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Reintroducing the Contenders: Denver Nuggets

Can an unconventional team capitalize on an unconventional playoffs? We’re looking back and ahead for the Nuggets going into the NBA’s restart.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Four months is a long time. So we’re getting reacquainted with the title race by looking at the nine NBA teams with at least a 1 percent chance of winning the title according to our in-house playoff odds (a.k.a. Zach Kram), plus the 76ers, who defy all math and logic, leading up to reopening night on July 30.

The Basics

Team: Denver Nuggets
Record: 43-22 (third in Western Conference)
Numbers: 112.0 ORtg (ninth in NBA), 108.9 DRtg (12th), 3.1 net rating (ninth)
Seeding opponents (in order of schedule): Heat, Thunder, Spurs, Trail Blazers, Jazz, Lakers, Clippers, Raptors

Last Time, on the Nuggets …

After cashing in some of its retirement money to buy a boat and dyeing its gray-speckled hair jet black, Denver leaned back in its new red-leather chair and began to cry. It was, without a doubt, going through a midseason crisis. The week the season stopped, the Nuggets lost to the worst teams in the league, the Cavaliers and the Warriors, within six days of each other; before that, they’d been blown out by the Clippers, a probable playoff opponent. Poor deep shooting was the through line. Denver’s 3-point attack had been capricious all season—with more bad days than good, Denver was averaging the sixth-fewest made 3s in the league—and the team was blitzed without resistance when facing another team that excelled on the perimeter. The panic was relative, but felt like a sign that something needed to change before the postseason.

How They’ve Spent Their Quarantine

Nikola Jokic’s quarantine updates went from fun to scary. First, pictures of an astonishingly healthy Jokic in Serbia hit the internet:

He’d lost 40 pounds in less than four months. (We call this transformation the Kevin Love.) Part of what makes Jokic so fascinating is his ability to twirl around defenders with his stocky frame; he’s a former 253-pound ballet dancer with an eye for passing lanes and a flare for the dramatic. The jokes and faux concern followed the weight loss pictures. Was he too skinny now? Would he lose his edge? Did he even stop to think about us, who would no longer get to tease him about his weight?

Then, on June 23, it was revealed that Jokic had tested positive for the coronavirus. Suddenly his health and weight became legitimate cause for concern. Jokic has since recovered and joined the Nuggets in Orlando, where a slimmer Jokic is the new normal.

Michael Porter Jr., Gary Harris, and Torrey Craig were late getting to the bubble, but are with the team now, and Jamal Murray and Will Barton did not play in the first scrimmage for precautionary reasons.

Seeding-Games Goal: Win Playoff Trial Runs

Denver entered the bubble in ideal playoff position: third in the standings, with a 1.5-game lead on Utah with only eight games to go. But the Nuggets are now in danger of plummeting during that short time. Their remaining schedule is the most difficult of all 22 teams. (Read Zach Kram on how each schedule affects the playoff race.) The Jazz’s remaining schedule also happens to be the easiest. All but two of the teams the Nuggets will face are Western Conference opponents, presenting Denver a playoff trial run before the dance begins—with games against Miami, OKC, San Antonio, Portland, Utah, LAL, LAC, and Toronto. Optimists will point out that Denver is only 1.5 games behind the no. 2-seeded Clippers, who are currently missing Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell, Ivica Zubac, and Landry Shamet. Even if the Nuggets can surpass them, though, the nos. 4-7 seeds are so closely bunched that they’re bound to fluctuate. The Western Conference is on less-than-solid ground with eight games remaining until the playoffs; at least something feels normal.

Biggest on-court bubble question: Can Mike Malone find consistent 3-point shooting?

Or is that even what he’s searching for? When Denver scrimmaged Washington on Wednesday, Malone started this gloriously large group:

It showed a large-and-in-charge curiosity within Malone that will be hard to quell if the regular lineup begins bricking 3s again. He’s shown resistance to giving certain players a green light from deep; Paul Millsap (44 percent), Jerami Grant (40 percent), and Michael Porter Jr. (42.2 percent) are all shooting Curry family lines, but taking very few 3s. (Porter being on the court at all is another issue.) Where Malone will turn when games get difficult and the shots stop falling is the biggest question for the Nuggets.

Player in the Spotlight: Michael Porter Jr.

Appropriate for their name, the Nuggets have a number of talented but untapped players waiting to be mined. Porter may not ultimately matter much over the next couple of months—not because the rookie can’t help the team, but because Malone doesn’t give him much run. Despite fans’ pleas, Porter is averaging just 14 minutes this season. Being a shooter at 6-foot-10 is the platonic ideal in today’s NBA, but Malone’s antipathy for playing rookies has prevented Porter from entering the regular rotation.

Porter arrived in the bubble Wednesday (the reason for his delay was undisclosed). Missing the first scrimmage doesn’t help, but if he’s eligible for the second and third exhibitions (against the Pelicans on July 25 and the Magic on July 27), Porter can at least remind Malone what he’s missing.

On a scale from Wizards to 10, where 10 is the best shot at a title, what are the Nuggets’ odds of winning the 2020 title?

For me, it’s a 4. (Vegas has them at 22-1). Denver is weird, led by a newly fit top-10 player, with a long and winding bench full of surprises, like Bol Bol. If any team can capitalize on an unconventional season, it’s the one used to playing a mile above sea level.