Moore: How on Earth Are the Nuggets This Good?

Jan 03, 2019 06:45 PM EST

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) warms up before playing against the Toronto Raptors at Scotiabank Arena.

  • The Denver Nuggets ended the 2017-18 regular season with an overtime loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves that left them out of the playoffs.
  • This season, they lead the star-studded Western Conference by 0.5 games over the reigning champion Golden State Warriors.
  • Matt Moore analyzes what changed from one season to the next and where the Nuggets can go from here.

When you cover the ins and outs of an 82-game regular season, you pick up on what makes an NBA team good (aside from the obvious).

Most anyone who follows the league regularly knows that point differential often matters more than record. But beyond that, which teams you beat can matter as much as how many teams you beat.

In my experience, the most valuable wins come in this order:

  1. Home games: This is a given. If you don’t win at home, you’re almost always sunk.
  2. Division games: Not only do teams put space between themselves and direct competitors, but division record determines a lot of tiebreakers for positioning.
  3. Games against teams worse than .500: Only nine teams in the West have managed single-digit losses against teams worse than .500 and missed the playoffs. This is the Spurs’ model for sustained success — beat the teams you should.
  4. Games on a back-to-back: These convert schedule losses to wins.
  5. Conference games: These are relevant for tiebreakers and positioning.

Getting caught up in the games against the top teams to prove that a team can beat anyone is actually more volatile and less sustainable. It’s better to be consistent than to have a high ceiling, because in the playoffs, matchups often change and you can’t control which teams you face.

With that in mind, below is a look at the win profile of the Denver Nuggets.

Overall Win Profile

Pretty good, it turns out!

They are 24-11, the best record in the Western Conference. They are 5-0 in-division, 15-3 at home, 12-3 vs. teams under .500, and 3-1 on the second night of a back to back.

Who do the Nuggets beat?

Just about everyone. In addition to being tied for the fewest losses to teams under .500, the Nuggets have wins against the Warriors, Celtics, Raptors, Thunder, Lakers, and Spurs.

They have the second-best record against the Western Conference behind the Raptors, and two of their five losses against Eastern Conference opponents came against the East-leading Milwaukee Bucks.

It is important to note that they have done this with starting small forward Will Barton out for almost the entire season. At media day in preseason, I asked several front office members about their concern level over the lack of depth at the small forward spot (given that Barton is a true shooting guard who often played back-up point guard the past few years) and the response was “Well, as long as Will doesn’t get hurt, we’re fine.”

Barton got hurt in the second game of the season.

Not only that, but Gary Harris and Paul Millsap only recently returned after missing three week of action. Since their back-to-back road loss to Atlanta in the aftermath of those injuries, Denver went 7-2.

Do the names Juancho Hernangomez, Torrey Craig, or Malik Beasley pop to you? No? Then you have an idea of the kind of guys who have stepped up to help keep this team at the top of an exceptionally brutal Western Conference this year.

Who do the Nuggets lose to?

Well, 11 games isn’t much of a sample, but here goes:

  • The Rockets: They can’t beat the Rockets, and if they face them in a playoff series, they are doomed. Can’t stop Harden, can’t stop Capela, can’t limit the 3-pointers. It’s a nightmare.
  • The Bucks: Milwaukee is the only team to beat Denver twice this season and of course, they don’t play again this year.
  • Denver is just 4-3 on the road vs. Eastern conference teams this season. The travel seems to cause issues. Denver has two more extended trips East this season, with one in early February and one in early March.
  • Denver is 5-5 on the road vs. the West this season, which seems bad… except it’s actually tied with Utah for first among West teams. They lost a game before the Christmas break to the Clippers, and caught a loss to the Grizzlies when Nikola Jokic only shot once the entire game.
  • In six of their 11 losses this season, Denver has given up a 115 or worse defensive rating. When their defense falls apart, things get dicey. In related news, the Nuggets are 18th in defensive rating in that stretch. Getting Paul Millsap and Gary Harris back will certainly help, not only with defensive personnel, but limiting overall workloads. It’s a concern going forward though.
Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Denver Nuggets forward Paul Millsap (4) blocks Sacramento Kings forward Marvin Bagley III (35).

Who do the Nuggets cover against and who do they fail to cover against?

Denver is 19-16 against the spread. The market was well aware of how good Denver would be going into the season and their surprising performance hasn’t caught the market off guard. The Nuggets are just 13-11 as a favorite and 6-5 as an underdog against the spread.

Note: One area where they continue to excel is on the moneyline as a dog, going 6-5 straight up as well, for a 41.5% ROI via our Bet Labs data.

The Nuggets are 4-5 vs. teams with a sub-.400 winning percentage. Here’s what’s surprising, though: Denver is 3-1 ATS as a double-digit favorite, with its first ATS loss coming Tuesday night vs. the Knicks as a 13.5-point favorite. Compare that to when the spread is between -3 and -9.5 points, where the Nuggets are 8-9 ATS on the season.

They also doesn’t do well with public or sharp support. They are 6-8 ATS when 60% of the tickets are on them, and 3-4 when the money percentage is at least 10 percentage points higher than the ticket percentage.

All of this indicates that Denver’s best performances are in coin-flip games. Denver is:

  • 10-4 ATS when the difference in the ticket (amount of bets made) and money (amount of total money wagered on the Nuggets) percentage is inside 10 percentage points. If the sharps faded them or backed them relative to the public, the Nuggets haven’t covered. If the sharps and public were in alignment, the Nuggets covered.
  • 7-4 ATS when the line is inside 3.5 points on either side. That’s not stellar, but given their ATS performance overall it feels notable.

What’s Denver’s projected outlook?