With Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. sidelined last year due to injuries, reigning back-to-back NBA Most Valuable Player Nikola Jokic gallantly carried a rag-tag Denver Nuggets team to the sixth seed in the West.
While the Nuggets eventually succumbed to the eventual champion Golden State Warriors in the first round, this year’s team looks poised to match–or even surpass–their run to the Western Conference Finals in 2020.
After relying on Jokic to carry them during last year’s injury riddled season, Denver’s supporting cast has stepped up in a big way this season. They have helped Jokic carry the load and, though it has led to the inevitable dip in his scoring numbers, his overall statistics remain gaudy.
Through the Nuggets’ first 41 games, the 27-year-old center is currently averaging 25.1 points on 62.6% field goal shooting, 11 rebounds, 9.9 assists, 1.4 steals, and 0.6 blocks per game. The field goal shooting and assists are a career-high by far for Jokic and these can be directly attributed to the improved talent around him.
Jokic remains firmly entrenched in this year’s NBA Most Valuable Player race and a third consecutive award, which will put him in elite company (Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Larry Bird), is a legitimate possibility.
What further boosts Jokic’s case is that Denver leads the Western Conference with a 33-13 win-loss record. They are in fantastic shape as a team, owning the longest active winning streak in the league following the second place Memphis Grizzlies’ loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Nuggets have won their last nine outings and they took their most recent victory in impressive fashion.
The four-time NBA All-Star Jokic sat out Denver’s most recent game against the Indiana Pacers with a minor injury, but this time around, his teammates were there to take the cudgels on his behalf. The Nuggets took the opportunity to flex their depth and came away with a dominant 134-111 win over Indiana where seven players scored at least nine points.
Starting forward Aaron Gordon led the way for Denver in the win with 28 points on 11-of-15 shooting, five rebounds, and six assists. The nine-year veteran is enjoying his finest statistical season since his breakout campaign in 2018 with the Orlando Magic, averaging 16.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 0.8 steals, and 0.8 blocks per game this year. After arriving midway through the ‘20-’21 season, he has found his niche as the lumbering Jokic’s athletic frontcourt sidekick.
Murray and Porter have also begun to regain their form, with the former recording a triple double–17 points, 10 rebounds, and 14 assists plus two steals–while the latter contributed 19 points on eight-of-14 shooting, three three-pointers, eight rebounds, a steal, and zero turnovers.
The Nuggets’ offseason acquisitions chipped in as well, with Bruce Brown adding 17 points, two three-pointers, four rebounds, five assists, two steals, and a block off the bench. Fellow newcomers Kentavious Caldwell-Pope added nine points and three steals and 2022 first round pick Christian Braun added 10 points. Veteran back-up DeAndre Jordan had a strong showing too, chipping in 10 points as a reserve.
Now that Jokic has his crew back, Denver looks poised for a deep run in the upcoming postseason. A strong set of teammates amplifies his passing abilities and opens up the court for him which makes their depth doubly effective.
Anything less than a Western Conference Finals appearance will be treated as a disappointment and it is beginning to grow more and more likely that they make it all the way to the Finals if they can remain healthy.
This season is shaping up to be the Nuggets’ to lose and it will be captivating to see if they can handle the pressure that comes with these expectations when all the chips are on the table.