As the Denver Nuggets prepare for tonight’s contest against the Philadelphia 76ers in a game that will surely have no impact on the MVP race whatsoever, the most important ramification for the Nuggets will come in the standings.

The Western Conference playoff picture is beginning to come into focus. The Phoenix Suns have run away with the top seed in the conference (and the league) and have given themselves enough cushion to hang out for a few weeks and still be the best in the league. They’re legit, and the rest of the conference will continue looking up at them until a worthy challenger emerges from a slew of injured teams.

In addition to the Suns, other matchups are beginning to crystalize for the rest of the West too. Let’s take a closer look at the playoff picture to investigate:

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Here are some major takeaways from the standings at this point of the season:

  • The Phoenix Suns are in their own tier, and both the Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors reside in the next tier down. Both the Grizzlies and Warriors have 22 losses at the moment, and the Grizzlies currently hold a 2-1 advantage in head-to-head matchups. If the Warriors lose the next matchup, they will drop a game below the Grizzlies as well as lose the tiebreaker. If the Warriors win that game, the Grizzlies will still have tiebreaker as a division leader (the Warriors and Suns are both in the Pacific Division). It’s highly likely that both teams finish second and third, but the order is to be determined.
  • The Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks are in a similar position at fourth and fifth respectively. The Jazz have 25 losses and the Mavericks have 26, separating them from the teams above and below them into their own mini tier. The Jazz have the most games left to go, which gives them an outside chance to rise or fall to a different tier, but they’re most likely locked into the fourth or fifth seed, depending on how tiebreakers shake out. Like the Grizzlies, the Jazz will likely have a division leader tiebreaker over the Mavericks on top of a 2-1 head-to-head record, meaning they have a bit of cushion to maintain home court advantage.
  • The Nuggets and Minnesota Timberwolves are in their own mini tier at the sixth and seventh spots. More on them later.
  • The Los Angeles Clippers are likely penciled into the eighth seed, given their 34 losses and only 12 games remaining. They have too few games to make up the four game gap ahead of them, and too few games to drop below the team behind them.
  • The Los Angeles Lakers are more likely than not to drop to the 10th seed, given their difficult strength of schedule and the absence of Anthony Davis. The New Orleans Pelicans lost Brandon Ingram to a minor injury and CJ McCollum to COVID health and safety protocols. The Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs are on the edge of the playoff picture too, but they’re unlikely to outpace either of the teams above them.

What does this mean for the Nuggets?

Delving closer into the Nuggets seeding, they have 28 losses with 14 games left to go. At their current pace, the Nuggets are projected to finish the season with about a 48-34 record. That means that both the Jazz and Mavericks would need just six wins each to surpass Denver due to tiebreakers. Even if the Nuggets push the envelope late in the season and get up to 50 wins, the Jazz would need just an 8-7 record to match them, while the Mavericks would need to go just 8-6.

Is it possible for the Nuggets to jump up fifth or sixth? Yes. Is it likely? No.

Denver’s far closer to dropping to seventh than they are to jumping up to fourth or fifth. The Timberwolves are nipping at their heels with a 39-30 record, just two losses back in the standings with 13 games left to go. The Nuggets and T’Wolves also face off against each other on April 1st, meaning this race will likely have very little clarity until that game is complete. As it stands, the Nuggets are extremely likely to lose the tiebreaker to the T’Wolves no matter what due to having a worse division record.

That means the Nuggets must finish with a better record than the Timberwolves in order to stay ahead of them in the standings. Relying on tiebreakers will likely be futile.

If the Nuggets finish the season at 48-34, then the T’Wolves will need to go 9-4 down the stretch in order to tie things up. That seems unlikely when looking at their schedules side by side:

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On the T’Wolves side, only two teams really won’t have anything to play for down the stretch: the Suns locked into the first seed and the Rockets looking to tank. Every other team is likely to be playing for a spot in the playoffs and/or the play-in tournament, the only exception possibly being the Washington Wizards depending on how their final few games go. Still, their schedule is fairly strong to close.

On the Nuggets side, only two teams seemingly won’t have anything to play for down the stretch, but life could change very quickly for the Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, and Memphis Grizzlies in the final week of the season. The Lakers will quite possibly be locked into the ninth or 10th seed for one or both of their matchups with Denver. The Spurs may or may not be eliminated themselves, meaning they might strictly play young players for developmental purposes. The Grizzlies might be locked into a top three seed and may not care at that point of the season which seed they get (or it might already be locked up).

It’s certainly possible for the Timberwolves to go 9-4 and reach 48-34 at the end of the year, but that implies the Nuggets only go 8-6 or worse down the stretch. Who’s to say the Nuggets don’t get to 9-5 or 10-4 themselves? They don’t have anymore back-to-backs and play roughly the same caliber of teams to close the year. The Nuggets have been liable to go hot and cold against strong competition of late, but assuming they get reasonably healthy down the stretch, maybe even add Michael Porter Jr. and/or Jamal Murray to the mix, they should be a tough matchup for anyone.

Either way, the Nuggets are likely to remain as the sixth seed heading into the playoffs. There’s just a lot of ground for the T’Wolves to make up, perhaps too much. If Minnesota does in fact catch Denver though, then Denver will certainly be the seventh seed and in the play-in tournament. They would be favored in a one-game environment, and even if they lost, they’d have a second opportunity to make the playoffs as the eighth seed. Still, Denver shouldn’t want to mess with that. They need to reach a certain threshold in the regular season to guarantee they stay in the playoff bracket. It’s probably 10-4 down the stretch, reaching 50 wins.

Will they get there? The upcoming road trip will likely determine Denver’s fate. Games against the Philadelphia 76ers, Washington Wizards, and Cleveland Cavaliers are all winnable. If Denver goes 3-0 or 2-1, they’re well on their way. If Denver goes 1-2 or 0-3, then they’re in serious trouble.

The Nuggets will need the proper urgency to navigate the end of the season. There can’t be any major distractions, from MVP narratives to potential returns to the lineup for injured stars. Everyone needs to be on the same page, and every player will need to play hard down the stretch. Ain’t no rest for the weary at this point.