For a little over a week, my mostly-joking Finals pick (Nuggets vs. Raptors) was looking like the best prediction at Sports Illustrated since a certain 2014 Houston Astros cover. But before I could get started on my book proposal for Nuggetball, Denver took a slight step back Thursday, losing to a Lakers team on the second night of a back-to-back.
During the nationally televised broadcast, Charles Barkley defiantly proclaimed the Nugs as the second-best team in the West, an assessment that Reggie Miller agreed with. During our NBA preview, I picked the Nuggets as the league’s sleeper team, warning before any balls had been bounced that I thought this team could make the conference finals. Now that they’ve actually played some games, let’s discuss how good this Denver team can really be—and if it’s capable of living up to some of the early season hype.
1. Nikola Jokic is really that good
He’s already put up a 35-point triple double this season in which he didn’t miss a shot. The more aggressive he is on offense, the better the Nuggets look. The diversity of Jokic’s game is like the front page of a college brochure. He is so much more than a center who can extend to the three-point line. Half the time he’s on the court he’ll bring the ball up himself and initiate Denver’s offense.
Jokic is devastating in three separate areas on the floor: At the top of the key, where he often finds himself open after running a pick-and-pop with Jamal Murray; At the elbow, where his handoffs with Gary Harris almost always generate a good look; And in the post, where he willingly passes out of double teams or cooks one-on-one defense. (He also has a knack for putbacks, for good measure.) Jokic’s passing is what’s made him the stuff of League Pass legends the last two seasons, but he’s coming into his own as a scorer. When he’s looking for his shot, he can rack up buckets with ease. The fact that he’s also comfortable playmaking from all those areas on the floor make him incredibly difficult to defend.
2. Where does the Nuggets' backcourt rank?
My deep-down hot take that I’m not fully confident in yet, but want to float out anyway: I think the Nuggets’ could have the West’s third-best backcourt by the end of the season. I love the aggressiveness from both Murray and Harris. Murray is more of a shooting guard playing the point. His scoring has never been an issue. What’s promising so far is he’s held his own on defense so far; Denver has a 96.2 defensive rating when Murray is on the floor. Harris has always been able to get after it defensively, but he’s struggled at times remaining consistent on both ends of the floor. He seems to be doing a much better job of not letting one aspect of his game affect the other this season. Against the Warriors, he hounded Klay Thompson into an inefficient night while scoring 28 of his own.
If you don’t watch the Nuggets often, what you need to know is both Harris and Murray are adept at shooting threes, getting to and finishing at the rim, and both have little pet plays working off Jokic that almost always result in good offense. (Seriously, how do you guard Harris curling around a Jokic handoff at the mid-post/elbow? If the defender goes under, Harris will pull up. Because the defender is always trailing, Harris usually gets a good path to the paint. If Jokic’s defender helps on Harris, he’s just left a dominant big man matched with a guard.) If you do watch the Nuggets often, then there’s one question on everyone’s mind: Is the defense sustainable?
3. Will the Nuggets defend?
I don’t know. Head coach Mike Malone has applauded the team’s multiple efforts when it comes to their improved defense this season. Jokic, the biggest question mark on that end, looks a little bit more engaged on that half of the floor so far. When guarding shooters, Jokic typically hedges pick-and-rolls pretty hard, sometimes settling into a soft trap of sorts. That forces crisp rotations from everyone else on the floor, and the rest of Denver’s starting five has done well in those situations for the most part. The Nuggets’ communication still needs to be tighter, and Jokic’s rambling forays still leave them susceptible to backdoor cuts.
I think the starting five can definitely be good defensively, and “good” would be a significant improvement here. Paul Millsap, while he’s been a mess offensively, is an ideal partner for Jokic. He can guard the more offensive-minded big every night, he’s solid at guarding the rim with verticality, and he can decently stay in front of both small-forward types playing the four, and guards off switches. The Millsap-Jokic pairing currently has an 89.4 defensive rating, which isn’t sustainable, but it’s certainly a promising start to the year. Here’s what’s perhaps most encouraging: In 869 minutes last season, the Millsap-Jokic pair had a 103.8 defensive rating. That’s equivalent to the sixth-best defense in the league right now. They have a history of playing good defense together.
4. Let’s talk about the issues
As good as Millsap has been defensively, he’s been bad offensively. His post-ups are going nowhere, and his three-point shooting has seemingly cratered. Millsap’s spacing is an important element of Denver’s starting five, and if teams start to disregard him on the perimeter, that could, in turn, affect Jokic’s own post game.
Meanwhile, the depth at small forward is another problem. The Nuggets are lacking a true 3-and-D type who they can throw on the best scorers in the game. Will Barton is out for six weeks with a hip injury, but even when healthy, he’s a little too small to be thrown out against the LeBron/KD/Kawhi types of the world. Torrey Craig brings a nice hustle element to the starting lineup, but his offense is incredibly hit or miss. As much as the Nuggets’ defense has seemingly improved, their wing defense lacks the size to match up with where the league is going, which puts a lot of pressure on Millsap to hold up against faster players. (The bench, a question mark heading into the year, has largely held up. Shout out to Monte Morris.)
5. So what about when teams go small?
The Lakers ran away from the Nuggets without a center on the floor in Thursday night's 121–114 finish. Lonzo Ball roasted Jokic on a switch. LeBron easily got past Millsap to get to the rim. This may be the biggest issue for this team: Do they have a credible small lineup they can play if Jokic isn’t holding up defensively? A Millsap-Trey Lyles frontcourt makes sense on paper, but they only played 19 minutes together last season, and they seemingly only play together in very specific situations. I understand Malone’s dilemma. He wants to dictate play with Jokic, and punish teams for going small. You never want your best player to be schemed off the court. But as more and more teams finish small, the Nuggets need to consider having a counter in their back pocket if it’s just not Jokic’s night.
Are the Nuggets the second-best team in the West? Thursday’s loss was discouraging. Denver should be better than the Lakers, and it was concerning to see bad habits—turnovers, blowing a lead on the road—pop up against an inferior team. Ultimately, the talent is there, and as long as the health reasonably keeps up, the Nuggets should truly be hitting their stride this season. Five games is probably too early to declare Denver’s place in a loaded conference. But I picked them to make the Finals before any of this even started. If the Nuggets remain as focused as they are now through the regular season, the hype could very well be justified.