With 24 games remaining in the regular season, what is your projected record for the Denver Nuggets in those games?
Ryan Blackburn (@NBABlackburn): Let’s go with 16-8. The Nuggets have one of the easier schedules in the entire NBA, and they get things started over the next two weeks against some sub .500 teams. There’s definitely some letdown potential exiting the All-Star break, but Nikola Jokić and Michael Malone should keep things rolling. As long as the Nuggets stay focused for the games they should win (15 games remaining against sub .500 teams) then they should snag enough wins against the upper echelon to approach a 50-win season.
Peter Leensvaart (@petepizza27): The Nuggets have somewhat of an easy schedule left, my prediction is 19-5. The 5 games I think the Nuggets will lose are against the Warriors, Raptors, 76ers, Suns, and the Grizzlies. Denver just doesn’t match up very well with those teams. Denver can definitely still slip though, they need to treat the rest of the season just as they treated the first half of the season. Losing to teams like the Rockets or Thunder at this point in the season is just unacceptable.
Gage Bridgford (@GbridgfordNFL): I’m closer to Ryan than I am to Peter on this one, as I have the Nuggets going 16-8 to end the season. There are several winnable matchups over this final stretch of the season along with some other games mixed in where Denver is talented enough to come out with a win. After the top three teams, the Western Conference gets tight, and Denver can’t afford to drop any easy wins. I think we see Denver really lock in to close the season strong.
Aside from Nikola Jokic and the possibilities of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., who is the most important player for Denver down the stretch?
Blackburn: DeMarcus Cousins. The Nuggets are signing Boogie to a contract for the rest of the season, most likely on Friday. The team in 8-0 when Cousins plays minutes, and there seems to be a tangible effect to the second unit when a true center is on the floor. If Cousins can stay healthy and maintain his performance for the rest of the year, then the Nuggets bench may not be in as dire straits as it has been when they’ve utilized other options.
Leensvaart: To me it’s a toss-up between Aaron Gordon and Bones Hyland. If MPJ or Jamal Murray come back and simply cannot do as much as they could before, the Nuggets will need AG to step up in a crucial way. I’m fully confident in Jamal coming back to be the player he was before. He’s just gonna need time and hopefully AG can still be the secondary scorer until the Blue Arrow is fully back to where he left off. Bones’ ability to be a bench flamethrower cannot be overlooked though, if he can give Denver 10-15 points a night that would be huge for the Nuggets.
Bridgford: For me, it’s Will Barton. Barton started the year strong, and I even thought he was on track for a possible all-star spot after his play the first month of the season. However, he fell off hard after that hot start, and he hasn’t quite bounced back. He’ll have a solid game here and there, but he is lacking the consistency that Denver needs from him with Murray and MPJ on the shelf. Denver’s offense is based around the idea of Jokic and the supporting cast, but, as the leading member of the supporting cast, Barton has to do more to solidify his play as the secondary scorer right now.
Where do you think Denver finishes in the Western Conference standings at the end of the year? Looking ahead to playoff seedings, where do you want them to finish?
Blackburn: I will guess the fifth seed. If the Nuggets go 16-8 to close the season, the fourth seeded Utah Jazz would need just a 13-11 record to match Denver’s projected 49-33 record. The fifth seeded Mavericks would need a 14-9 record to match Denver’s 49 wins. Both the Jazz and Mavericks own tiebreaker over the Nuggets, and though it seems unlikely the Jazz go .500 the rest of the way, the Mavericks could absolutely slip and only have a 13-10 record down the stretch. As for where I’d like Denver to finish? As high as possible, but not because of the playoffs. Let’s see if they can get Nikola Jokić another MVP trophy.
Leensvaart: I think it is totally possible for the Nuggets to finish as the 4th seed. The current 4 seeded Utah Jazz have been slipping recently, their schedule is not very forgiving coming down the stretch either. The Mavericks also have a tough schedule to end the season, although the Jazz’s appears to be more difficult. I ultimately think the Nuggets will finish as the 5th seed with one of the Jazz/Mavs finishing above them in 4th. Ideally, the Nuggets go 24-0 but as long as Denver avoids the play-in game that’s all that matters.
Bridgford: I think Denver finishes as the 5th seed. Like Peter, I think Denver getting the 4th seed is well within the realm of possibility, especially considering I didn’t love the moves that Dallas made at the deadline. However, ultimately, I don’t think that the Jazz and Mavericks completely trip over themselves in this final stretch, and Denver is only able to pass one of them. The Jazz have the fifth-hardest remaining schedule, while Denver has the eighth-easiest. Denver and Dallas could each slide up one spot with Utah skidding down past them as those three teams are separated by just 3.0 games right now in the standings.
Is there a free agent on the buyout market that you would like Denver to target with their Disabled Player Exception prior to its expiration on March 10th?
Blackburn: At this point, not really. It would be nice to bring back Gary Harris, but it doesn’t seem like Harris and the Orlando Magic are agreeing to a buyout any time soon. If Eric Gordon of the Houston Rockets became available, he’d be interesting. Other than those two, it just doesn’t seem like the right call. The Nuggets are already pushing the luxury tax threshold with the signing of DeMarcus Cousins, and if they don’t see this year as a great shot to win a title, the team likely won’t go into the tax if they can help it.
Leensvaart: With the Nuggets signing Boogie for the rest of the season there’s not really a lot else this team could use. While a Gary Harris reunion would be a thing of dreams, I don’t think Orlando has any plans to buy him out. If someone who could space the floor and play average defense becomes available maybe Denver considers buying out Austin Rivers. The front office doesn’t really like to shake things up in the season though, I would be surprised if there are any more roster moves this season.
Bridgford: Eric Gordon, if he actually became available is the lone target that would really interest me at this point just because adding a sharpshooter like that to the bench would dramatically help a second unit that lacks a shooter like that in the backcourt. As Ryan and Peter pointed out, with Boogie now in the fold for the remainder of the year, Denver is likely done spending until the offseason.
What can Jokic do to secure back-to-back MVP awards over the final month and a half of the season?
Blackburn: Just win baby. The stats will be there. What Jokić has done statistically this year is up there with any season in NBA history. What’s missing is the overwhelmingly winning record, and that won’t change unless the Nuggets turn on the jets post All-Star break. There will be opportunities to set the tone, and if the Nuggets can do that, they will be in position to give Jokić a strong MVP case. But also, winning on March 14th and Jokić dominating his matchup would really help matters.
Leensvaart: I agree completely with Ryan. Jokić has all the stats he’ll need to get the award but the record is the biggest issue. If Nuggets go on a strong win streak and push up to the 4th seed Jokić’s case will be hard to overlook. But again, playing in Denver compared to where the other candidates play could be too big an obstacle to overcome. Jokić can absolutely still win MVP but he’ll need more wins as well as some luck. Again, that March 14th matchup is huge. Tons and tons of people will be watching for Jokić vs Embiid, the Joker outplaying Embiid could do wonders for his MVP case.
Bridgford Playing in a bigger market is off of the table unfortunately, so we’ll have to go with the easiest option Jokic has. The other two guys have already pointed it out, and that’s for Jokic and the Nuggets to go on a hot streak down the back stretch of the season. He’ll need to play his best ball against the best teams while avoiding any collapses to the lower-end teams that are remaining on the list. Jokic has all of the advanced stats in his favor, and he’s still playing without the second and third-best players on his team. If he can will the Nuggets to a top-four seed or at least finish the season on a hot streak, he’ll have done everything he can do to win the MVP once again.