In one of the most under-the-radar developments of this exciting season, the Denver Nuggets have crept back up the standings and find themselves in the thick of the playoff picture in the Western Conference.
The Nuggets have won their last three games and six of their last eight contests in the month of January. With more than half of the season already finished, they are a surprising 26-21 which is good for sixth place and a guaranteed postseason berth in the West.
Reigning NBA Most Valuable Player Nikola Jokic continues to carry the lion’s share of the load for Denver and is putting up MVP-caliber numbers once again. Jokic is averaging 26.2 points, 1.6 threes, a career-best 13.8 rebounds, 7.6 assists, and 1.4 steals per game this season which should put him right back into the conversation for the award this year.
He has remained unfazed despite the added attention that he commands from opposing defenses in the absence of his injured co-stars Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. In their absence, Jokic’s harsh reality is that his two best teammates at the moment are Aaron Gordon and Will Barton. While this dearth of supporting talent has prevented them from battling for the top seed this year, it is also a reminder of how great Jokic has become.
A couple of seasons ago, Gordon was miscast as the second banana on a few Orlando Magic teams whose ceiling was a first round exit. Meanwhile, the veteran Barton has never been tabbed as one of the Nugget’s main options since his arrival in 2015 and is best suited as a second unit scorer on a winning team.
Having Gordon and Barton fill out two of the spots on a team’s “Big Three” sounds like a decent recipe for higher lottery odds, but Jokic has made sweet lemonade with the lemons that he has been given to keep this team relevant in what was believed to be a gap year in their march to elite status.
The 6’11 Jokic has managed to extract the best shooting season of Gordon’s career as the career 45.6% shooter is hitting 52.7% of his field goals in ‘21-’22. Although his 14.5 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 2.6 assists per game are not a career-high, his newfound efficiency has made the 26-year-old much more valuable.
Barton is also having one of his best campaigns following a couple of injury-tainted years. The 31-year-old is averaging 15.3 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 4.2 assists per game this year in his finest campaign since 2018.
The rest of their team has also admirably stepped into bigger roles this year.
Monte Morris, who spent the first four years of his career backing-up Murray, is proving to be a capable fill-in as their starting point guard. He is posting the best statistical season yet of his young career with 12.6 points and 4.1 rebounds per game. Morris’ steady hand is his biggest asset and with Jokic running their offense on most possessions, he is exactly what Denver needs now.
The team has also benefited greatly from the journeyman Jeff Green’s presence. Now with his 11th NBA franchise, which puts him just one off the all-time record, Green has become one of the league’s most beloved elder statesmen while still being able to put in quality minutes.
The former lottery pick, who has made a career out of randomly playing like an 11-time NBA All-Star, has found the perfect match in the ever-consistent Jokic for his maddening inconsistency. With Jokic putting up gaudy numbers on a nightly basis, Green only needs to show up on occasion and this turns the variability of his play from a weakness into somewhat of a secret weapon.
This unconventional group has been one of the most delightful teams to watch this season. However, their projected end-of-season record, which is expected to have them finish as the fifth or sixth seed in the West at best, may prove to be the undoing of Jokic’s back-to-back MVP bid.
Beyond the race for individual awards, their unwillingness to let go of this season gives them a miniscule chance at a dark horse title run. Murray and Porter were not initially expected to return this season but have made strides in their rehabilitation.
If these two can return for the last stretch of the regular season and get their rhythm back, then these Nuggets will find themselves as title contenders in this year’s wide-open race. Even without them though, Jokic and company should be a tough out for whomever they face in the postseason.
All this team needs is for some of the dominoes to fall in their favor and with the way that they have been playing amidst all of the bad luck, they have exhibited exactly the kind of behavior that the basketball gods reward handsomely.
This is far from a lost season for Denver and this rocky journey may just yield some gold for them at the end of the road.