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Just shy of the season’s halfway mark, it’s still too soon to tell how good the 2018-2019 Nuggets team is. They’re on pace to win 57 games, which they’ve only done once before since joining the NBA. They’re sitting atop the Western Conference, marking the latest in the season the team has been in first place since the ’70s. They also have a legitimate MVP candidate on their roster and a bench deeper than the Mariana Trench.
At 29-13, the Nuggets are better record-wise than the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Boston Celtics, and Los Angeles Lakers, to name a few. They’re easily one of the best teams—if not the best—in professional basketball. Having witnessed the Nuggets miss the playoffs by a single game last year (and the year before), we know better than to celebrate too soon. Their grasp on first place could slip at any moment, but as we approach the halfway mark of the NBA season, here’s a look at some of the key factors that have made this the best midseason Nuggets team ever.
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Most Valuable Nugget
Forward Nikola Jokic (who, despite his occasional dad moves, is only 23 years old) has been setting the league ablaze this season with his scoring ability and passing wizardry. Jokic is averaging a double-double—19 points and 10 rebounds per game—and is one of the most efficient players in the league (per ESPN’s metric), slated among noted names such as Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant.
— Vic Lombardiᴰʳ (@VicLombardi) December 11, 2018
In one stretch from December 8 through December 16, Jokic led the team in points, rebounds, and assists four games in a row. It isn’t surprising Denver won three out of those four games, including victories over the vaunted Oklahoma City Thunder and Toronto Raptors. Not bad for Jokic, a guy legendary Spurs coach Gregg Popovich called “a tad pudgy.”
Third-year guard Jamal Murray has also dazzled with his athleticism, on full display in late December during a 46-point performance when he hit nine 3-pointers. A few days later, he threw down a one-handed slam over the Knicks that should play on loop next to Merriam-Webster’s online definition of “savage.” He and Jokic have combined to provide an estimated 11-plus wins for the Nuggets this season, according to ESPN.
Defensively, the Nuggets have proven to be one of the better teams in the Western Conference, thanks in large part to do-it-all veteran Paul Millsap and key defensive minutes from role player Mason Plumlee. The latter, who came to Denver from Portland two seasons ago, makes his 20 minutes per game count by providing some key defensive support for the more offensive-minded (and athletically limited) Jokic.
Reasons for Optimism
One of the most impressive aspects of this season is that the Nuggets are doing all this winning without their best recent draft pick and perhaps the most celebrated player on their roster. Isaiah Thomas, who was already supposed to return from a hip injury last month, has a season of 28.9 points per game under his belt (from only two seasons ago). And as much trouble as the hip injury has given him—it sidelined him for almost half of last season and at least the first half of this season—he’s only 29. A full recovery to his All-Star form is within the realm of possibility.
Michael Porter Jr., the Nugs’ selection at 14th in last year’s draft, isn’t quite ready to return either (per CBS), but he’s already putting up an impressive showing from the 3-point line in practice. Many analysts agree that despite the mystery surrounding Porter and his health, his potential upside is huge.
MPJ raining 3-pointers at this morning’s shootaround. pic.twitter.com/huC0JqUQ4I
— Mike Singer (@msinger) December 5, 2018
Reason for Concern
A potential problem? The Nuggets have been a bit streaky. At no time was that more evident than late October through mid-November, when they rattled off five straight wins followed by four straight losses. This quality could be a concern in the playoffs, as a sudden cold streak could lead to an early exit at the hands of a lesser opponent.
For now, though, a season that has included a victory over the Warriors and a 32-point drubbing of the Lakers tastes just fine. Just ask head coach Mike Malone, who put it best back in November when the Lebron James and company came to town: Opponents coming to the Mile High City these days better be prepared to “take that L on the way out.”
This will live on for all of eternity and I refuse to apologize for the amount of times I’m going to use it every day pic.twitter.com/GnM60dojqh
— Katy Winge (@katywinge) November 28, 2018