1. Nuggets may get their Nos. 2 & 3 players back in time for the playoffs
There are still five weeks to go in the regular season, but I’m getting this out of my chest now: the Denver Nuggets are my dark horse pick for the 2022 NBA Playoffs.
Nikola Jokic is the best player on the planet. No, I’m not using any qualifier like “maybe,” “arguably,” or “possibly.” He just is. He might not win his second MVP since there are various factors—some not entirely related to on-court performance—that go into the award. I’ll give you the one metric that sets him apart: the Nuggets have a net positive rating of 9.1 points per 100 with him on the floor; they are minus-6.8 per 100 when he sits. That’s a 15.9-point spread. Giannis Antetokounmpo (+13.1) trails him by 2.8 points per 100, which is double the Freak’s gap to Joel Embiid (+11.7).
Jokic has singlehandedly carried the Nuggets to the No. 6 seed in the West, including an 8-2 record in their last 10, without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. The Joker may be good enough to steal a playoff series by himself, but the team’s ceiling without those two is a second-round exit, just like last year.
Now here’s the good news: Murray and MPJ are set to return ahead of the postseason. According to The Athletic’s Sam Amick, “there is a strong sense within Denver’s locker room that they’ll both be back in time for the playoffs. If not sooner.”
If the Nuggets hold on to the sixth seed, then it should make the battle for the West’s No. 2 more interesting. The Grizzlies are now half-a-game up on the Warriors and there is such a big difference between facing a fully loaded Nuggets team and either the Timberwolves or Clippers. If Denver leapfrogs the Mavs for the fifth seed, then that’s probably the end of the Gobert-Mitchell era in Salt Lake City.
2. Paul George may be back soon, too
The Clippers may not be an easy first round out either. Paul George has been battling a torn UCL in his right shooting elbow and has not played since early December. But his release looked smooth in a recent Clippers practice video making the internet rounds.
Law Murray of The Athletic reports that George is only able to shoot within 17 feet right now, so a return date doesn’t seem imminent. But his shooting display during practice left a positive impression on the coaching staff and teammates.
Who’s ready for some Playoff P?!
3. Zion as well?
Shams Charania reports that Zion Williamson has been cleared “to progress in basketball activities.” He remains out indefinitely, but he is returning to New Orleans after rehabbing his foot injury in Portland.
What that exactly means is anyone’s guess, but it’s a positive step after recent months filled with speculation and negative publicity. The Pelicans will probably be not good enough to win a playoff series even with Williamson back, but they could be trouble in the play-in tournament—and could very well be the one to put the final nail in the team from Southern California’s coffin.
4. Things remain hazy for Brooklyn
Kevin Durant looked good in his return to action last Thursday, scoring 31 points after missing a month and a half because a sprained left MCL. They still lost to the East-leading (and shorthanded) Heat though, and it’s clear KD’s presence alone will not be enough to save this team’s championship hopes.
Ben Simmons has yet to make his debut for the Nets, and GM Sean Marks said that there’s “no real timetable for this return.” He’s having issues with his back and ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported that Simmons is “week-to-week” and might not even debut this month. Charania says he could be return “at some point before the regular season’s out,” but I’d have to see it to believe it.
As for Kyrie Irving, New York City is rolling back some of its vaccine mandate rules effective March 7, but Kyrie Irving will not benefit from it. New York is loosening its indoor venue mandate—which would allow the unvaccinated Irving to enter Barclays Center—but the private-sector employee mandate remains in place. There is some optimism that this will also be relaxed soon as Covid cases continue to drop in the Big Apple, but when exactly that will happen is unclear.
The Nets have struggled to find any chemistry this season—even before KD’s injury and were second in the East—and the continued unavailability of Irving and Simmons will make it more difficult for Steve Nash to get some practice runs in before the playoffs. For a team that hasn’t made a deep playoff run as a group, it would be silly to talk about turning on a switch because that only applies to teams with championship pedigrees. KD and Kyrie have won championships before, but not in Brooklyn.
I’m hoping the current East standings hold, though. The Nets are currently eighth, which means they’re headed to the play-in against the No. 7 Raptors. A fully healthy Nets team would be heavily favored in that matchup, which would set up a first-round date with the second seed… the Philadelphia 76ers.
To the basketball gods…
5. Throwback video of the week
To show solidarity with Ukraine, this week’s throwback video features the man with an all-time great nickname and who was drafted one spot ahead of Kobe Bryant in the legendary 1996 NBA Draft: “The Ukraine Train” Vitaly Potapenko.
He ended up as a journeyman, playing for the Cavs, Celtics, Sonics, and Kings in his 11-year career, averaging 6.5 points and 4.5 rebounds. One of his best games came in an OT win against the Washington Bullets during his rookie year, when he scored the last 14 points of the third quarter and the first four points of the fourth for Cleveland.
Unfortunately, a video of that game does not exist on the internet, so we’ll have to make do with this 8-point performance against the 1998 Bulls.
Despite modest averages, the Ukraine Train is having a post-playing career resurgence of sorts. He has been an assistant coach for the Memphis Grizzlies since 2019 and that team looks ready to make some noise this postseason.