At this dreary stage of the NBA calendar, every team competes first against a sweeping sense of inertia. The season has officially settled; what was new and exciting in October has now become basketball’s routine, reinforced by some 55 games of trial and error. “This whole stretch from New Year’s to the All-Star break is kind of the dog days of the NBA season,” said Lakers coach Frank Vogel, after his team wobbled its way to a win over the last-place Warriors on Saturday. “You have to fight monotony on a daily basis.” Aiding that monotony this season is the clarity of the title race. The Bucks, Clippers, and Vogel’s Lakers are all championship contenders of the highest order, as they have been for months. The trade deadline came and went with no real change to their standing. Every other competitive team, then, is striving to join them—in the hope that playing their best basketball at the right time might overcome whatever limitations their rosters hold.
Naturally, the contending prospects of those teams vary. The East—where Milwaukee has nearly lapped the field in net rating—feels rather ironclad. There are degrees of difference in how far the Raptors, Heat, Celtics, or Sixers might be able to press the top-seeded Bucks, though all seem to fall within a similar margin for error. The race out West may be slightly more open to a potential spoiler. For as great as they are, the Clippers and Lakers are largely juggernauts of circumstance. Neither has been so dominant throughout this season as to be undeniable. Their top competition just hadn’t lived up to the race at hand, positioning the two L.A. teams (understanding that the Clippers are pacing their way through the season) as front-runners by default. It took almost four months, but another pair of challengers might finally be ready to make their bid.
Now angling for a seat at the adult table: the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz, two of the NBA’s best teams over the past 30 games. Even a place setting, however, shouldn’t be confused for equal opportunity. These are hungry teams fighting for scraps, scrounging together whatever they can in the hope of making good on slim chances. Projections from Basketball-Reference give both Denver and Utah around 7 percent odds to win the West and under 2 percent odds to win the whole thing. FiveThirtyEight’s forecasts are similar for the Nuggets, but even more pessimistic on the Jazz. All a long-shot contender can do is claim a few tenths of a percentage point here, another few tenths there, until a remote possibility becomes conceivable. Some very good teams can win it all only if everything breaks just right. The first step is understanding what those breaks would even look like—imagination as a championship litmus test.
(Where the Rockets fall in all this is anyone’s guess. No other Western Conference playoff team took such a radical approach to the trade deadline; swapping Clint Capela for Robert Covington is the sort of swing that needs time to level out.)
The picture of a deep run for Denver is fuzzy, but fathomable. We’ve really only seen the Nuggets in profile—never straight away, to evaluate in their entirety. Aside from Nikola Jokic, Monte Morris, and Jerami Grant, every other member of the Nuggets’ rotation has missed at least five games. Many have missed far more, often in alternating fashion. Paul Millsap, the most important defensive player on the league’s 10th-ranked defense, has already been out of the lineup for 20 games this season, and only returned to action this week. So we’ve seen a largely healthy version of the Nuggets when Jokic wasn’t really in shape; some version without Millsap, Jamal Murray, or Gary Harris; and a version without all three. A team built on continuity has used it as a lifeline rather than a catalyst.
While other top teams bide their time for the playoffs, Denver will need its final 28 games to establish a holistic identity. For a team fashioned around Jokic, the flow of the Nuggets offense has been strangely uneven. Too often the momentum of a possession will peter out before anything really develops—leaving Jokic, Murray, or Will Barton (a godsend this season) to freelance. It’s good practice for the playoffs, but far from an ideal baseline for a team that sometimes makes scoring harder than it should be. This is indicative of a larger theme with the Nuggets, who have done well this season with more difficult endeavors while overcomplicating what should be easy. Denver has been great in crunch time, reliable on the road, and up to the task of its more difficult games; the Nuggets are one of just three teams to beat the Bucks in Milwaukee this season, and they did so without Murray, Harris, Millsap, or Mason Plumlee. They also have managed to blow games against six of the NBA’s 12 worst teams by record. What you make of Denver’s chances likely comes down to how you make sense of that divide.
To play up to their best possible outcome, the Nuggets will have to convert better from beyond the arc than they often do. This is a team of decent shooters by percentage that hasn’t been able to deliver consistently. Murray runs hot and cold. Harris, who ranks third on the team in long-range attempts per game, has sunk to a Westbrookian 29.4 percent. (As noted by Kendra Andrews of The Athletic: The 3-pointer Harris hit Monday against the Spurs was his first make in more than two weeks.) Millsap and Grant can hit shots, but aren’t so quick on the release that they can reliably beat a closeout. Any deep run by Denver would have to involve a hot shooting stretch. A team can get so far with Jokic squishing opponents in the post and coming up big in crunch time, but Denver will need to make good on its ball movement to survive an opponent like the Lakers or Clippers. The lack of real defensive options at small forward means an otherwise solid half-court defense will bend to the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard. The only teams with a chance are those that can weather their runs and respond in kind.
The Nuggets seem close to operating at that level, though they may not have the personnel to balance the offense and defense they need simultaneously. There are scorers (like rookie standout Michael Porter Jr.) and defenders (like Torrey Craig) in the mix, but too few contributors who can play one side of the ball at a high level without sacrificing the other. To find the slight odds that would take the Nuggets to the conference finals and beyond, head coach Michael Malone will have to thread the needle of his rotation so precisely as to stitch its every strength together.
Utah’s path to cracking the Western Conference elite feels even more precarious. So much still depends on Donovan Mitchell; the additions of Bojan Bogdanovic, Mike Conley (who, if nothing else, is starting to move like his old self again since returning from a hamstring injury), and Jordan Clarkson give the Jazz more outlets for their offense, but it’s still Mitchell who will have to navigate complex defenses over the course of multiple playoff series. Mitchell has never looked better in that regard, and it still might not be enough. The Clippers could hound Mitchell with Pat Beverley, Paul George, or Leonard, escalating as their desperation required. The Lakers could chase Mitchell with Danny Green, Avery Bradley, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, while plugging every lane with length. Two of Utah’s lowest-scoring games of the season came against the Lakers—not because Mitchell himself couldn’t score, but due to the cumulative pressure on Utah’s offense.
These are odd times for the Jazz. If you evaluate the team at middle distance, they have the profile of a rising contender: a plus-6.8 net rating since January 1, trailing just behind the Lakers for the best in the conference. Yet before Monday’s win against the Mavs, their only wins over the past two weeks came on an aggressively mishandled goaltend against Portland and a double-contested buzzer-beater 3 against Houston. We know that the Jazz can stabilize within games. Between them, they seem to be unable to do so—as was the case in their recent five-game losing streak against playoff-caliber competition, or in dropping six of eight against a run of winning teams earlier this season. To escape multiple playoff rounds, the Jazz will have to find ways to break their own negative momentum.
The team’s growing comfort with Conley may be its best option. Utah has worked Conley back into the starting lineup and shown caution in managing his minutes for just this reason; there’s almost no sustainable way forward without his significant involvement. Utah’s starters have fared excellently both with Conley and without, a credit to both Joe Ingles (whose facilitation is key under any context) and Royce O’Neale (who assumed Conley’s starting spot and slid to the wing). O’Neale, however, is almost an echo of Denver’s wing imbalance—a better shooter than someone like Craig, but limited enough that a high-level defense can manage him in rotation. Utah needs as many minutes as it can get with its five most capable players on the floor. The trick is whether a matchup with the Lakers or Clippers—whose size on the wing is so imposing—will really allow it. What horrors would come with throwing Bogdanovic and Ingles in the way of LeBron and Anthony Davis.
Management of that inevitability again comes down to coaching. Utah has a formidable base defense thanks to Rudy Gobert, but its playoff viability will likely come down to Quin Snyder’s sense of tactical adventure. This is a coach who opened a playoff series by effectively guarding James Harden from behind. Over the weekend, he matched up Gobert against Russell Westbrook. Traditionalism is the death knell of the underdog. If you give LeBron and Kawhi something they’ve seen before, they’ll break a series in the same ways they always have. The defining question, however, is whether this Jazz team has the capacity to consistently surprise.