“I look forward to continuing our ultimate goal of winning NBA championships.”

In a statement released by the Denver Nuggets after head coach Michael Malone signed a contract extension earlier this season, Malone shared the above quote. His goals, along with the goals of the entire Nuggets organization, remain high from top to bottom.

During media day, it was Malone and Tim Connelly once again sharing their strong beliefs that the next step for this team was to be thinking about a championship. Sure, it wouldn’t be all bad if they didn’t reach that goal, but with the current pieces in place and being one game away from the Western Conference Finals last season, it was a practical transition. “We don’t skip steps” has always been the motto the Nuggets have lived by, and the next step is vaulting into legitimate championship contention.

Are they there yet?

Have the Nuggets proven themselves capable of being in that conversation?

The short answer is not really. The long answer is so much more complicated than that.

It took awhile for Denver’s superstar center to come around this season, which was to be expected. I’ve written about Nikola Jokic before and his struggles in the early months of the season. For some reason, he drew much more ire from the national media for his down performances this season. In reality, he was better than the year prior:

Nikola Jokic November splits:

November 2018: 28.9 minutes, 13.9 points, 9.1 rebounds, 7.1 assists, 51.6 TS%, +4.5 / game

November 2019: 31.2 minutes, 15.0 points, 10.0 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 51.0 TS%, +12.1 / game

But that’s neither here nor there. Just an observation.

Since November ended, Jokic’s splits have been something to behold. 22.1 points, 9.9 rebounds, and 6.9 assists per game while shooting 62.0 TS% and averaging a +3.3 plus-minus while many players around him either injured themselves or regressed. It truly has been the Jokic show. As Jokic’s plus-minus shows though, the Nuggets are merely good, not great with him on the floor.

The next group of Nuggets right now is the rest of the starting unit. Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, and Paul Millsap. In many ways, the player many Nuggets fans had the most questions about—Barton—has been the most consistent of the four. He has stayed healthy, been productive, and offered a versatile skill set newly revived after a tough 2018-19 season. He has undoubtedly been Denver’s second best player this season.

But if Barton is the second best player on the Nuggets heading into the playoffs, this team is in for a rude awakening come the first round. Murray, fresh off a polarizing contract extension this offseason, started the year wonderfully before tailing off in recent months. His ankle sprain against the Charlotte Hornets nearly two weeks ago put on hold what had become a difficult season for Murray from a consistency standpoint.

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The three-pointers have grown in concern month after month for Murray. Right now, Denver’s star point guard sits at 32.2% from that range, ranking 66th out of 74 players to attempt as many threes as him. 65th on that list is Atlanta Hawks rookie De’Andre Hunter. 67th is Milwaukee Bucks megastar Giannis Antetokounmpo.

In short, Murray has not improved like many hoped he would. Some of the shooting struggles can certainly be attributed to his mounting injuries, but those don’t just go away. They didn’t go away for Barton and Gary Harris last season, and neither of those guys looked themselves in the playoffs.

Speaking of Harris, he is another guy who has regressed this season. His shooting is down, and the finishing at the rim is not where it used to be. On above-the-break threes, Harris is shooting just 25%, in the 2nd percentile league wide, according to Cleaning the Glass. Denver’s best advantage in the Jokic-Murray DHO and PnR game is their ability to draw defenders into the paint. Harris hasn’t been able to finish those opportunities at an efficient rate, shooting 26.8% on “open” threes and just 34.3% on “wide open” threes on the NBA site. League average for both categories is roughly 34% and 38% respectively.

This is Denver’s starting back court right now. It’s not where Denver needs it to be heading into the playoffs. Both have shown the ability to be one of the most potent back courts in the NBA when on their game, but that’s not where they are right now. That could change in a heartbeat, and the Nuggets better hope that it does.

At this moment, it’s the Los Angeles Lakers…and everyone else…in the Western Conference playoff race. Different teams have different cases for being in the conversation. From the Nuggets and Jokic’s brilliance, to the Utah Jazz and their offense-defense combination of Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, to the Los Angeles Clippers and their star studded wing duo of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Those three teams and the Lakers are the teams I believe to have the best case to make a Conference Finals. The Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks could certainly join the conversation though.

But ever since the Lakers acquired Anthony Davis in the offseason, they loomed as a giant threat to Denver’s playoff hopes. Not because they were the best team (even though they turned out to be just that) but because of the matchup problems. LeBron James is always an issue for any team to handle, but especially the Nuggets, who start three guard-sized players on the perimeter. Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant match up with LeBron reasonably well physically, but then you run into the dilemma caused by Anthony Davis. Can Denver match up on both ends when LeBron is at power forward and Davis is at center? Jokic will probably be forced to guard in vast amounts of space that series, and while he has improved immensely, the James-Davis combination is just a different animal with few skill set weaknesses and zero physical ones.

Can the Nuggets offer enough help to Jokic in those situations? Do they have enough length and help defense to give the best player in NBA history and one of the most talented bigs ever any problems at all?

If not, can the Nuggets outscore the Lakers?

It’s unclear how Denver will fare again when they next face the Lakers at full strength, with Denver’s only win of course coming when LeBron sat out due to injury. The Nuggets have yet to play the Clippers at full strength. They will face the Jazz for the first time on Thursday. I haven’t mentioned the Rockets or Mavericks much, but they both play a style that gives Denver trouble as well. Many of these teams do.

I haven’t mentioned Michael Porter Jr. yet for many reasons, the first being that he is still a rookie, and there are many paths he must navigate before becoming an impactful figure in a playoff series. It would be crazy for Denver to count on a rookie with their season on the line when so many talented players are already on the roster. Right?

Well, the last month may have thrown a wrench in that narrative.

It was clear from the first game of January that 2020 could be the year of Michael Porter Jr. in Nuggets basketball. That game on January 2nd was of course the road game against the Indiana Pacers. Porter got hot that game, and when he stepped off the court for a final time, he had amassed 25 points on 11-of-12 shooting in just 22:46 of game time minutes off the bench. It was one of the most impressive displays of shotmaking from a rookie I have ever seen.

In the above clips, Porter makes 6-foot-8 TJ Warren look small. Porter cuts, shoots spot-ups, and creates shots for himself that very few players in the NBA can at his size. Only three players at Porter’s size or bigger have a higher effective field goal percentage than Porter on pull-up jump shots: Brook Lopez, Al Horford, and Jaren Jackson. Only Jackson shoots pull-up threes consistently.

Only six forwards rank higher than Porter in effective field goal percentage on all shots on CTG:

  • Michael Porter Jr. – 59.3 eFG%, 92nd percentile
  • Davis Bertans – 59.7 eFG%, 93rd percentile
  • Rodney Hood – 60.7 eFG%, 95th percentile
  • Isaac Bonga – 60.9 eFG%, 97th percentile
  • Doug McDermott – 61.7 eFG%, 98th percentile
  • Duncan Robinson – 65.7 eFG%, 100th percentile

Most of those forwards are elite shooters, and very few add the other dimensions to the game that Porter can. His offensive rebounding is quite literally in the 100th percentile among forwards. You know what’s also 100th percentile? His defensive rebounding.

Having a player who wins extra possessions on both ends of the floor will only help the Nuggets in the playoffs when every possession matters. Having a player who can create his own shot as well as finish the shots created for him more than makes up for the other inadequacies in his game.

So the real question is: are the Nuggets confident they have enough talent on their roster to go far in the playoffs? Can they honestly say they can reach the Western Conference Finals by beating two playoff caliber teams four out of seven tries? Does Michael Porter Jr. change the answer?

I think the Nuggets are going to have some tough choices before this trade deadline on February 6th. The Nuggets are highly dependent on their most important wing defenders to make shots when they count. They are also highly dependent on their scorers to provide enough defense to survive. To me, that doesn’t sound like a team ready to compete.

The Nuggets have found some combinations that have worked well in recent weeks to accompany their normal starting lineup as “go-to” units in a playoff series. Porter, Grant, and Jokic are developing chemistry together, Morris and Beasley are getting readjusted as mainstays in the rotation, and Barton is playing some great basketball. But some of those players will have limited minutes down the stretch. Some may not play at all when Murray, Millsap, and Plumlee return.

I don’t think the Nuggets are quite there. Murray needs to have a hot month of shooting before I feel any differently. The same could be said for Harris. The defense will never be perfect without another defender in the 6’6 to 6’9 range athletic enough to play on-ball defense against the best in the league. Without that player, a series against the Rockets, Jazz, or Clippers may already be lost. Even with that guy, the Lakers may still roll.

But if the Nuggets believe they are one piece away, they must shoot their shot. Chances at a ring are so rare, and the NBA is more wide open than it has been in years. The Lakers are great, but not unbeatable. The Clippers have real problems. If the Nuggets happened to make the Finals, they have a reasonable formula to stop Giannis Antetokounmpo that involves Jerami Grant and a lot of prayer. There are only so many years the Nuggets will have this much talent on their roster before the team gets expensive.

Why not take advantage and go for it all?