The Sixth Man: Denver Nuggets reality check

Los Angeles Clippers v Denver Nuggets
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Have the Nuggets shown their true colors this season?

With nine games remaining, the Denver Nuggets have some of the toughest tests remaining as they battle for playoff seeding. Tonight they face off against the league’s best team in the Phoenix Suns, and on April 1st they match up with a Timberwolves squad who is on their heels for the 6th seed. As it stands right now, the Nuggets remain in that 6th spot, 1.5 games ahead of the Timberwolves and 2.5 games behind the Mavericks and Jazz for the 4th seed.

So as the Nuggets start to make their run towards the playoffs, many are pondering what expectations they should have for this team. At this point, you have to lean towards the idea that Murray and MPJ will not play this season. Michael Malone and the front office have been adamant they will wait until both are completely confident in the completion of their rehab process to return to the floor. They do not want to rush them back onto the hardwood because this is a tricky spot in the season to do so.

We have seen numerous times where a team tries to rush a player back before they are fully ready and it has backfired. For example, Kevin Durant strained his right calf in the 2019 Western Conference Finals, and that held him out for the remainder of that series. Since the Warriors made The Finals that year, they wanted and needed Durant back on the floor for that series. So they rushed him back before his body was fully ready to compete in a playoff atmosphere, and he tore his right Achilles tendon in Game 5.

Golden State Warriors v Toronto Raptors - Game Five
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Murray and MPJ are too important to the fabric of Denver’s future to risk their health for one playoff run. In their heart of hearts, if they truly thought they could win a championship this year, you could possibly make a case for one of them to return, but the field is too stacked this season. Even if they were to both return, it would be naive to think they can fulfill 100% of their previous abilities in such a short amount of time, thus the Nuggets would still be far from a championship favorite.

If Murray and Porter Jr. were to come back for the playoffs, that would put them in a very precarious spot. The playoffs are a different animal along with a heightened effort level on every possession. Murray has missed very close to a full year of competitive basketball, and to throw him out on the court with so few games left in the season could be a major mistake. For both Murray and MPJ to return to full basketball shape is truly a timeline I don’t think anybody knows, so we must expect them to sit out the remainder of the season. If they do come back, that will be fantastic news but if they don’t, it won’t be surprising.

With that being said, what can we expect from this Nuggets team come playoff time? Well, in order to predict the future we can analyze past performances, and for Denver, it has not been a pretty story in the Western Conference this season. For them to be 43-30 at this juncture is almost a miracle, but in reality, it is just another amazing feat for Nikola Jokic and this Denver squad. They continue to show they do not succumb to external influences. Be that as it may, it is time for a reality check.

LA Clippers v Denver Nuggets
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The Nuggets are 26-19 against the West this season and 5-9 in their division. There are nine other teams in the West with a better division winning percentage, including the Sacramento Kings. This is important because the Nuggets are 0-4 against Utah and 1-2 against Minnesota, which means the remaining four wins have been against the worst teams in the division. Denver beating up on bad teams has been a pattern this year, which is a good thing, but when they can’t match it against the best teams, it raises doubts.

The Nuggets have the 2nd best record in the league against sub .500 teams. They are 29-7, which is what good teams do right? They take care of the teams they should beat, but you have to beat the best to be the best which they have not done consistently. They are 13-23 against teams above .500 this season, which ranks as the worst record among all playoff teams in both conferences. Yikes.

Maybe this is expected of a team without their second and third best players, but again this is a Nuggets team that does not like to surrender to excuses. So, as far as they have shown this season, this is who they currently are. They are a team that will execute against inferior opponents, but once successful teams arrive, they do not have the firepower to consistently prevail against them.

Los Angeles Clippers v Denver Nuggets
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That last notion is completely understandable by the way. If any other team had their two stars out for the whole season, they would be lucky to share the success Denver has found on the court. But again, this is a reality check. The Nuggets are nine games away from the playoffs, and some fans will expect Jokic to put up some alien-like performances where he leads the Nuggets to the Conference Finals. It very well could happen because he is that good, but from a practical viewpoint, I think the Nuggets have what it takes to win one series but not the next.

If Denver does lose in the second round or even the first, this season will not go down as a failure in my book. Instead, it will go down as a story of triumph. Without their two stars, the Nuggets are currently 13 games above .500, which if you told me these circumstances, I would not have believed that. They also have the 10th best record in the entire league, over teams like the Bulls, Nets, and Lakers. The point being, if someone were to tell you the Nuggets would have a better record and playoff seeding than the Lakers and Nets, you probably would not believe them. At least I wouldn’t because I predicted both of those teams to be in The Finals this year.

That is the beauty of sports. It is not the unexpected that makes it so great, rather the unfathomable. We have no idea what is to come ahead, which could work in Denver’s favor this year. Even though the theme of this article is to temper expectations, nothing can destroy hope when you have Nikola Jokic suiting up every gameday. Instead of passionately awaiting that mysterious championship this year, let’s expect little this out of this current Nuggets squad because what proceeds could either blow our minds or play right into our presumptions.

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