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Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray in the second half of a win against the Lakers on Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018. David Zalubowski / AP Photo

Did the Denver Nuggets Desperately Need This Break?

The Nuggets were struggling mightily before the NBA season was postponed nearly five months ago. Here's why they may now be better off than other teams.

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The gravity of the novel coronavirus and its life-altering consequences only became apparent to many Americans on March 11—while watching a Denver Nuggets game.

The evening started with ESPN broadcasting a much-anticipated clash between the Nuggets and the Dallas Mavericks. Then, during the second quarter, news broke that the night’s contest between the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder had been postponed after Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for novel coronavirus. On the telecast, announcers Doris Burke, Ryan Ruocco, and Tom Rinaldi focused on what the bombshell announcement meant for both the NBA and society at large. Which means the broadcasters didn’t have much time to point out how listless the Nuggets had looked in recent weeks, including during the end of their 113-97 defeat to the Mavericks.

Basketball games are tiny, microscopic potatoes compared to a global pandemic, but the decision to cancel the NBA season came at a good time for the slumping Nuggets. The team had notched a 5-5 record since the All-Star break—a stretch that included losses to two of the worst teams in the league, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors. Starting shooting guard Gary Harris looked like he had lost all confidence. Will Barton, arguably the team’s most reliable player through the first five months, had become erratic. Even more alarming: During those 10 games, the team posted the 11th best defense in the league, down from fifth over the first half of the season. Head coach Michael Malone bemoaned a lack of effort, and each half-hearted performance seemed to add another wrinkle to his furrowed brow.

During an 82-game season, it’s inevitable that every team will suffer a poor run. And had the novel coronavirus not interrupted their campaign, the Nuggets might very well have recaptured the intensity that had propelled them to second in the Western Conference standings. But Denver currently sits in a precarious position. Yes, the team is third in the West (43-22), but the conference is exceedingly top-heavy: The Nuggets are only two-and-a-half games ahead of the sixth place Houston Rockets and four games in front of seventh-place Dallas. Another two weeks of poor play might have seen the Nuggets slip to the bottom half of the seedings and consequently suffer a likely (and franchise-standard) first-round exit.

In short, the team’s questionable form combined with the prospect of facing a gauntlet of League Legends, from LeBron James to Kawhi Leonard, in the playoffs made the Nuggets championship aspirations—something many pundits thought the team capable of before the season—seem as likely as Nikola Jokic showing up with a post-quarantine six-pack.

But that was in early March, before Jokic actually surprised everyone by getting skinny (still unclear if he has a six pack), and the NBA decided to host the end of the season at a neutral site in Orlando, giving the Nuggets a fresh start after four months of rest.

Going straight from quarantine into a shortened season with limited off days could likely favor teams that are younger and have more continuity; the Nuggets certainly have an advantage in both of those areas compared to, say, the Lakers or the Clippers.

Moreover, the unusual circumstances would increase the odds of anomalous results—and in Jamal Murray and Will Barton, the Nuggets employ a pair of streaky shooters who could help take the franchise on a Cinderella run.

That means, this pandemic-tinged NBA restart could end with this guy lifting the Larry O’Brien Trophy as blue and yellow confetti falls on an empty stadium.

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