Before we get into the mailbag, I want to throw in some playoff scenario discussion. Much has been made of intentional resting of players and losing on purpose to manipulate the matchups. I wanted to take a closer look at all of the scenarios so that Denver Nuggets fans could understand exactly what’s going on with two games left to go. The Los Angeles Lakers have earned the top seed, while the Dallas Mavericks are locked into the seventh seed. Everything in between is still up for grabs, and I won’t even be discussing the race for the eighth seed because it doesn’t pertain to Denver.

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The Nuggets will either finish 2-0, 1-1, or 0-2 in their final two games against the Los Angeles Clippers and Toronto Raptors. Both teams will likely be resting some players, and it’s very possible the Nuggets could win both games without much of a fight. If that happens, and the Clippers lose their final game to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday, the Nuggets will finish in the second seed and face the Mavericks in the first round.

If Denver goes 1-1, they are locked into the third seed and will face whoever emerges as the six seed between the Thunder and the Utah Jazz. If the Jazz lose their final game, they are locked into the sixth seed and will be Denver’s opponent. If the Jazz win their game and the Thunder lose both of theirs, the Nuggets will face the Thunder in the first round.

If Denver goes 0-2, they can drop to the fourth seed if the Houston Rockets win both of their remaining games against the Indiana Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers. In that situation, the Nuggets will drop to fourth and most likely face the Thunder at fifth. There’s an outside chance they could play the Jazz in this scenario, but the biggest change becomes the flipping of brackets from the Los Angeles Clippers to the Los Angeles Lakers. Losing both games gives Denver a chance to flip from facing one difficult matchup to another. Denver will be underdogs no matter what, and it doesn’t really matter to me which LA team they face if they get there.

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Either way, the playoff scenarios are still rather confusing. Denver’s most likely first round playoff opponent is probably the Utah Jazz, but there’s no guarantee it will come as the third or fourth seed. This is why I push back on the notion that the Nuggets have been trying to manipulate the system again. Everything is muddled together, and there’s no way of knowing if intentionally losing various games will hurt or help the Nuggets in the long run.

Whatever the case, let’s move to the mailbag portion of this article. Thanks for the questions once again! I enjoy doing these:

Hey Skip, do I know you from somewhere?

Michael Porter Jr. has been excellent for the Nuggets in his six games in the bubble thus far, so much so that he’s drawing some buzz to be on the All-Bubble teams. Porter has been thrust into a difficult situation, and he has responded by averaging 23.8 points and 9.2 rebounds per game while shooting 56.8% from the field, 46.3% from three-point range, and 96.0% from the free throw line. That’s an excellent accomplishment for any player, let alone a rookie.

As for MVP, that’s a little more difficult. There’s an argument that he isn’t the most important player on his own team, but that doesn’t drastically change anything in this case. Bubble MVP is a three man race right now between Damian Lillard, James Harden, and Devin Booker. All three have put up absurd numbers in the bubble so far, capped off by Lillard’s 61 points on Tuesday night to put the Blazers on the inside track for a play-in game for the eighth seed this year.

Here’s what my MVP ladder would look like right now:

  1. Damian Lillard – PG, Portland Trail Blazers
  2. Devin Booker – SG, Phoenix Suns
  3. James Harden – SG, Houston Rockets
  4. T.J. Warren – SF, Indiana Pacers
  5. Luka Doncic – PG/SF, Dallas Mavericks

Lillard has been unbelievable. Booker has also been excellent, and the Suns are currently 7-0 in the bubble behind his excellent play. Harden has been dominant for Rockets team that wins when he plays. Warren has been a revelation as a scorer, but his candidacy took a hit when Jimmy Butler got a hold of him. Doncic would be higher than this on numbers alone, but the Mavericks are 2-4 in games he plays.

So, Porter isn’t on there for me, though I do think he’s in that next tier of players that deserve recognition. The above five would be my five players on the All-Bubble First Team. All-Bubble second team would include Porter, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kristaps Porzingis, Kawhi Leonard, and probably Jusuf Nurkic.

The PJ Dozier and Monte Morris combination looked pretty good against the Los Angeles Lakers on Monday night. Overall, the duo has been less impact. Denver is struggling to defend anybody, and one of the biggest reasons is the bench defense. When Dozier is on the floor, the Nuggets have given up a 126.8 defensive rating while in the bubble. That’s really bad, and though it doesn’t necessarily reflect Dozier’s individual capabilities, it’s still something the Nuggets are going to try and fix.

Morris is definitely going to be on the floor running the show no matter what, but Dozier isn’t a guarantee when Will Barton and Gary Harris return. In my opinion, the best way the Nuggets can integrate those guys back into the lineup is bringing both off the bench and keeping Torrey Craig in the starting unit. Barton or Harris could finish games, but either way, it doesn’t reflect well on Dozier’s ability to get minutes if Denver’s veterans return.

I like Dozier long term and think he will make an excellent 11th man in these playoffs as a guard who can introduce playmaking and length into any game. I just don’t think Dozier will get consistent opportunities if the goal is to work Harris and Barton back into the rotation.

Both are going to be integral, and if I’m right, I think both will come off the bench when they first get back into playing regularly. The Nuggets are establishing chemistry with their group, and introducing Barton or Harris into major roles immediately could throw Denver out of whack.

In terms of importance, it’s hard not to say “both will have a major impact when they return” given that I think Denver could use both players a lot. Barton’s versatile offensive game should make things easier for either the starting or bench unit on a consistent basis. Harris’ perimeter defense will be integral for Denver in matching up with Utah, Oklahoma City, or Dallas in the first round, given that all of those teams have capable guards who could burn the Nuggets badly.

If I had to pick between one or the other, I think Barton’s versatility will be more impactful, but it’s close.

Jerami Grant is a guy I’ve spoken about at length given his combination of size, athleticism, efficiency offensively and versatility defensively. He started the year slowly but worked his way into a role next to Jokic. He started the bubble slowly but has shown elite utility between Porter and Jokic over the last week or so. His viability guarding LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George is higher than any other player on the roster. His scoring has also come more efficiently of late, as have the steals and blocks on the other end.

Grant didn’t suit up versus the Lakers on Monday night, and he might not play against the Clippers tonight. Denver could use a look at how he plays against the top tier of the West, but even if they don’t get it, they know how impactful he could be in either series. It’s hard to defend the top teams, and even players like Grant will struggle to match up at times, but having another versatile player to utilize up and down the lineup has helped Malone significantly.

So yeah, Grant is massively important for Denver’s playoff hopes, debatably more important than Harris or Barton.

To expand upon the above question against the Clippers in particular, I think it’s safe to say the Nuggets will be starting Murray, Porter, and Jokic in every series they play going forward. The other two starting spots are up for debate, and against the Clippers, the Nuggets will probably have to mix and match more than they have against any other team.

There are benefits and detriments of each combination they can put on the floor. Torrey Craig and Paul Millsap will probably start tonight against the Clippers, and while Craig is one of Denver’s best options defensively against Leonard and George, Millsap is in all likelihood not a good option. On offense, those two give the Nuggets issues from a spacing and ball handling perspective. Will Barton, Gary Harris, and Jerami Grant may or may not be back, and while all three would probably improve Denver’s offense considerably against the Clippers, the defense would take a hit overall, despite Grant’s ability to match up with the two wings in 1-on-1 coverage.

Michael Malone will have to mix and match his defensive assignments to maximize both ends of the floor. In my opinion, Denver’s best chance to win probably involves a lineup of Murray, Barton, Porter, Grant, and Jokic. All five of those players are considerable offensive threats, and Barton can switch enough between Leonard and George that baskets won’t be automatic with him in 1-on-1 coverage.

As for how the Clippers defend Denver, I’d expect Patrick Beverley to start on Murray and try to hound him with Leonard guarding Porter and George guarding Barton. Those three defenders are excellent, but Murray and Jokic still have elite pick and roll chemistry that will create consistent baskets, and Porter has shown no fear in his limited starts thus far.

The Nuggets will have to play the Clippers starters even to have a chance, and the bench will have to be big as well. Monte Morris and Mason Plumlee versus Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell feels like a mismatch, but that could turn into Gary Harris and Paul Millsap very quickly.

I don’t want to go too deep into the future quite yet. The Nuggets have a chance to win the NBA Finals this season with the added scoring and impact Porter has brought to the table. I firmly believe that.

But I will say this about Denver’s future: it becomes a lot easier to figure things out when you have three legitimate star pieces that are 25 and under. People will argue about Murray, but I’ve said my piece on that and think he still has a level to go. Nobody seems to be arguing about Porter right now, which is a great sign.

After you factor in those three guys, it becomes most important to identify pieces that maximize the three stars. I think Jerami Grant fits that benchmark, but signing him basically negates Denver’s look at 2021 free agency. Will Barton has a player option that year and may decide to leave (though I doubt it). Gary Harris is still under contract until the 2022 offseason. Monte Morris will be in line for a new contract.

My guess is that the Nuggets do what they can to bring back most of the players that contribute to their success right now and hope for Porter to continue to grow. They will make moves on the fringes through the draft and maybe signing a player to the mid-level exception at some point, but I wouldn’t expect a star free agent to sign in Denver while the Nuggets have three quality players who all enjoy playing together and are highly successful. Players that are considered stars now don’t really make sense for a Nuggets squad that thinks they have three players who will be considered stars in the near future (one already is).

Maybe that means I’m too high on Denver’s core of Jokic, Murray, and Porter. Personally, I think I’m properly excited. This trio is unique, and all three will have excellent opportunities to do what they want to do going forward. Beyond that, just fill in the gaps, add some high quality role players, and the stage is set for contention.