It’s Denver Nuggets Time
3:52 PM EST on December 15, 2022
For a highlight reel of the two-time defending MVP's best game of the season, the video recap of Nikola Jokic's 43-point, 14-rebound, eight-assist, five-steal gem against the Wizards on Wednesday night is hilariously unflashy. Jokic shot 17-for-20 from the field, a gaudy figure that somehow still undersells how efficient he was, as one of his misses was a 56-foot heave at the end of the first half and the other was a blocked shot that he instantly grabbed and laid into the hoop. He spent the entirety of his team's 141-128 win against the spiraling Wizards crunching and munching whoever Washington put on him in single coverage, then casually distributing the ball to cutters and shooters when they wisely doubled him. The passes were as otherworldly as usal, but really it all looked so simple for Jokic, and for the Nuggets, who have emerged through the first third of the NBA season as the steadiest of the preseason Western Conference favorites, despite enduring an equally uncertain start as the Clippers and Warriors.
The win against the Wizards was a pretty representative game for the Nuggets. They have the league's second-most efficient offense, and they scored 141 points. They have the league's third-least efficient defense, and they let the Bradley Beal-less 'Zards hang 128 on them at home. They were without Michael Porter Jr., and they've only played 199 minutes with all three of Jamal Murray, Porter Jr., and Jokic on the floor together (for comparison's sake, Ben Simmons, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving have played 67 more minutes together). Jokic went off, and he has steadily increased his workload throughout the season.
That last bit is probably the most interesting one. The Nuggets were touted as a preseason championship contender, on the theory that Murray and Porter Jr. would finally be healthy at the same time, and that their supporting cast was better assembled to play around the unique talents of Jokic and the imperiousness of Murray. Murray was out for 18 months after tearing his ACL and Porter Jr. only played the first nine games of the 2021-22 season before getting shut down with yet another back injury. Ever the facilitator, Jokic went out of his way in order to help everyone fit in together at the start of the season. He was almost comically passive, as he spent most of his time giving up the ball, doing anything he could to get Murray as many shots as possible, and grinding the offense to weird halts by experimenting with his new teammates Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown. Once everyone got more comfortable together, Jokic's usage percent started ticking up (evenly, at five percentage points per month) and the Nuggets' record rose with it. He's basically been averaging a 30-point triple double over Denver's past 10 games.
One of those past 10 was an all-action 121-120 win in Portland. Jokic was heroic in that game, though the day belonged to Murray, who hoisted a season-high 21 field goals (he's done that thrice), wound up plus-16 in his 35 minutes, and, most importantly, hit the buzzer-beater to seal the win. The Nuggets will not get anywhere in the playoffs if Jamal Murray is not his usual turbo-mode self, and while he is clearly not there yet, he is steadily playing his way into form. A career-high percentage of his shots are coming in floater range, which is an indication that he's driving a ton but not quite getting all the way to the rim like he used to. There's no reason to think some of those drives won't punch a bit further into the defense as he gets comfortable with the physicality of NBA basketball, and now that he gets to play with Bones Hyland for the first time, he's no longer responsible for being the only guy who can take anyone off the dribble. Hyland has been everything the Nuggets hoped he would be this season (he was awesome in that Portland game and even better last night), especially as a shooter.
Thanks largely to Porter Jr.'s heel injury, the Nuggets are barely shooting the three. They put up 141 last night while only making four threes, and they shoot the fourth-fewest in the league, ahead of only teams built around assaulting the rim (Lakers, Pelicans) or the midrange (Bulls). However, they shoot the best percentage in the league, which I think is cause for some serious optimism. Bones is hitting 44 percent of his long balls and taking 6.3 per game, while KCP and MPJ are both also north of 40 percent. Hoisting more threes seems like a way to both score more points and keep the Nuggets' veterans' ligaments and tendons intact. Denver is still a reasonably young team, yet Hyland gives them an undeniable spark both on and off the court as a lightning-quick attacker and a funny guy who loves to gas up his pals.
Now that we are starting to get far enough into the NBA season that the standings matter, one major story thus far has been the stunning level of parity in the league. Despite preseason handwringing about a catastrophic and widespread tanking campaign, 24 of the 30 teams in the league are actively trying to win, and the surprise early success of the Jazz, Pacers, and Thunder has coincided with swoons from preseason darlings like the Warriors, Clippers, and, to a lesser extent, Nets. The Sacramento damn Kings are a good, functional basketball team, and the Miami Heat are lucky to be within one win of .500. It's been weird. While Boston and Milwaukee have differentiated themselves from their mucky Eastern Conference counterparts, the West is far gummier. Denver sits a game behind Memphis and New Orleans, both of whom have augmented their core of young athletic geniuses with beefy, combat-centric veterans. Denver isn't terribly far ahead of Phoenix, Portland, or Sacramento (lol), though they clearly have more room to grow than most of their mid-playoff cohort. There's no reason to believe Porter Jr. can really hold up for a whole season and a playoff run, and ACL tears tend to have a long half-life, though even with both injured stars still getting back into game shape, Denver is starting to fly. They correctly conceive of themselves as championship contenders, and while they'll be judged on what happens in June, the process of them putting it together in December has been fun to witness.