Why The Denver Nuggets Are Primed To Take The Next Step
Last April, the Denver Nuggets missed the playoffs as narrowly as a team possibly could, losing to the Minnesota Timberwolves on the last night of the season, 112-106 in overtime. That made it the second straight year the Nuggets missed the playoffs by just one game. That loss stuck with the team all offseason and has them playing with a newfound intensity this season. The Nuggets are now 9-2 and just one game back of the Golden State Warriors for first place in the Western Conference. Denver’s already secured signature wins against the two favorites to make this year’s finals: the Warriors and the Boston Celtics. (All stats as of 11/8/18)
The driving force behind Denver’s rise from a young, exciting team to a potential Western Conference contender with home-court advantage in the playoffs is a commitment to defense. Despite a league-wide rise in offensive numbers, renewed effort and intensity on the defensive end has gotten the Nuggets to third in the league in defensive efficiency. Their offense, while not as devastatingly efficient as it has been the past couple years, still ranks 9th in the league. If they can sustain this balance, the Nuggets are sure to make noise in the west this season. “We’re not asking (the team) to be a top-10 defense. In a perfect world we are, and if we get there, great,” said assistant coach Wes Unseld, “But we can’t be 28th, 29th in the league. With our offense, if we get to be average on defense, we’re beyond a 50-plus-win team.”
One point of emphasis for Denver has been improving their transition defense. Last season, the Nuggets ranked top-3 in both offensive rebounding and second chance points but their efforts crashing the offensive glass reflected negatively on the defensive end of the floor as they ranked 23rd in fast break defense. They’ve established stricter rules to help their ability to recover in transition. While the power forward and center are free to crash the boards, the guards and small forward have to get back and defend. They’ve shown improvement, currently ranking 13th in the league in opponents fastbreak points per game.
Denver’s offense will continue to be the most dangerous and explosive part of their team and singular talents like Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray are the driving forces behind that. Murray was spectacular in the Nuggets’ win over Celtics, outdueling Kyrie Irving on his way to a career-high 48 points.
The most impressive part of the Nuggets’ win against the Celtics is that they pulled it off despite an off-night for Jokic (8 points, 10 rebounds, and 8 assists). If they can continue to beat elite competition despite down performances from Jokic, Denver’s potential as a team is sky-high.
In their prior game, a win over the Utah Jazz, Jokic had 16 assists which is the current league high for the season. He currently ranks 11th in the league in assists with 7.4 per game and his performance a couple weeks ago against the Suns, where he went for 34 points on 11-for-11 shooting to go along with 11 rebounds and 11 assists, shows the kind of immense talent he has.
Denver’s 9-2 start comes despite missing players like Will Barton, Isaiah Thomas, and Michael Porter Jr. who could all fill key roles for the team when healthy. The Nuggets have plenty to prove and this is just the start for a team looking to end a five-year postseason drought. “We’ve done some great stuff (so far), but we haven’t accomplished nothing,” said Murray. “We just have to keep taking it one game at a time like we have been, and we’ll get the job done.”