Last season, the Denver Nuggets finished just outside of the playoff picture in the Western Conference despite having a winning record at 46-36. This season, it appears as if they’re trying to make sure they don’t get left out in the cold once again.
Although it is extremely early in the season, the Nuggets currently sit atop the West with a 4-0 record. They’ve been one of the top defensive teams in the league so far, holding opponents to 99.8 points per game, good enough for second overall in the NBA.
One of their wins was over the defending champion Golden State Warriors in which they held them to under 100 points. This is a team that, depending on your definition, has no clear-cut superstar. They’ve got a couple guys who could take on that role, but as of now, they are a deep team getting contributions from everyone in the rotation.
In terms of guys who could become that franchise player, the Nuggets have a pair of candidates in Gary Harris and Nikola Jokic.
Harris is entering his fifth year in the league and has dealt with some injury concerns in the past. This season, however, appears to be his breakout year. Throughout the first four games, he’s averaging 21.0 points per game on 50.8 percent shooting from the field — both career-highs.
He’s also getting to the line with more frequency. His outside shooting has slumped a bit as he’s only shooting 25.0 percent from three-point range, but the past two seasons he’s shot around 40 percent from distance. He’s been one of their best defenders as well.
It’s not all that farfetched to think he could be an All-Star this season as long as he keeps this production up and the Nuggets remain one of the best teams in the conference. Joining him as a potential first-time All-Star could be his teammate, Jokic. When coming over to the Nuggets four years ago, Jokic made an immediate impact and established himself as a second-round steal. Now, he’s on the brink of superstardom.
He’s putting up career-highs across the board with 23.3 points per game on 61.2 percent shooting from the field and 50.0 percent shooting from the three-point line. He’s pulling down 10.5 rebounds per game and dishing out seven assists as a big man.
With his playmaking ability, the Nuggets are able to run the offense through him. He can score in a variety of ways, posting up on the block, taking his defender off the dribble or knocking down jumpers.
Together, he and Harris are averaging a combined 44.3 points per game. They’ve quietly emerged as one of the better duos in the league. While Harris’ playmaking is not on par with Jokic, he’s taken steps this season to improve that aspect of his game and get his teammates involved in the offense.
But it isn’t just Harris and Jokic who are powering this team. They’ve got three other guys who are averaging double figures in points, Will Barton (16.5), Jamal Murray (13.8) and Paul Millsap (11.3). Although Barton is going to miss some time with an injury, the Nuggets should have enough depth to cover for him.
They’ve been getting quality production off the bench from guys who weren’t consistently in the rotation last season. The Nuggets had two players on two-way contracts last season, Monte Morris and Torrey Craig. They converted both to standard NBA contracts this year and they’ve become key contributors in the second unit.
Craig has filled in as the starting small forward with Barton out, and Morris has settled in nicely as the backup point guard.
They’re also getting key minutes from Malik Beasley and Trey Lyles, not to mention rotation mainstays such as Mason Plumlee and Juan Hernangomez. Collectively, the Nuggets are a team that is legitimately 11 players deep. And that’s without Isaiah Thomas and prized draft pick Michael Porter Jr., who are both nursing injuries.
This is always that time of year for wild predictions and way too early hot takes, but it doesn’t seem all that surprising to think that Denver could wind up with a top four or five seed in the conference — especially if Harris and Jokic continue their respective ascensions among the league’s elite.
Mike Malone has always been a good coach, and let’s not forget that he was the last coach who had the Sacramento Kings playing competitively before DeMarcus Cousins went down with an injury and the front office panicked and fired him.
There is excitement in the Mile High City this season, excitement that could carry them all the way through to the postseason. There is elite basketball being played in Denver and it would be wise to take notice, even at this early stage of the season.
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