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Are the Denver Nuggets fool’s gold?

The shine comes off in an ugly loss to the Clippers.

While the Denver Nuggets (21–10) have been one of the biggest surprises so far this season, I haven’t bought into the hype that they would finish the season as the #2 seed, or make a particularly deep run in the playoffs.

Before the season started, I predicted that they would be the #5 seed in the West.

Here’s the key thought from the analysis about Denver:

Denver has the greatest home court advantage in the history of the NBA, if not all sports. They will pick up about 5–10 gift games a season when a team has to play in altitude on the second night of a back to back.

They won 46 games last year, so they’re on schedule to win between 51 and 56 games. In a world where Houston and Utah were supposed to return to their levels from last year, and a LeBron James-led Lakers on track to make a splash in the West, the #5 seed looked like a pretty good prediction.

Given their current record, they are on a 55-win pace. Look at the point differential, and it projects to a 56-win season.

But watching them play the Clippers, I feel like there are some factors that will make them slip back down in the rankings:

#1: They lost one of their two irreplaceable guys

While Nikola Jokic is Denver’s offensive leader, Paul Millsap is the key defensive presence on the team. He is expected out for 4–6 weeks, and miss 10–15 games this year (assuming there are no complications). Given his age (turns 34 in less than two months) physical style of play, and the fact that he has missed 44 games in the first year of his $90 million contract with the Nuggest, his ability to stay on the court all season and into the playoffs could be a concern moving forward.

Without Millsap, there is no weak rim protection on defense, allowing faster players to outmanuever Jokic and expose his flaws.

The Denver fan site on SB Nation went so far as to ask this question:

In addition, Millsap’s physical play, I think, occupies the attention of the referees, leaving Jokic to stumble around and awkwardly hack at anyone within reach of his enormous torso. In the third quarter, Jokic stuck out his rear end and knocked the Clippers’ center out of bounds after he had secured the ball, right in front of a referee who blew his whistle. Jokic was enraged and picked up his second technical foul and an early shower. This was an obvious foul to everyone in the arena or watching on television, so the only explanation is that Jokic’s ass is so large it extends out further than his nerve endings, so he can’t feel anything when he hip checks players and sends them sprawling on the floor.

During the Nuggets’ fantastic start, Jokic has basically received a pass from the refs. If you compare his body proportions, weight and the way he moves on the court, he looks like a more skilled offensive version of Ivica Zubac. But on defense, they both plod along, reaching and banging anything close by in the hopes of slowing down the athletic players who run by them. On a per 36 minute basis, Jokic would get called for 3.1 fouls, while Zubac would average 6.5.

Finally, Millsap complements Jokic on the boards, and powers Denver as the #1 rebounding team in the NBA. Against the Clippers, Montrezel Harrell killed the Nuggets in the paint and on the boards, with the Clipper outrebounding Denver 60–41.

Denver’s rebounding on defense powers their league average fast break, while their offensive rebounding makes them a top 4 team in second chance points. Any reduction in this production means they would get fewer easy baskets and be forced to rely on their 3-point shooting, where they are a bottom 10 team.

The loss of Millsap really shows up in their road record, which is now 0–3 and includes the Charlotte game where he was injured, followed by a loss to the league worst Atlanta Hawks the next night.

Last year, The Nuggets had the third best home record in the league, ahead of the Warriors, Cavs, 76ers and Celtics, with the road record of a lottery team. Before Millsap’s injury, Denver’s road record was 8–4, which would make them an elite team (only three teams last year had a higher road winning percentage than .667). Their road record the rest of the season will determine where they fall in that 46–56 win range.

#2: They’ve lost the element of surprise.

When Denver started the season with a 9–1 record (spoiled only by LeBron James and the Lakers), they were the flavor of the month. No one expected that they would be so good, but being the #1 seed in the West motivates opponents and an accompanying level of attention by coaches to stop the Nuggets.

That level of scrutiny and the pressure to stay ahead of the pack takes time for elite teams to embrace and continue to thrive. Look no further than the Boston Celtics, who’ve been sneaking by as the gritty little underdogs for the past few seasons suddenly being cast as the team to beat in the East this season. They are struggling, and showing the signs of internal stress (Kyrie Irving called for yet another team meeting after a loss, and started to back that bus over some of their young guys — this is a really bad sign.)

The Nuggets are feeling the same thing, only to a much lesser degree, as the Warriors are still considered the team to beat. However, Denver’s results have tailed off markedly and in a most expected way — they’re not getting pumped up for lesser opponents. How else can we explain losses to Brooklyn, Charlotte and Atlanta? They can still get pumped up for games against top teams, with two huge wins over Toronto, and two wins over OKC, and revenge wins over the Lakers and Memphis.

Since that great start, Denver’s record is a solid 12–9, on pace for 46–47 wins. If they play at that level, the rest of the season, that hot start will propel them to 50 wins; if they play .500 ball, going forward, we get back to 46 wins (crazy isn’t it?) Given the intense competition in the West, and the poor starts for Houston and Utah, I think 46–47 wins could be good enough for a middle seeding.

#3: The young reserves may regress to the mean.

Denver’s greatest attribute this season has been the high level of play by every guy who gets on the floor. In terms of point differential, the Nuggets are the only team where both the starters and bench are in the top 10.

A big part of the bench’s success has been due to their excellent 3-point shooting. Morris is a rookie and currently shooting 45%. Beasley, in his third year, is shooting 38.2%. And Hernangomez is shooting 41% so far. The two vets are shooting well above their career averages, and the rookie should be hitting the wall in another ten games or so.

#4: Jamal Murray has made a lot of enemies

If Jamal Murray was a football player, he’d be this guy.

In case you forgot, the Patriots lost to the Jets in the playoffs that year.

Murray is one of those guys who can’t stop himself from trying to punk opponents when his team is ahead.

Last year, the Lakers beat Denver badly in Los Angeles. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but in that game Millsap got hurt, and Jokic got ejected from the game. Then in December, Murray dribbled around Lonzo Ball as the clock was winding down in Denver after the Lakers had blown a 10-point 4th quarter lead. From that point on, the Lakers were at war with Denver.

The following March, the two teams played twice in four days. In another competitive game at Denver, the Lakers took a 3-point lead with 6:03 left to play, and once again imploded with turnovers and missed shots and lost by 9 points. Once again, Murray started talking trash to the Lakers bench, and the Lakers returned the favor in Los Angeles, forcing Murray into two turnovers in the last 1:11 of the game to seal a 9-point win.

Guess how many games separated the Nuggets from the playoffs last year?

This year, the Lakers were the only team to beat the Nuggets in their first games, and one of the keys to that comeback win was Lonzo Ball, the original guy Murray tried to punk. Lonzo got a steal off Murray and a basket near the end of the first half that tied the game and got Ball fired up. He ended the game with 12 points, 6 rebounds, 8 assists and 5 steals, while Denver was hounded by Lakers defenders and shot only 26% on their 3-pointers.

This year, Murray did it again with the Celtics, as he tried to score his 50th point with a basket as the game ended. I don’t know how many other teams have hard feelings against him. But the last thing you want to do is poke the bear, especially when you’re not the king of the beasts. There’s nothing dumber than giving teams permanent motivation, unless you can back it up like the Warriors.

But what happens when their other injured players return? Won’t that get them back to being a super team?

Gary Harris is a very good guard, but he doesn’t move the needle defensively. Last year, Denver went 7–3 without him.

Isaiah Thomas captured magic in a bottle under Brad Steven, but no matter how well he shoots, all he does is move the needle on offense.

Will Barton might be a difference maker, but he got hurt in the second game of the season, and the Nuggets still went 7–1, so it’s hard to say.

And don’t forget Nick Young! He won’t move the needle on defense, either, but he is guaranteed to make Denver a little more lovable. [Note: since they released him, Denver has gone 5–1. That’s a smart GM!]

Overall, what made the Nuggets an elite team to start the year was their improved defense. Last year, they were #23 in defensive efficiency. This year, they jumped to #6.

Over the last six games without Millsap, their defensive rating has ballooned to 108.9 (#16), while their net rating fallen to 1.8 (which projects to a 46-win team).

In the end, Denver may be more gold-plated than solid gold.

Denver showed a lot of improvement early in the season, and that early hot streak will certainly be enough to get them in the playoff for the first time in six years. The big question is how well Millsap plays after coming back from his injury, as he is the key to the defense and rebounding.

I think it’s unlikely they win a playoff series unless they are able to secure home court advantage. And even then, I wouldn’t bet on them if they have to beat LeBron James in four out of seven games.

Written by

Ad agency creative director, writer & designer at Former pro tennis player and peak performance coach for professional athletes.

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