The Denver Nuggets sit atop of the Western Conference with a record of 34-16, a franchise best start to a season. As we near the All-Star break, it’s time to take a look at how this multifaceted team has achieved top dog status in the West.
The Joker Somehow Got Better
Nikola Jokic was the clear cut favorite to win his third MVP prior to Joel Embiid’s monstrous performance against the Nuggets, a feat that hasn’t been replicated since Larry Bird in 1986. The narrative may now have shifted in Embiid’s favor for the time being but should take nothing away from the wondrous season that the Serbian big man is enjoying.
The Jokers scoring and rebounding numbers are slightly down, as expected, due to the return of Denver’s two other star players: Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. Jokic is allowed to effortlessly distribute the ball having a fully healthy roster, averaging 9.9 assists as a result and seeking to become the first center to ever average a triple double throughout an entire season.
Yoke has additionally managed to outperform his past efficiency numbers from the field, hitting an absurd 62.9% on 15.1 attempts per game. Jokic, unsurprisingly, also leads the NBA in offensive rating. The Serbian native is having an unprecedented season on one of the best teams in the NBA with or without a MVP.
Defense Is Key
Denver’s defensive rating stood at a measly 114.5 through December 8th, good for 26th in the NBA. Michael Malone’s team boasts a 112.3 defensive rating since then ranking fifth among all teams during that stretch. It’s safe to say that this remarkable turnaround has been the key for the Nuggets emergence as the top team in the Western Conference.
The Nuggets defensive system appears to finally be clicking on most fronts after being hailed as a potential defensive juggernaut due to the offseason acquisitions of Bruce Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Aaron Gordon continues to stake a claim for a spot in the All-Star Game, with much of it due to his defensive workload every night. Murray’s game has improved game after game upon his return from an ACL injury suffered in April of 2021, and his stout body frame allows him to guard bigger perimeter players.
Brown hasn’t had the defensive impact that was expected of him, but his offensive outbursts have outshined his shortcomings on the other side of the floor. Caldwell-Pope has been nothing short of spectacular on the defensive end, continuing to matchup against the opposing team’s biggest perimeter threat.
Porter Jr. has been integral in their defensive turnaround even among all of those defensively gifted individuals. MPJ’s time away from the floor seems to have helped his defensive game despite being much maligned for infamous defensive lapses. Porter Jr. is far harder to single out and “hunt” in one-on-one matchups, as teams had elected to target him in previous years but he is still far from an elite defender.
If the Nuggets can continue to have a top ten defense in the NBA, it’s hard to envision anyone in the West overcoming such an offensively explosive and well-rounded team in the playoffs.
The Stars Are Back
The current season has been highly anticipated by Nuggets fans for a long time, almost immediately after the 21-22 season began. The injuries to Murray and Porter Jr. always meant that the Nuggets championship timeline had been postponed by a year, and became a matter of not if, but when.
Murray is averaging 19.1 points per game, which would be the second highest total of his career. Murray’s playmaking has taken the biggest leap despite being renowned as a scorer, averaging a career high 5.7 assists per game. The Canadian native was able to record his first ever triple double in a win against the Indiana Pacers on January 20th with Jokic sitting out. Murray looks ever more comfortable leaving the ground and attacking the rim game by game, a key facet of his game prior to his season-ending injury last year.
Porter Jr.’s return to the lineup had been destabilized by a nagging heel injury that kept him out for a month, but his athleticism is beginning to flourish once again. The Missouri products shooting numbers are down this year, but that’s to be expected given the stop-start nature of his season. Defensive improvements have garnered much of the talk around MPJ, and if he can continue to stay healthy, his offensive output will continue to elevate.
Bones Hyland appears to be on the trade block even being a fan favorite via Shams Charania. Hyland’s talent and potential for stardom is unquestioned, but his glaring defensive deficiencies have not gone unnoticed.
Brown has emerged as a capable backup point guard and veteran Ish Smith available to run the second unit when called upon, Hyland appears to have turned into a luxury item for a championship-caliber roster hell bent on improving their defense. The Nuggets are reportedly asking for a defensive guard/wing and/or a first round draft pick. A move to secure defense for a budding star in Hyland would fortify general manager Calvin Booth and the Nuggets’ strong intentions for a championship this season.
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