Nuggets are no joke, but are they real contenders?

NBA.com Global on Apr 03, 2019 06:00 AM
Nuggets are no joke, but are they real contenders?
MEMPHIS, TN - JANUARY 28: Will Barton #5 of the Denver Nuggets goes to the basket against the Memphis Grizzlies on January 28, 2019 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Shaun Powell, NBA.com

He walked among them bringing credentials and pride and carrying the flag for the Nuggets as their lone representative at this year’s All-Star Game, fully expecting to be accepted by his peers. Instead of feeling an embrace, he was stabbed by jabs.

“Flopper,” they called Nikola Jokic.

And: “Whiner.”

Initially he was taken aback, until he saw the grins behind the insults, and then he realized he just got played by a handful of fun-loving All-Stars who took advantage of him, a Serbian still trying to fully grasp the slang and the culture and the cut-ups. And who was the worst among them?

“Blake Griffin,” said Jokic. “And Giannis,” which would be Antetokounmpo. “Kyle Kuzma, too.

“And also Steph Curry, he was really on me.”

But then the Nuggets center wanted to make this point:

“I think it was their way of showing respect, not just for me, but our team. They know we are not a joke.”

Well, that much is for certain: The Nuggets are nobody’s punch line, not after 51 wins and sitting in the attic of the Western Conference for virtually the entire season, and not after Jokic took a generous step in the direction of being a superstar, or at least the most skilled big man in the game. After a three-year rebuild, they have arrived to a degree.

“We have a continuity, a group that’s been together for a while and that’s definitely helped because now you learn to play with and for and off each other,” said coach Mike Malone. “Five guys out there as one.”

Still, the question does linger in the high altitude air: Are the Nuggets really and truly a member of the club?

Perhaps some clues will be unlocked Tuesday (Wednesday, PHL time) when they visit the Warriors with first place on the line, perhaps not. It’s always tricky to use the regular season to make assumptions on the playoffs because we’ve all been fooled by that before, in both directions. The playoffs are often determined by matchups and momentum, which have a sway in determining how deep any team travels through spring and early summer.

In the case of the Nuggets, it’s the whiff of uncertainty about a newcomer, about a group of players and a coach who haven’t been there and done that, about a club that will make its first playoff appearance since 2013. Internally, are they merely happy to be here, thrilled with this next phase of their rapid development and satisfied as long as they don’t get tripped in the first round?

Or are they dreaming bigger than that?

Maybe, and perhaps with some justification, everyone should be OK with the Nuggets just making it to May because it’s so hard to go from zero to 60 in this league. Remember, the Nuggets didn’t even make the playoffs last season, missing the cut on Game 82. And this team has taken the gradual approach to building, helping itself through the draft and a few trades and free agent signings and remains relatively young; only five players boast playoff experience. Championship teams or even contenders are rarely, if ever, built overnight.

Plus: Even in what constitutes as a breakout and franchise-turning season for them, the Nuggets have shown their flipside. They’ve been issued a pair of smackdowns by the two-time defending champion Warriors, once by 31 points. They’ve lost 3-of-4 to the Rockets and the last meeting by 27. In both instances, the Nuggets fed the perception that they’re not quite there yet as a contender and possibly intimidated by the heavies on the block.

Also, Denver is feeble on the road, barely above water at 20-18. If the visiting Nuggets got rattled in the regular season, how can they expect to cope with the playoff-charged road atmosphere starting in two weeks?

There’s the notion that the Nuggets need to capture the best record in the West to ensure home-court advantage throughout the playoffs -- they’re 31-7 at home so far -- but that’s only important if they find themselves staring at the Warriors in the conference finals. More important is the final order of the standings from No. 1 to 4 which will likely be among the Warriors, Nuggets, Rockets and Blazers. The weak link is Portland as the Blazers must make do without injured center Jusuf Nurkic. Whoever gets the Blazers in the semifinals, assuming the seeds hold true through the first round, has the easier path.

In any event, there’s plenty of positive about a well-balanced Nuggets team, starting with their solid two-man core of Jokic (20.3 points, 10.9 rebounds, 7.4 assists) and Jamal Murray (18.2 points). Malone is high on Murray even though, statistically, there hasn’t been significant growth in his game from a year ago. Malone says Murray has a better grip on the point guard position, which isn’t easy on a team where the offense is run through the center.

“I’ve seen that more from Jamal he’s understanding of a starting point guard and the responsibility that comes with that,” Malone said. “Jamal is gifted offensively. Now it’s about taking the good shot and right shot.”

There’s also a rotation that can go nine or even 10 deep, giving Malone a chance to use multiple combinations and looks depending on the opponent. The Nuggets’ defense has ranked among the best in the league all season and while the offense has been spotty lately, they can score in bunches -- especially if Jokic finds the open man as he often does.

“We just need to be more consistent,” said Jokic. “When we’re consistent, with how we approach the game and how we are focused, that’s the best thing. It’s a new thing for us. Every night is the most important game of the season.”

The wild cards for the postseason are Gary Harris, Will Barton and Paul Millsap. Harris hasn’t been a big producer this season and dealt with injuries, just like Barton. Both commanded contract extensions and are better than they’ve shown so far. Millsap is the only player in the rotation with deep playoff experience yet his time in Denver since signing as a free agent two years ago has been marked by inconsistency. Yes, on this team, even veterans aren’t immune to flashes.

“Our shot selection at times has not been great,” said Malone. “I don’t think that’s our players being selfish. I think that’s guys trying to help our team out. When we’re at our best, we’re a ball-movement, play-for-each-other type team.”

The Nuggets craved respect for what they’ve shown this season and they’re getting it, yet there’s also a sense of being careful what you ask for. The teams standing in their way aren’t letting down their guard; on the contrary, Warriors coach Steve Kerr mentioned how much Tuesday’s (Wednesday, PHL time) game means to … the Warriors.

“We take care of business and win,” said Kerr, “and we’re in great shape. There’s more of a sense of urgency now.”

The Nuggets reached one of their goals long ago by qualifying for the playoffs. Now they begin to answer the most perplexing question about them: What next?

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting. 

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