Nikola Jokic’s rise to become the reigning back-to-back NBA Most Valuable Player has helped the Denver Nuggets emerge as one of the most consistent teams in the NBA over the past few seasons.
While it is the New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies who currently lead the Western Conference with identical 18-9 records the Nuggets are just one game behind them with a 17-10 win-loss record.
They have flown under the radar this season, partly because of the decline in Jokic’s numbers compared with his last two campaigns, yet that is more because of his improved supporting cast rather than a drop-off in his play.
The 27-year-old is averaging 23.8 points and 10.1 rebounds–noticeably below last year’s 27.1 points and 13.8 rebounds–though his 9.1 assists per game through their first 23 contests is a career-high which highlights the improved depth of this Denver team.
However, he can still turn on his MVP-form when necessary as he proved in their most recent win over the Washington Wizards. The Nuggets were without Michael Porter Jr., who has missed their last 10 games with a heel injury, while Jamal Murray was limited to only five points which is well-below his 18.3-point average this season.
Jokic responded with his best performance of the season so far, putting up 43 points, 14 rebounds, eight assists, five steals, and one block in their 141-128 victory. He was extremely efficient from the field as he made 17-of-19 two-point attempts and hit nine-of-10 free throws over the evening. The one blemish in his stat-line were his eight turnovers, but this was largely forgivable given his usage rate.
Aaron Gordon stepped up too for Denver and finished with 22 points on eight-of-14 shooting, seven rebounds, three assists, a steal, and a block.
Denver’s key offseason acquisitions Bruce Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope played crucial roles in the win as well and they continue to fit in perfectly with this team. The five-year veteran Brown only missed one of his six field goal attempts on the evening en route to tallying 13 points, three rebounds, four assists, and a block.
Brown’s ability to play and, more importantly, defend multiple positions, coupled with his knack for moving off the ball, has allowed him to thrive in his first season with the Nuggets. He has become a prime target for Jokic’s crafty passes and the two-year, $13 million deal that he was signed to last July is now looking like one of the best bargains in the league today.
Meanwhile, the 29-year-old Caldwell-Pope chipped in with 11 points, five rebounds, three assists, two steals, a block, and no turnovers. The 3-and-D specialist has been the perfect complementary shooting guard for this team built around the offensive talent of Jokic and, to a lesser extent, Murray and Porter.
The trade that brought Caldwell-Pope and back-up point guard Ish Smith over from the Washington Wizards for Will Barton and Monte Morris has made an immense impact on this team, especially on the defensive end. The trade is turning out to be a shrewd move by Denver general manager Calvin Booth who cleared out the redundancy of Barton’s offensive talents and replaced it with Caldwell-Pope’s two-way skill set that fits this team’s needs to a tee.
The Nuggets are now on their fourth winning streak of at least three games this season and are rounding into form as legitimate contenders for the NBA title this year. Their depth has allowed them to withstand the recent absence of Porter and it has given Murray room to reacclimate himself after missing the entirety of last season with a torn ACL.
While Jokic remains the hub and most important piece of Denver’s system, their improved depth has lightened his load which should pay off handsomely once the playoffs roll in.