic. Beyond Porzingis, the three best players on the Mavs are probably Tim Hardaway Jr., Josh Richardson, and Jalen Brunson, and the Nuggets aren’t going to go out of their way to avoid those guards/wings. That trio feels like a group that could average 30% from three against Denver or 50% from three. There’s nowhere in between.
On the other end, Jokić will have a favorable matchup against Pozingis, Maxi Kleber, and Dwight Powell. There’s no one in Dallas that can match up with Jokić right now, and that will bend a Dallas defense that already ranks 19th in defensive rating. On top of that, Michael Porter Jr. will also be in good position to succeed. It’s unclear whether Kleber, Richardson, or Dorian Finney-Smith is the best player to defend MPJ in a series like this, but none of them feel like good options which bodes well for Denver.
Portland Trail Blazers (most favorable)
Somebody has to rank last, or in this case first. The Blazers appear to be the most favorable matchup of the current teams Denver could face in the 2021 NBA playoffs.
Though the Blazers have a strong offense, their biggest concern is a 29th ranked defense that is somehow worse than the Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets, and Minnesota Timberwolves. There are many players (and coaches) to blame for that, but it’s easy to start with the center position of Jusuf Nurkic and Enes Kanter. Jokić would surely love to match up with those two guys for different reasons. Both are big and hulking and would be physically tiring matchups, but given Jokić’s improved fitness level, he should still be in a good spot late into a playoff series like this one. In the meantime, there would be many clips of Denver running pick and roll, pick and pop, and then Jokić cooking those two big guys on isolations or post up opportunities.
On the other end of the floor, the Nuggets have identified a formula that works reasonably well against Damian Lillard to limit his impact on games. By playing Jokić at the level of the screen and getting into Lillard’s airspace on pick and rolls, the Nuggets cover up some of the easier passing lanes while forcing other players to beat them. They know how dangerous CJ McCollum is, and rotating onto him will be a major part of Denver’s game plan. Denver would gladly let Norman Powell and Robert Covington beat them if it meant limiting the shot attempts for Lillard and McCollum, and that’s what I’d suspect would happen.
Denver has the size and athleticism to make life difficult for the Blazers on the interior, and they have the defensive minded guards to execute such a scheme against elite guards. Beyond Lillard and McCollum, the Blazers have very few options to rely upon extensively, and the Nuggets will hope that takes Portland out of their rhythm.
The Nuggets can score against the Blazers, and they can prevent easy scores against them too. This feels like the right call based on past history.