The Denver Nuggets are one of the league’s most pleasant surprises this year. After missing out on a playoff berth with a loss on the final day of the regular season a year ago, the Nuggets have stormed to a 51-24 record, tying them atop the Western Conference with the defending champion Warriors. Along with the league’s third-best winning percentage, the Nuggets rank fifth in the NBA in pace-adjusted scoring margin, as well as Basketball-Reference’s Simple Rating System, which adjusts point differential to account for opponent quality. Denver will easily make the playoffs and is almost sure to have home-court advantage in the first round as well as the second.
The Nuggets have gotten to this place despite injuries to several rotation players. Starter Will Barton was injured in the second game of the season and did not come back until mid-January. Gary Harris missed 16 of 22 games during a stretch that lasted from late November to late January, then missed the final seven games leading into the All-Star break. Paul Millsap missed eight games in December and three more in February. Jamal Murray missed a six-game stretch as well. Backup forward Trey Lyles missed nine games and only returned recently. And Denver has managed to keep humming right along, and will soon likely capture one of the top two seeds in the conference.
Mostly, they are here because Nikola Jokic is amazing — a centrifugal offensive force unlike any we have ever seen. There have of course been other centers who serve as the fulcrum of their team’s offense, but Jokic does so in a way that is far different than any of his predecessors. He is the offensive engine not just as a scorer, but also as a facilitator, and he might already be the best passing big man in NBA history. Jokic ranks 14th in the NBA in points per game created via assists (17.5 per game), per Second Spectrum tracking data on NBA.com, and every player ahead of him on the list save for LeBron James is a point guard. The closest center to Jokic is Marc Gasol, who is more than six full points behind (11.2 per game).
With Jokic controlling so much of the action, though, it follows that the Nuggets’ guards do not dictate outcomes quite as much as other guards in the league. If only for that reason, it will be fascinating to see how they fare when the playoffs begin in a couple weeks’ time. Denver’s guards have fared extremely well this season and in almost every combination. They can all shoot, they’re all solid or better passers, and they all flit around the floor in Michael Malone’s movement-heavy offense and generate lanes through which Jokic can find them with the ball. But because of the way Denver plays offensively, their jobs look a lot different than those of typical guards, and the playoffs tend to magnify things like that. It’s especially the case in the Western Conference, where the guard units the playoff teams have are absolutely stacked with talent.
Murray and backup Monte Morris are going to have to deal with some combination of Russell Westbrook and Dennis Schroder, Derrick White and Patty Mills, Patrick Beverley and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Ricky Rubio, Damian Lillard, Chris Paul, and Stephen Curry. There are very, very few nights off among that group, and they all present wildly different challenges to two players who A. obviously have yet to appear in the playoffs and B. themselves bring very different strengths to the table. Murray’s job description will likely vary wildly based on which team the Nuggets draw in each round, but his defense is almost sure to have a greater spotlight shone on it than ever before. He’s far more advanced offensively than he is on that end, though, so how he’s able to hold up will a subject of great intrigue.
Gary Harris is more accomplished defensively than Murray, but he may find himself having to deal with Paul George, DeMar DeRozan, Gilgeous-Alexander and Landry Shamet, Donovan Mitchell, C.J. McCollum, James Harden, or Klay Thompson. None of those players is necessarily all that easy to stop, and several of them figure to prove challenging for Harris on the other end as well. None of this is to say that he’s not up to the task; on the contrary, Harris is a quality player who might be one of the most underrated contributors in the league. The same is true of Malik Beasley, who shined when thrust into the starting lineup in place of both Harris and Barton earlier this season. Again, it’s just that playoff matchups tend to shine a light on guys like this in ways that have never happened before, and this group of Nuggets has yet to experience that.
Being tested in this way, though, could prove beneficial for the Nuggets’ young guards in their respective careers — even if they prove unable to rise to the occasion this time around. Remember how bad Eric Bledsoe looked in last year’s playoffs? He came back this season a much more assertive and confident player and had the best season of his career as he completely locked himself in on both ends of the floor.
In the worst case scenario, the gauntlet of Western Conference guards provides a needed wake-up call for these Nuggets that they need to find a way to put their respective stamp on games in more varied ways so that they can both contribute to winning within the Jokic-heavy system and find ways to facilitate wins outside of it, when locked-in opponents force the Nuggets to, in boxing parlance, fight left-handed. In the best case scenario, the young guns are already up to snuff, and they prove it by making even more of an impact once the postseason starts than they have throughout Denver’s impressive campaign. Either way, we are going to learn a whole lot about these guys over the next month or so, and it should be a whole lot of fun to watch.