The Denver Nuggets have quietly gotten off to a red-hot start to the season; they are certainly a sleeping giant in the Western Conference
There’s a sleeping giant in the Western Conference that is constantly being overlooked in NBA championship discussions.
The Nuggets finished the 2018-19 season with a 54-28 record and entered the playoffs with the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. The Nuggets have never appeared in the NBA Finals and have not won a conference title since they joined the NBA in 1976, last year seemed to be one of their better chances to break the drought.
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However, the Nuggets ran into a red-hot Portland Trail Blazers in the Conference Semifinals and despite their best efforts, were sent packing in Game 7 of the series. The Nuggets simply seemed to not have the firepower required to match the Trail Blazers; Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum proving too much to handle.
The Nuggets would miss out on the chance to dethrone the Golden State Warriors dynasty and their drought would extend.
With all the blockbuster trades in the West Conference during the offseason between the Lakers (Anthony Davis), Clippers (Kawhi Leonard and Paul George) and Rockets (Russell Westbrook), the Nuggets quiet offseason saw them slip under everybody’s radar coming into the 2019-20 season.
The Western Conference had new dynamic duos that would dominate the spotlight and presumably reign supreme in the conference standings.
The Denver Nuggets had other ideas.
Their quiet offseason meant the Nuggets would maintain a similar lineup to their 2018-19 campaign, one that proved successful and was ready to take the next step to the Conference Finals. Again, they would be lead into the season by their number one superstar, Nikola Jokic but with a reliable supporting cast to help carry the load throughout the season.
Through their first 12 games, the Nuggets sit 3rd in the Western Conference after a 9-3 start that has included impressive wins over the Miami Heat, Philadelphia 76ers, and Minnesota Timberwolves. The start could have been even better, had the Nuggets not dropped easy games against the New Orleans Pelicans and Atlanta Hawks.
So how are the Nuggets getting it done?
Surprisingly, not by relying on Jokic to carry the team but by producing a very well-rounded team effort each night.
Nikola Jokic has actually had somewhat of a slow start to the 2019-20 NBA season, seeing many of his statistics drop from last year. His shooting percentage has dropped from 51.1 percent last season to just 44.8 percent to start this season, meaning his points production has also dipped from 20.1 points-per-game to 17.1 each game this year.
His rebound and assist averages have also dropped to start this year, showing that the big Serbian just isn’t quite producing the same form as last season early on in this campaign.
This is not a knock on Jokic’s play, he still leads the Nuggets in both rebounds and assists categories through their first 12 games. He is just simply getting more assistance from the rest of the Nuggets starting-five this year.
The Nuggets statistically are seeing similar averages in most categories other than points-per-game, in comparison with their 2018-19 season despite the lower production from Jokic. All of their starters are currently averaging over 10 points-per-game with Jamal Murray actually leading the team overall, averaging 17.4 points a night.
The Nuggets offensive production hasn’t been exceptional however, their 106.9 points-per-game average only good enough to rank 22nd across the NBA in that category. It is a well-balanced line-up but to really compete with the better teams, there is certainly room for improvement on the offensive end.
The Nuggets play on the defensive end has been the driving force behind their hot start to the season. They have held opponents to less than 100 points in six of their 12 games so far, allowing an average of 102.9 points-per-game which is the 4th lowest average across any team in the NBA. The Nuggets also only cough up an average of 13.2 turnovers per game, ranking them as the 3rd best team in that category also. Avoiding turnovers means they are less likely to be hurt on the counter-attack and allow fewer points in transition throughout games.
Individually the Nuggets are seeing greater production from their starters also.
Jamal Murray is having another consistent start to the season, averaging 17.4 points per game on 42 percent shooting from the field. Murray dropped an impressive 39 points (7/12 from 3-point range) in their most recent win over the Grizzlies, proving that he has the scoring power to carry the load on the offensive end.
Will Barton is averaging a career-high 15.8 points-per-game this season off the back of an impressive 46 percent conversion rate from 3-point land (also a career-high). Barton is also averaging another career-high of 7.7 rebounds per game, well and truly eclipsing his next season best of 5.8 per game.
Paul Millsap is also proving to show improved shooting numbers from last season, hitting on 50 percent of his 3-point attempts so far this year. He is also converting 88 percent of his free throws for a handy 13.3 points-per-game.
With games against the Houston Rockets, Boston Celtics and Phoenix Suns looming on the horizon to finish November, the Nuggets have a great chance to take down some of the more fancied teams in the NBA. These games will be a great chance to build some momentum into December where they can look to cement their place at the top of the Western Conference.
Keep sleeping on the Denver Nuggets if you dare but be assured when it comes to the pointy end of the 2019-20 season, these Nuggets will be lurking and ready to strike.