Denver Nuggets: The Western Conference afterthoughts are quietly surging

NBA Denver Nuggets Jamal Murray (Photo by Lizzy Barrett/Getty Images)
NBA Denver Nuggets Jamal Murray (Photo by Lizzy Barrett/Getty Images) /

The often-overlooked Denver Nuggets appear to have found their groove recently. Denver now has a 21-9 record, good for second-best in the West.

The Denver Nuggets have quietly been one of the best teams in the NBA in recent weeks. For all the hype surrounding the Lakers, Clippers, Bucks, 76ers, Rockets, and Heat; the Nuggets have continuously showcased that they can compete, and contend, with the upper echelon of aforementioned teams in the league.

Even with all their success, many still fail to acknowledge or recognize the Nuggets as a formidable opponent.

A season ago, the Nuggets impressively defeated the San Antonio Spurs in a seven-game series in the first round of the playoffs. They then advanced to the Western Conference Semifinals and were eventually defeated in seven to the Portland Trail Blazers.

Jamal Murray, fresh off a five-year, $170 million contract extension, averaged 21.3 points, 4.7 assists, 4.4 rebounds, and shot an efficient 90.3 percent from the charity stripe, in their 14-game playoff run.

Meanwhile, Nikola Jokic was absolutely incredible.

Take a look.

This season, Denver is continuing to further their championship aspirations, while, they remain one of the deepest teams in the NBA. Players such as Jamal Murray (17.5 ppg) Gary Harris (11.3 ppg) Paul Millsap (12.4 ppg), the Joker, Jerami Grant (9.8 ppg), and Will Barton (14.4 ppg), have all equally contributed to the Nuggets recent success.

Denver was in the midst of a seven-game win streak before falling to the New Orleans Pelicans on Christmas Day. Mike Malone and his club currently place second in the star-studded Western Conference with a 21-9 record, only trailing the conference-leading Los Angeles Lakers by 2.5 games.

The Mile High club ranks fourth in the NBA behind the Bucks (27-5), Lakers (24-7), and Heat (22.8).

They’re once again led by All-NBA, Serbian big man, Nikola Jokic, who is currently averaging 17.6 points, 10.0 rebounds, and 6.9 assists while shooting 48 percent from the field. Jokic, 24, has also recorded six triple-doubles throughout the first 30 games this season; moving into the top 10 all-time for triple-doubles.

Their two-headed monster of Murray and Jokic have this team ascending.

Prior to their win streak, Jokic and the entire offense struggled mightily. The Nuggets were averaging 107.4 points per 100 possessions – ranking 18th in the league.

Nikola Jokic had a sluggish start to the season averaging 14.9 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 6.2 assists per game through the first six weeks; he shot 45.1 percent from the field and a measly 22.2 percent from beyond the arc. The offense clearly suffered as a result, leaving the Nuggets in a hapless situation.

However, over the past two weeks, they’re up to 110.2 points-per-100 – which would rank in the top seven over the full season.

Denver has fortunately been able to sustain its position in the West from its solid effort on the defensive side of the ball this season. Their tenacious defense has wreaked havoc on opponents all year and made up for the team’s previous offensive deficiencies. They rank second in the league with a defensive rating of 103.5, which only trails Milwaukee.

This small sample will prove to be beneficial throughout the entirety of the season. If the Nuggets can maintain their disciplined, opportunistic defense, along with their revitalized offense, then they’ll be deadly down the stretch when the postseason creeps up.

Despite their early-season mishaps, Mike Malone was able to, not only keep this team afloat but guide his young roster to one of the best records in the NBA – earning himself a contract extension through 2022-23. Now, the culmination of offense and defense is allowing this Nuggets squad to begin to scratch the surface of their true potential.

As it stands, the often overlooked Denver Nuggets pose a better record than the Rockets, Celtics, 76ers, and the NBA Finals favorites, Clippers. I’m not implying that they’re a better team than those mentioned before. Simply that, the league needs to take notice and stop viewing this team as merely a regular-season contender.

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The Denver Nuggets trotted out a team with an average age of under 25 last season (24.4) and managed to defy all expectations by finishing second in the Western Conference. They followed their spectacular season by defeating Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs. Another year with experience will bode well for the players on the team, as this youthful group is poised for bigger things this season.