First half summary: Coming off a trip to the Western Conference finals, the Denver Nuggets haven’t quite lived up to expectations, sitting in sixth place in the Western Conference at the All-Star break with a 21-15 record. But the Nuggets have been one of the league’s most improved teams statistically, 3.2 points per 100 possessions better than they were last season. With a fast-break blunder against the Washington Wizards being the lowlight, the Nuggets are just 7-9 in games that were within five points in the last five minutes, with five of those losses coming to the Wizards and Sacramento Kings.
Nikola Jokic has been a Kia MVP candidate, averaging 27.1 ppg, 11.0 rpg and 8.6 apg. With the second highest true shooting percentage among high-usage players, he’s led the Nuggets to a top-seven spot in offensive efficiency for a fifth straight season. As always, questions start with a defense that ranks 14th at the break, having allowed opponents to shoot a league-high 70% in the restricted area. The Nuggets are 15-0 (with wins over the Sixers, Warriors, Suns, Lakers and Bucks) when they’ve allowed fewer points per 100 possessions than the league average (111.4). If they get stops, they get wins.
Biggest question going into the second half: Is Michael Porter Jr. ready? A year ago, Porter was still getting DNPs, struggling to retain the trust of Nuggets coach Michael Malone. He earned a permanent spot in the rotation with his play in the bubble and has been a solid scorer (14.6 ppg on an effective field goal percentage of 61.1%) this season. If the Nuggets were to go big-game hunting in the trade market, Porter would certainly be at the center of a deal. But he also has the potential to be another star in Denver and an ideal complement to Jokic and Jamal Murray. It’s a question of consistency and improvement on defense, where Porter will continue to be targeted by Denver opponents. Porter, Murray and Jokic are just 22, 24 and 26 years old, respectively and the Nuggets shouldn’t necessarily be in a rush. But given how special a season Jokic is having, there’s no time like the present for Porter to take that next step.
Playoffs or lottery?: The Nuggets are a playoff team, but they have some work to do to finish in the top six in the West and avoid the play-in scenario. Their ceiling is high and they can get back to the conference finals (or even further should the Lakers stumble) if they put it all together. But their floor is low (see those five losses to Sacramento and Washington), there are a lot of great teams in the West, and they probably can’t count on Murray repeating last year’s playoff performance.
Murray has begun to look more like that player over the last few weeks, helping the Nuggets finish their pre-break schedule with nine wins in their last 13 games. The second half of the season will be about defense, consistency, closing games, and the continued development of Porter. If things go right, the Nuggets can beat the best teams in the league. If things go wrong, they can lose to the worst.
— John Schuhmann