We have entered the final week of the 2021-22 NBA regular season.

The Denver Nuggets have earned a 47-32 record and have three games left to go in what can only be described as a difficult year. Jamal Murray has yet to return from a torn ACL injury he sustained a little under a year ago, while Michael Porter Jr. was sidelined with a lumbar spine injury that he needed a surgical procedure to offer relief just about four months ago. In that span of time, the Nuggets have undergone a tough regular season with very little margin for error.

It appears as though they will be in the postseason anyway and that they’ve potentially threaded the needle with a potential return for both players on the horizon.

Let’s answer some questions as to how and why:

Well, let’s start by reordering the standings to reflect a 1-through-16 playoff format:

  1. Phoenix Suns
  2. Memphis Grizzlies
  3. Miami Heat
  4. Golden State Warriors
  5. Boston Celtics
  6. Dallas Mavericks
  7. Milwaukee Bucks
  8. Philadelphia 76ers
  9. Denver Nuggets
  10. Utah Jazz
  11. Chicago Bulls
  12. Toronto Raptors
  13. Minnesota Timberwolves
  14. Cleveland Cavaliers
  15. Atlanta Hawks
  16. Charlotte Hornets

It’s a very interesting framework for Milwaukee, Philly, and Denver to all be in a row. The Nuggets might be the lower seed of the three, but that fact that they are there at all says a lot about the teams involved. Jokić and the Nuggets shouldn’t be a top ten team without Murray and Porter. The Bucks, though they’ve had missing players throughout the season should undoubtedly be a top five team in the NBA record wise. They’re close, but the fact that they aren’t says something. The same goes for Philly, and though they were missing Ben Simmons for the first half of the year, they’ve had James Harden, Tobias Harris, and Tyrese Maxey as supporting cast players around Joel Embiid for much of the second half. They should be better than they are too.

So, yes. If the playoffs were seeded without respect to conferences, then the conversation around the MVP award would probably be fairly different. What Jokić and the Nuggets have been able to accomplish together is very impressive, and Denver’s record would likely see a sizable jump, perhaps into the top five, had Denver had any reinforcements throughout the season.

The Nuggets aren’t in a great position to really think about matchups. All of the teams in the 3rd to 7th seed range — Golden State, Dallas, Denver, Utah, and Minnesota — are basically in the same tier. Golden State has the ability to move up and out of that tier if Stephen Curry returns fully healthy before the playoffs begin, but the possibility that he doesn’t leaves the door open.

If Denver had a choice of all of the teams in their tier, Utah would undoubtedly be the selection. The Jazz are reeling, and though the Nuggets can struggle with the Jazz formula of quick three-level scoring guards combined with a lob threat at the rim, it’s still a better chance to take than the alternatives. The Jazz are on the brink of collapse. Their culture is going up in flames, and both Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert are seemingly okay with splitting up as soon as possible. The Nuggets, despite going through their own trials and tribulations, and nowhere near that level of angst at the moment. As long as the Nuggets lock in and execute consistently, they have a matchup between Jokić and Gobert (or literally any other player on the roster) that can be abused at any point in time. That gives them a chance no matter what.

All of the matchups have their own issues, but the Jazz specifically have the player in Donovan Mitchell that the Nuggets are likely least afraid of. That’s no slight to Mitchell either. The other primary options are Luka Doncic and Stephen Curry.

If Denver faces off with the Dallas Mavericks in the first round, a distinct possibility, I see two major issues that Denver will need to address heading into a series – turnovers and perimeter defense.

Beginning with the turnovers, the Nuggets have averaged over 18 turnovers per game against the Mavericks in their three games this year, including a crooked number that I honestly don’t remember given how long the season has been.

  • Game 1 – 19 turnovers, win
  • Game 2 – 11 turnovers, loss
  • Game 3 – 25 turnovers, loss

If the Nuggets don’t clean up their act, they will be gifting the Mavericks easy opportunities all night. If the Nuggets can play in the halfcourt against them more consistently, they should have a stronger chance to win a series.

The other issue is perimeter defense. Aaron Gordon will likely spend the majority of the series guarding Luka Doncic, and there are very few options outside of Gordon that make sense against him. Jeff Green has the strength to match up physically but maybe not the lateral quickness. Austin Rivers is a strong perimeter defender, but Doncic outweighs him by likely 30+ pounds and has a four inch height advantage. Any other switch for Denver is most likely death.

Beyond Doncic, the Mavericks have found success with Jalen Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie throughout the second half of the year, and they’re good enough to carry non-Doncic lineups. Gordon can’t guard for 48 full minutes, meaning other defenders will have to step up and guard two massively impactful playmakers in their own right.

This year, the Nuggets could always throw a hail mary by converting Davon Reed’s contract to a standard deal and cutting Vlatko Cancar. That would give them an option in the playoffs that could help Denver with defensive flexibility against guards and wings, but it also likely pushes Denver into the luxury tax in a year where Murray and Porter won’t be fully healthy. I don’t expect to be discussing that option in a few days.

Beyond that, there isn’t a lot that can change this year. Denver’s guards that haven’t been playing lately are Facu Campazzo, Markus Howard, and Bryn Forbes. The simple reality for guards is that if they’re under about 6’3”, they’re going to be taken advantage of defensively in a playoff series. Campazzo might get an opportunity at one point or another if Denver’s other options are getting roasted, but bringing him back into the rotation creates a whole host of other issues.

Next year? Improving the perimeter defense is something that Denver HAS to do. The front office has to see what’s going on this year and know that Jamal Murray coming off an ACL tear isn’t going to massively improve the defense by himself. Denver may explore options in free agency like Gary Harris, Bruce Brown, Gary Payton II, and others to bolster Denver’s rotation. Maybe they explore a trade of Monte Morris or Will Barton to find a more legitimate two-way option.

Either way, Denver’s perimeter defense needs to be better next season. Aaron Gordon can’t be the only defensive option on guards that can get to the rim, especially if he has to defend some physical forwards with Porter likely returning to the starting lineup too. Something’s gotta give.

I’m pretty sensitive to Porter’s situation, how he has handled his return, and how the Nuggets have handled things themselves. Protecting the player, especially a player with three back surgeries, is very important. The Nuggets are committed to him for the long haul, and they must preserve that relationship even if it means taking a hit to their public perception. The Nuggets have always operated that way, and this doesn’t appear any different. Declaring him out would see a certain amount of fallout in his perception around the league, having lost two of his four seasons on his rookie contract to injury. Leaving it ambiguous helps cloud that a bit.

The cynic in me has thought more than once that Nuggets ownership wants playoff tickets to sell out, and releasing information that Murray and/or Porter might not be back would be counterintuitive to that business plan. I doubt that’s what’s going on, but we’ve seen teams keep things ambiguous in the name of season tickets and putting butts in seats before (see: Williamson, Zion; Pelicans, New Orleans). It’s at least a possibility.

Most likely though is the prospect that Porter could still come back this year. I firmly believe that. He suffered a minor setback, and if it is in fact minor, then he could probably return in the playoffs and attempt to hit some spot up shots in 10 to 20 minutes per game. How the rest of his game would hold up remains to be seen, but I haven’t closed the door on anything.

There are websites that I don’t have access to because I’m not important enough, but my friend Matt Moore posted this a few days ago, a barebones list of what you’re asking about.

It’s Jokić and a bunch of point guards once again. Pretty impressive company for Jokić, and it highlights his ability to hit cutters. The majority of his passes that lead to fouls are on back cuts and slipping screens against defenses that are tied up to an action on a different part of the floor. Players like Aaron Gordon, Jeff Green, and JaMychal Green are often the biggest beneficiaries here, screen setters that find themselves in a mismatch. Jokić often loops a pass into the middle of the paint to get an easier look in front of the rim. He does it often enough to be in the top 10 of a list like this one, which is pretty cool.

I wish I had more precise data for this one, but I figured including this at the end of the article would be better than nothing. So, enjoy.