Are the first-place Denver Nuggets legit? Only time will tell

Image Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

More than a quarter into the 2018-19 NBA season, we’re beginning to get an extended look at how every team’s campaign will go. With that said, there’s still plenty of time for struggling squads to turn things around and, on the other side of things, those flying high aren’t necessarily guaranteed to continue doing so.

With mainstays such as the Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors sitting near or at the top of their respective conferences, the Denver Nuggets have soared up the West standings. In a first-place tie with the aforementioned California team, the 18-9 Nuggets have posted the fifth-best point differential in the entire league. The team has improved every year under head coach Mike Malone, and this season looks to be no different.

After back-to-back sub-.500 seasons to begin his tenure, Malone would have led Denver to its first playoff berth since 2013 if it weren’t for a game-82 overtime loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Winning 46 games was certainly a positive heading into the offseason, as it was the Nugs’ best total since that same 2012-13 season.

Sending players such as Wilson Chandler and Kenneth Faried away via trade in exchange for draft capital and cap relief, Denver stayed busy sorting out its in-house talent. Signing young centerpieces Nikola Jokic and Will Barton to multi-year contract extensions, the Nuggets front office made it clear that keeping the team’s core intact was a top priority. The moves didn’t stop there, though.

Signing former All-NBA point guard Isaiah Thomas to a one-year, veteran minimum contract, general manager Artūras Karnišovas took a flier out on a player with an extensive injury history. It’s a low-risk transaction that could pay dividends for the Denver backcourt once the calendar turns.

Taking former Missouri Tiger Michael Porter Jr. with the 14th selection in this year’s draft, Karnišovas once again showed he’s not afraid to be patient with injured players. Ranked the second-best recruit in his class heading into college, Porter possesses one of the more complete offensive repertoires in recent memory. Much like the Thomas signing, Denver has the opportunity to look like a genius franchise if Porter can return from his injury and look like the same player he was before a couple back surgeries.

Signing veteran wing Nick Young to a one-year deal on Monday brings not only a player with sharpshooting abilities into the fold but one coming off a championship. This acquisition may fly under the radar but is definitely a beneficial one for the Nuggets.

So… what does all of this mean? The Denver Nuggets had a busy offseason and are waiting for a bunch of players to return from injury. That doesn’t bode well for a team fighting for a top-four seed in an uber-competitive Western Conference, does it? No, not really. Is it impossible for Denver to work around the injury bug? Yes. Is this shocking start sustainable? Should we consider Denver a member of the conference’s elite? Let’s talk about it.

The case for:

Everyone knew the Nuggets would be a phenomenal offensive team this year. After finishing 6th in the league in offensive rating a year ago, the Jokic-led bunch is 8th in the same category this season. This is with the team’s two leading scorers (Jamal Murray & Jokic) seeing their percentages from the field and from the deep drop. Gary Harris has missed six games and Will Barton has appeared in just two contests all season. What has shocked many (including myself) the most this year is: defense.

One of the main reasons Denver failed to make the playoffs last season was its ineptitude on the defensive end. Finishing 23rd out of 30 teams in defensive rating, even an average rating on D would have propelled the team into late-April play. Although the sample size is still somewhat small, generally the same team is currently 5th in the league in that category. 7th in both steals and fast break points allowed, an increased level of effort and focus have gone a long way to improve this squad’s defensive acumen.

Isaiah Thomas, Michael Porter Jr., and Nick Young all have yet to play a single game. Once everyone gets healthy and builds a bit of chemistry, the rich will only get richer.

The case against:

After starting the year 9-1, Denver has proceeded to go win the same amount of games over its next 17 (9-8). Winning 8 of its last 10 games, this tendency to go on streaks isn’t doing Malone’s group many favors in terms of momentum.

Injuries to a plethora of players could be what propels the Nuggets to the next level, but they could also be their downfall. Porter has had his back operated on twice and is only 20 years old. Thomas played in just 32 games last season and was far from the player we saw the year(s) before. Paul Millsap is going to miss extended time after recently breaking his toe. Although Gary Harris and Will Barton are expected to return in the near future, their injuries (hip and groin, respectively) can linger.

This is still such a young team. With an average roster age just under 25 years old, the Nuggets are the single-youngest team in the entire league. Without a single 20-point-per-game scorer this year, there are a lot of moving pieces attempting to fit into the same puzzle on the fly. When combined with a lack of playoff experience (or none at all), it’s not difficult to see Denver slipping up a bit later this season.

The verdict:

Both cases (for and against) are compelling. While the Denver Nuggets are playing with fire in regards to injuries, youth and an alarming improvement on defense, they’re also potentially going to put a career 19 PPG scorer, a championship-winning wing and an extremely promising young forward on the court at some point this year. That’s not to mention the trio of Barton/Harris/Millsap is expected to return at various points throughout the rest of the season.

The same core won 46 games and was a few minutes away from making the playoffs last year. A year of growth from emerging stars Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, along with continued maturity under coach Mike Malone would call for a better 2018-19 version of the Denver Nuggets. A version with Isaiah Thomas, Nick Young and (possibly) Michael Porter Jr. added into the fold makes this bunch even more dangerous.

If you don’t consider the Denver Nuggets a top-three team in the West, that’s okay. Golden State is Golden State, Oklahoma City has exceeded expectations and there are still tons of games left to be played. Relying on so many players to return from injury without missing a step is risky business. Inexperience is scary to deal with.

On the other side of that rainbow, though, the Nuggets could only be scratching the surface of their potential. Jokic and Murray haven’t been on their A-game, multiple players have gone down due to injury and more are still waiting to make their debuts, yet here Denver sits atop the conference with 18 wins in 27 contests.

Winning two-thirds of your games in the NBA will get you around 54 total on the season. That would have comfortably secured Denver the 3-seed in the West last year. Under Malone, the Nuggets have increased their win totals by 3, 6 and 7 over the previous season. After an interesting, future-shaping offseason, Denver has made one thing perfectly clear: its window is opening, and it won’t close anytime soon.

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