The Denver Nuggets have two games remaining on their schedule. Both are against teams with nothing to play for while Denver could still get into the fifth seed. Does Denver get there, or do they stay in the sixth or an even lower seed in the Western Conference?
Asher Levy (@asherlevynba): Considering the Nuggets’ lack of urgency lately, I haven’t found myself having much trust in them lately. I see them splitting the games down the stretch. That would be good enough to guarantee a playoff spot, but I don’t see them getting the fifth seed. They have struggled with getting anything going offensively outside of Jokic and usually one other player lately. With the Nuggets going against the Grizzlies, who even without Ja Morant have continued to win, I see them probably struggling to bring that one in. I think the Nuggets will beat the Lakers, but as for the five seed; they would have to have the Jazz also lose as well as the Nuggets themselves winning out. If the Nuggets can beat the Grizzlies I think they will claim the five seed. They’ll need to clamp down and strap in.
Peter Leensvaart (@petepizza27): Denver has every reason to win these next 2 games but ultimately I don’t see them climbing above the Utah Jazz. Even with facing the Memphis Grizzlies without Ja Morant and the non-playoff-bound Los Angeles Lakers. The Grizzlies are 20-3 without Morant this season and have already beat the Nuggets three times this season. If Denver wants to jump to 5th they’ll need to win both games and for Utah to lose against the Trailblazers and the Suns. While it’s still possible for Denver to jump to 5 or drop to 7, I think the Nuggets are set at the 6 seed.
Ryan Blackburn (@NBABlackburn): In order to get to the fifth seed, the Jazz would have to lose both of their remaining games while the Nuggets would have to win both. It’s impossible to think of the Portland Trail Blazers winning a game right now with the lineups they’re rolling out, and the Jazz play them in the final game of the season. Even if the Nuggets win both of their games, I’d be surprised if the Jazz dropped both of theirs, seeing as the other is against the Phoenix Suns who also have nothing to play for. Denver staying at sixth (assuming they win at least one of their remaining two) is probably the right call.
Following the team’s Tuesday-night loss to the San Antonio Spurs, Michael Malone said in regards to Nikola Jokic’s energy levels, “He’s been carrying a team for 80 games.” He also mentioned that he can’t take him out of any games because the team has struggled to hold leads. Are you at all concerned about the workload Jokic has had to carry this season ahead of a potential playoff run?
Levy: Ultimately, Nikola Jokic has probably had the biggest work load of any one player in the NBA for the past two seasons. You can tell he’s exhausted at this point in the season, but he still keeps carrying the team night in and night out. Without either of his co-stars looking like they’ll return this season, I’m not concerned about Jokic in the playoffs, but I would not blame him if his fatigue got the better of him. If the Nuggets lose it won’t be for lack of trying on his end.
Leensvaart: Yes, I am worried. You can feel Nikola’s exhaustion through the TV screen at times. I am not concerned for Jokić’s play, I am just concerned about what this workload could have on him long-term. Who knows how long he will be able to keep up with this level of NBA action. Jokić being the soul of the Nuggets offense and defense for this season could lead to him gassing himself out in the playoffs or even at some point in the season next year. But, what he has done this year has been nothing short of incredible.
Blackburn: Of course! Joker’s shooting 20% from three-point range post All-Star break. He’s also often a step slow on the defensive end in making up for the mistakes of perimeter defenders in front of him. He prevented some of the shots earlier in the season that he’s giving up now, and it all comes back to fatigue. Jokić probably has enough energy to carry Denver through a first round playoff series if he gets enough help. Like last year though, that likely ends in the second round.
Outside of Jokic and Aaron Gordon, the rest of the Nuggets’ roster has had a bad habit of disappearing on a night-to-night basis. What do you think has caused that nightly inconsistency?
Levy: Nikola Jokic and Aaron Gordon have probably been the two best Nuggets players this season. Since the All-Star break Bones Hyland has also been good on a fairly consistent basis, but even he has struggled. It’s to be expected on a rookie guard, but when your third most consistent player is a rookie that speaks more to bigger issues. I just don’t think that the team is good enough. There is maybe two players that could be considered positive perimeter defenders in Aaron Gordon and Austin Rivers. Zeke Nnaji might be included, but he has been injured. There’s not enough shot creation or shooting, and overall just not enough help to back Jokic and Gordon. The front office has a lot of questions to address this summer and it will be a difficult time for them.
Leensvaart: Bones Hyland being a bit inconsistent is something we should have all expected, almost every rookie guard is. But players like Will Barton, Monte Morris, and Jeff Green being so inconsistent isn’t to be expected. I believe a lot of it depends on the way the opposing defense is defending the Nuggets/Jokić. At times teams will dare the Nuggets shooters to beat them. While other times they will stay glued to the shooters and give up layups all day. Having teams defend you differently every night as well as constantly changing how open they’ll leave you on a possession is tougher than it sounds.
Blackburn: Like with Jokić, fatigue is probably a big part of it. Every player was playing two steps above their station for much of the year, and I’m sure that Monte Morris setting a career high in minutes played is affecting his late season shooting and defense. I’m sure Bones Hyland is hitting a bit of a rookie wall with the responsibility he has for the second unit. Beyond fatigue though, there’s also what seems to be a lack of belief against the best teams and an overconfidence against bad teams. It’s a combination that has allowed the Nuggets to get got more frequently than normal.
Who is your preferred playoff matchup for this Nuggets’ team?
Levy: The two most likely options in a playoff situation are the Mavericks or Warriors. Between the two I think that the Nuggets would match up better with the Mavericks. That’s not to say I think that the Nuggets would win that series. I think the Nuggets are the underdog in either series and would have to play better than what we’ve seen from them this season in order to reach the second round. The Mavericks are a good defensive and offensive team with superstar Luka Doncic running the show. They’ve been on a very good run since they traded Kristaps Porzingis for Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans. It has allowed them to play more through Luka and has opened up their success. The reason I think the Nuggets match up better with the Mavericks than the Nuggets is because Aaron Gordon is a better match up for Luka than anyone the Nuggets have for Steph Curry. Add onto that that the Mavericks defensive scheme would be doubling Jokic with smaller defenders and I can buy into the Nuggets winning against the Mavs than the Warriors.
Leensvaart: To me, it all depends on how healthy Steph Curry is. I would rather face a Warriors team with an 85% Steph Curry than a Mavericks team with a 100% healthy Luka. Luka loves to hunt out matchups and I simply don’t want to watch Luka try to iso on Jokić all game. While Doncic hasn’t made it out of the first round yet, we all know it’s coming. The Dinwiddie for Porzingis swap turned out better than anyone could’ve imagined and I personally think that team is scarier than a banged-up Curry and the Warriors. Wiggins has not been shooting the ball very well since his all-star selection and Draymond Green hasn’t been shooting it well all year. Curry is going to have to do a lot for this Warriors team and since he’s coming off an injury, I would rather face him.
Blackburn: Can I say Utah? I’d love for Denver to be the team that broke their body after breaking their spirit in the Bubble 18 months ago. If not Utah, then Dallas is probably the matchup that Denver should want. Dallas’ entire offensive scheme is rightly built around Luka Doncic, and while there are other players there to assist him, they feel like the classic supporting cast that turns back into a pumpkin when defenses game plan for them for seven games. Now, Denver can’t exactly talk any trash in that regard, but it does sort of feel like Dallas and Denver are funhouse mirror images of each other, and it likely comes down to which of Jokić or Doncic is more unstoppable. I will always back Joker in that regard, from now until he exits his prime.
Do you think Jokic has done enough to secure back-to-back MVP awards? If not, what else can he do, besides playing in a bigger market?
Levy: I think that Nikola Jokic has done just about all you could ask of a player. He has consistently been the best player on the floor night in and night out. I could count the bad games he’s had this season on one hand. The only issue is that Giannis Antetokounmpo has done just as much as Jokic has this season. Both of them are absolute generational talents in their own right, and both are deserving of the award in my opinion. Joel Embiid has also put together a very good campaign and deserves recognition for what he has done in the City of Brotherly Love. Any of them are deserving, and while I would have Nikola Jokic as my pick for the award; the other two have been great. My personal ladder would be Jokic, Giannis, and then Embiid.
Leensvaart: I don’t know what more he could possibly do to deserve it. Other guys have had spectacular seasons and are very worthy of MVP votes though as well. Jokić has played at an MVP level for every night of every game this season, but so have Giannis and Embiid. He has done everything he can to earn his second MVP, it is just a matter of if the voters see his season as more worthy of the MVP than Giannis or Embiid. That’s no easy question to answer. It is undoubtable that he had an MVP caliber season, it just so happens that 2 other players also did just that.
Blackburn: If Jokić crosses the 2,000 point | 1,000 rebound | 500 assist club (that no one else is a part of) on Thursday night against the Grizzlies in a win, it will be a nice stamp of approval on what has truly been a magnificent season. He’s 31 points away, and the concept of starting his own little statistical club feels like a good bullet point to separate his case from the other two. Embiid is fantastic. Giannis is spectacular. Jokić is different than either of the two. There’s a certain inevitability about his game and the shots that he makes. With the other two, it’s physical dominance combined with developed skills. For Jokić, it’s his preternatural talents directed toward the hoop that almost circumvent reality. Whether it’s scoring, passing, rebounding, or his feel for the game on both sides, there is nothing and nobody like him in this world. Hopefully, he proves it again on Thursday night before sitting out with a much