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If you haven’t been watching much Denver basketball this season—and who can blame you, given the games are still blacked-out for most local cable customers—you’ve probably heard at least some of the buzz around the team. After all, the Nuggets are anchored by reigning MVP (and back-to-back winner) Nikola Jokić, they just clinched the top spot in the Western Conference for the first time in franchise history, and with a healthy squad they have sky-high expectations as they begin their playoff campaign on April 16.
If you’re feeling a little late to the party as the Nuggets gear up for the first round of the NBA playoffs, there’s nothing wrong with that. You still have time to buy that number 15 jersey (that’s Jokić, by the way), pretend you’ve been watching all along, and climb aboard the bandwagon.
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But let’s get a few things straight: This current squad has been a long time coming, and the franchise itself has a storied history. So, if you’re going to don the colors (as in midnight blue, sunshine yellow, and Flatirons red) now, you should understand a few basic facts about the team.
Nuggets center Nikola Jokić (pronounced “yo-kich”) is massive, awkward, and goofy. He’s also the best passing center in basketball and arguably the league’s best player, a triple-double machine whose clumsy appearance belies his utterly dominant game. Jokić has won back-to-back Most Valuable Player accolades and could nab a third this season, which would put him in the same conversation as threepeaters Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Larry Bird. Ever heard of those guys?
Few things represent the dichotomy between what Jokić looks like and his overall effectiveness better than what has become his signature move: the Sombor Shuffle. The maneuver, which gets its name from Jokić’s hometown in Serbia, involves him setting his 6’11” frame and “jumping” off his right leg—about high enough to slip a credit card underneath—before releasing a high, arcing shot that often finds the bottom of the net. Like everything Jokić does, the move is either the most or least athletic thing in the world, but, boy, does it work.
The last time point guard Jamal Murray suited up in the playoffs, it was in the NBA’s “pandemic bubble,” where the Nuggets lost to the eventual-champion Los Angeles Lakers in the 2020 Western Conference Finals. Though the Nuggets fell short, Murray had a coming-out party in the first two rounds of those playoffs (he logged four 40-point scoring games, including two 50-point efforts). But in April 2021, he tore the ACL in his left knee, missed the playoffs, and was sidelined all of last season. He returned this year in good form, averaging 20 points, four rebounds, and six assists per game. If the Nuggets are going to make a deep run this year, they’ll need Murray to channel his 2020 muse.
Though Nuggets head coach Michael Malone perpetually looks like he just slugged 14 cups of coffee, he is actually pretty damn cool. So cool, in fact, that he dropped one of the greatest one-liners in modern league history in November 2018 after a Nuggets home win over the Lakers, which featured an alarming number of fans wearing the wrong colors. His message to all those Laker fans? “Take that L on the way out.”
Malone has had an opportunity to send that message to nearly every opposing fanbase over the past several years, as the Nuggets have become one of the best home teams in the league. This season, the Nuggets finished the regular season campaign with a 34–7 record at Ball Arena (they were 53–29 overall), second-best overall behind the Memphis Grizzlies.
This marks the Nuggets’ fifth-straight playoff appearance, but since the deep run they made in 2020, the team hasn’t made it past the second round. Nuggets loyalists know the talking points—namely that superstar Nikola Jokić hasn’t had a healthy supporting cast in the postseason. Last year, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. were both injured as the Golden State Warriors handily dispatched Denver in the first round.
This season, though, Jokić has help. Murray (20 points per game) and Porter Jr. (17.4) are both healthy. The bench is deeper than it’s been in the past with Bruce Brown, Reggie Jackson, and newly acquired Thomas Bryant sparing the regulars. And, importantly, the Nuggets have led the Western Conference nearly all season. While Denver will face stiff competition, it won’t have many excuses left if it can’t make it to its first NBA Finals.
As for Jokić: This is his opportunity to show the league he’s more than a regular-season stud.
There’s been some roster shakeup.
A few veterans and fan favorites departed in the past 12 months. Will Barton, the charismatic shooting guard who was the longest tenured Nugget, was traded to the Wizards last offseason along with plucky backup point guard Monte Morris, who filled in for Jamal Murray. In return, Denver landed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, an excellent defender and three-point shooting threat. In addition, the Nuggets signed forward Bruce Brown, who started 31 games this season and provided reliable minutes off the bench. But with new talent coming in, Denver’s wiry 2021 first-round draft pick Bones Hyland saw his minutes decrease, grew disgruntled, and was flipped to the Clippers at the trade deadline for draft picks.
While the Nuggets have never won an NBA championship (nor played in the NBA Finals, for that matter), they do have a storied history. Denver was a regular in the playoffs during the 1980s (the Alex English years), qualifying nine straight seasons, a feat they bested between 2004 and 2013 (the Carmelo Anthony years) when they made 10 consecutive playoff appearances.
The Nuggets have made four Western Conference Finals (losing three times to the Lakers) and have helped produce 11 NBA Hall of Famers, including Allen Iverson, Dikembe Mutombo, and, of course, the small forward English, who you’ll want to look up before heading to any Nuggets watch party.
We have the blackout blues.
Altitude Sports, the regional sports network that broadcasts Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche games, has been in a protracted legal standoff with Comcast since 2019. Essentially, Altitude and Comcast can’t agree on a deal that would let the cable giant carry local games, meaning only DirectTV and FuboTV customers have been able to watch a once-in-a-generation, two-time MVP winner lead the NBA’s best team on a nightly basis—which is a shame, considering more than 90 percent of cable customers in Colorado have Comcast.
The two sides reached a settlement recently, but it doesn’t include broadcasting rights for Nuggets (or Avalanche) games. This is good news, however, if you just now realized the Nuggets are competitive: You can claim you would have been watching all year long, if not for that damn Comcast thing. (And the NBA Playoffs are televised nationally, anyway.)
The road ahead.
Being a number-one seed doesn’t guarantee anything—particularly with the way the Western Conference playoff bracket unfolded. Denver will play the eighth-seed in the first round—either the Minnesota Timberwolves or Oklahoma City Thunder, which will be determined Friday night—and it will be heavily favored.
Then things get scary: In the second round, the Nuggets will clash with either the Phoenix Suns, who recently added future Hall of Famer Kevin Durant to an already-solid roster, or the Los Angeles Clippers, led by standouts Kawhi Leonard and Russell Westbrook. If they slip into the Western Conference Finals, the Nuggets will be greeted by either the Golden State Warriors, Sacramento Kings, Memphis Grizzlies, or perhaps another matchup with Lebron James and the Lakers.