Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Nikola Jokic
- NBA guru Matt Moore makes a series of predictions leading up to tipoff of the 2018-19 season.
- Up next: The Denver Nuggets and what their true potential is.
As someone who lives “in Denver” — technically an hour north, but whatever — I’ve spent a great deal of time pondering the following question over the past four years:
Are the Denver Nuggets failproof?
There are some franchises that burst and thrive, and there are others that basically have to survive their own ingrained cosmic pratfalls. As a fan of the Kansas City Chiefs, I’m well-versed in this problem, never having once seen them successfully get out of their own way.
The Nuggets went through a painful rebuild after Masai Ujiri left for Toronto and George Karl was let go.
They hired the wrong coach in Brian Shaw, despite his reputation and stellar resume. They drafted the wrong guys by trading the rights to Rudy Gobert (and later Donovan Mitchell) and selecting Emmanuel Mudiay. But they hit on just enough successes to pull themselves out of the muck to avoid becoming the Sacramento Kings.
Now the Nuggets are on the precipice.
This 2018-19 team is loaded. It has so many weapons.
Nikola Jokic makes literally every player he’s on the floor with better offensively. Paul Millsap is still a freight train chugging down the tracks with great defense and consistent, efficient offense. Will Barton can thrill, Jamal Murray can fling arrows like it’s no one’s business and Gary Harris might legitimately be the most underrated player in the league. And when Isaiah Thomas gets back, Denver will have a Sixth Man of the Year candidate (assuming he’s healthy).
Watching the Nuggets in preseason matchups with the Lakers and other teams, there was a notable difference from Denver teams of the past few years: This core was growing into itself, and the Nuggets’ baseline floor is so much higher.
The Nuggets have had an outrageous penchant for losing to bad teams over the past three seasons under Michael Malone, a fact that has driven his stress levels to places where I had moments of genuine concern for his health.
But part of the reason behind those losses was the team’s higher variance. The Nuggets’ worst play could very easily result in a loss to the Mavericks or the Sixers without Joel Embiid.
This season’s team looks considerably more competent. The Nuggets are older, more consistent and better equipped to win games against bad teams — even when they don’t “have it.”
That alone will provide cushion for Denver’s win/loss record.
The problem, of course, is how different the playoffs are from the regular season.
There is a growing sense among scouts and those close to players that Jokic can take advantage of the attention deficits drawn about by the regular-season format, but when players are locked in during the playoffs, his ability to generate magical assists and slips in the defense will vanish, and his defensive limitations on switches will be magnified.
It would also be Denver’s first playoff appearance with this young core. There are veteran playoff leaders in Millsap and Thomas, to be sure. But beyond those two, there’s not much in the way of an experience well from which to draw.
Not to be too on-the-nose with a mountain analogy for a Colorado team, but you’ll often find false summits in this state, areas where it looks like the top of the mountain is just up a ridge, only to find out that it’s a matter of perspective and you still have another half-mile to go.
The same is true for the Nuggets: They should be able to finally get above the tree line, but that perspective might reveal only how much further their peak as a team really is.
In the end, Denver will get the playoff yolk off its back and return to the postseason.
But for a city that vexed so much about the Nuggets’ inability to get out of the first round under Karl, it might find itself in that same position for the time being, as it passes the time until Broncos training camp opens.
Prediction: The Nuggets make the playoffs (-400) and lose in the first round.