Can the Denver Nuggets Contend in the Western Conference?

Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets, Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets have appeared to turn the corner that many expected them to in the Western Conference. They have built a solid young core through their draft over recent years and are projected to make the West Playoffs for the first time since the 2012-13 season. Not many could have predicted their incredibly hot start to the season that has resulted in a 9-1 record through the team’s first 10 games. This puts them as the early second seed in the West, trailing only two-time defending NBA Champions, the Golden State Warriors, who are 10-1.

What has been to the key to this blistering start from the Nuggets? The defense. I know it’s hard to believe, considering it’s the Denver Nuggets. They have missed out on being the eight seed in the playoffs by losing on the last game of the season two years in a row now, and the biggest problem with those teams was the defense.

In the Nuggets first 10 games, they are holding opponents to just 102.4 points per game, good for fourth in the league, and are also the second-best in defensive efficiency, allowing only 0.996 points per possession (according to teamrankings.com). The NBA world has been waiting on this Nuggets squad to put everything together on the court, and this looks to be the year where they establish themselves as a top team in the Western Conference for years to come.

The Denver Nuggets began stockpiling assets through the draft in 2014 by selecting current starting shooting guard, Gary Harris, with the 19th overall pick and later taking current starting center, Nikola Jokic, with the 41st overall pick. This was when the Nuggets started building what we are seeing today and will continue to see for a long time.

Harris came out of Michigan State known for shooting abilities and potential as a defender, given his speed and length. He is also a very underrated athlete and the perfect off-ball player that every team in the NBA today craves. Jokic turned out to be the surprise, though. His overall skill set is incredible for someone his size with limited athleticism.

His court vision is superb, being one of the league’s top passing big men who also is not afraid to rebound. He can score inside, in the mid-range, and from deep, even though some games he takes a step back when his teammates are playing well. He was never known as a great defender, but Jokic will always make his impact on the game somehow on that end as a help defender, and he is the Nuggets’ centerpiece as they head into the future.

In 2016, they found their point guard. The Nuggets selected Jamal Murray with the seventh overall pick out of Kentucky. Murray is an absolute stud and could be one of the NBA’s premier shooters in a few years’ time. He is quick, has great athleticism, and projects to be a solid defender at the NBA level with the right amount of effort. With the 15th pick, they selected forward, Juancho Hernangómez, a solid utility player off the bench. They also took Malik Beasley with the 19th overall pick, who is one of their go-to bench shooters and also has the length to bother shots on the defensive end.

The Nuggets traded for electric bench scorer, Will Barton, from the Portland Trail Blazers in 2015 and he just signed an extension this past summer to stay in town. He will reportedly be out with a hip injury for the next month, but he will likely start at small forward when he returns. The Nuggets received a do-it-all center, Mason Plumlee, in a trade from the Portland Trail Blazers in 2017, and also traded for Trey Lyles from the Utah Jazz, a former lottery pick with a lot of upside as a scorer.

The Nuggets stockpiled a lot of talent, but their Achilles’ heel has been defense for years now. In the summer of 2017, they signed free agent forward, Paul Millsap, who was a four-time All-Star in his previous four seasons with the Atlanta Hawks. He was signed to help the team fix their defensive woes and put them over the top as far making it to the playoffs and advancing. After missing much of last year, he is playing well for the Nuggets to start the year and provides an amazing veteran influence for the young players on the Nuggets.

Then the Denver Nuggets made some savvy moves this past summer to assure them that they would not be denied the playoffs again. They went out and signed Isaiah Thomas to a veteran minimum deal. I do not believe there is any better value contract in the NBA today for what Thomas can do for this team when he returns from injury. Just two seasons ago with the Boston Celtics, he averaged 28.9 points while only standing 5-foot-9. He is a two-time All-Star who has had his career derailed a bit due to a nagging hip injury, but he will be instrumental to the Nuggets upon his return.

What maybe the most important key to their future was drafting Michael Porter Jr. with the 14th overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. Just a year earlier, Porter Jr. was projected to be the number one pick in the draft but he was only able to play a few games for Missouri due to a back injury. He fell all the way to the bottom of the lottery, with the Los Angeles Clippers passing on him twice, and the Nuggets took the chance. They figured they had enough talent that even if he does not pan out, they are still set up very well for the future. And if he does pan out, the Nuggets just got what could be a transcendent NBA superstar.

The youth of this Nuggets team is the most intriguing part. Jokic is 23 years old, Harris is 24, Murray is 21, Beasley is 21, Lyles is 23, and Porter Jr. is only 20. This team is good now and only figures to get better under the veteran leadership of Millsap, Barton, and Thomas. They figure to be one of the Western Conference’s elite teams for years and years to come.

When Barton, Thomas, and Porter Jr. all return for the Denver Nuggets, watch out. This team is already competing at such a high level, and these three will put them over the top. I do not know if they will be able to challenge the Golden State Warriors, but this team should be near the top of the Western Conference and is geared up for long playoff run.