Nikola Jokic And The Nuggets Are Surging

Nikola Jokic And The Nuggets Are Surging

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When Michael Porter Jr. was sidelined with a back injury that derailed his 2021-22 season, the Denver Nuggets looked to be in significant trouble. The presence of reigning NBA MVP Nikola Jokic provided a high floor for the Nuggets but, with Jamal Murray already out in recovery from knee surgery, Denver’s previous intrigue as a title contender seemed to be waning. However, the Nuggets are playing some of the NBA’s best basketball as the calendar flips to March, and the latest injury provides real optimism that Denver could be back in the mix at the highest levels.

Denver closed February on the league’s longest winning streak, prevailing in the last six games, and the latest intel points to the potential that both Murray and Porter could be back for the playoffs. It has to be stressed that nothing is official for either player and, even if both can return to the floor, it isn’t a guarantee that either Murray or Porter will be the same player immediately that they were at their absolute peak. With that said, Jokic’s brilliant play this season gives the Nuggets a puncher’s chance against anyone, and Denver is on an extended run of high-level performance without the team’s No. 2 and No. 3 options.

The Nuggets are 21-9 since Christmas, posting a +6.4 net rating over that 30-game sample. The endpoints are arbitrary but, in short, Denver sports top-10 rankings on both offense and defense over the course of more than two months. Jokic is, by any definition, a top-tier MVP candidate, and he has arguably been better this season than last season. At this point, his on-off splits are the stuff of legend, with the Nuggets out-scoring opponents by 10.0 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor and losing by 8.6 points per 100 possessions when he sits. Regardless, Jokic’s statistical profile is outlandish, both in box-score numbers and advanced metrics, and he is carrying an obscene workload.

Beyond that, there is credit to be doled out to players like Monte Morris, who is filling in admirably for Murray, as well as Will Barton, Aaron Gordon and others. Jeff Green has given the Nuggets quality minutes in a depth role and, knock on wood, the team’s key pieces have remained healthy aside from Porter and Murray. There is perhaps reason for skepticism that the Nuggets are truly contenders right now based on the team’s place in the standings as they battle for the No. 5 seed, rather than home-court advantage. With that said, Denver was widely viewed as at least a peripheral contender at full strength, and the Nuggets have been (much) better than anticipated when accounting for the pair of high-profile absences.

Where does Denver stack up in this week’s DIME power rankings? Let’s explore the space.

1. Phoenix Suns (49-12, Last week — 1st)

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The Suns are on a two-game losing streak, and nothing is assured in the absence of Chris Paul. Phoenix remains in a comfortable position at the top of the heap, though, and the Suns will need to compile more losses to be in any danger of a drop. Devin Booker entering health and safety protocols makes the immediate road tricky, and their stranglehold on the West’s best record may not be quite as tight.

2. Memphis Grizzlies (43-20, Last week — 3rd)

Ja Morant erupted for 52 points in a memorable performance on Monday. That isn’t the reason Memphis is No. 2 in the pecking order now, but it certainly helps. The Grizzlies are 34-10 in the last 44 games and a Thursday showdown in Boston will be quite interesting to watch on a national scale.

3. Miami Heat (41-21, Last week — 4th)

The Heat are 9-1 in the last 10 games and perfect since the All-Star break. That leads to a two-game lead in the East, and there is a lot to be said for that. Miami may not be this good, but this is a team with a top-five net rating and a playoff-ready roster.

4. Philadelphia 76ers (37-23, Last week — 7th)

It is a tiny sample, but the Sixers are 2-0 with James Harden on the roster. Both wins came in dominant fashion (+22.2 net rating), and Joel Embiid continues to dominate. Philadelphia’s success may not be linear, but the early returns with Harden in the mix are positive, and he has a track record of getting on board and up to speed quickly.

5. Golden State Warriors (43-19, Last week — 2nd)

After fighting it off for a while, the Warriors had to drop this week. They blew a massive lead to Dallas before losing to Minnesota on Tuesday, and Golden State is 2-6 in the last eight games. Draymond Green’s status is the most important factor but, without him, they’ve been fairly ordinary.

6. Denver Nuggets (36-25, Last week — 10th)

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As discussed above, the Nuggets are rolling. Denver also has the next four games at home, including matchups with Oklahoma City and Houston to keep it going.

7. Utah Jazz (38-22, Last week — 9th)

Utah has the No. 2 net rating in the NBA, trailing only Phoenix. The Jazz also beat the Suns this week, even if one should acknowledge that Chris Paul might’ve helped Phoenix. Quin Snyder’s team is 8-1 in the last nine games and, really, the Jazz have been the team they were supposed to be when healthy. For example, Utah is 32-14 when Rudy Gobert takes the floor this season.

8. Boston Celtics (37-27, Last week — 5th)

Boston gets dinged for a bizarre 21-point loss to Indiana this week but, if you glance at the numbers, that was kind of a “no way” game when seeing what the Pacers shot from the perimeter. The Celtics then overcame a 17-point deficit to beat the Hawks on Tuesday, and Boston’s defense turned up the heat in the second half, even without Jaylen Brown. The Celtics continue to play at a high level, and they are within just three games of the No. 2 seed.

9. Milwaukee Bucks (37-25, Last week — 8th)

Kyrie Irving did play (and play well), but there isn’t much of an excuse for the Bucks losing to the current version of the Nets at home. That accounts for the minor drop in the pecking order here, and Milwaukee did throttle Charlotte on Monday to get back on track. Defensively, though, the Bucks haven’t been dominant lately and they need to find the top gear soon.

10. Dallas Mavericks (37-25, Last week — 11th)

Dallas is 21-7 in the last 28 games and, since MLK Day, Luka Doncic has been dominating. He is averaging 32-10-9 over a 19-game sample, and combined with a stingy defense, the Mavericks are playing quite well. Sunday’s road win over Golden State speaks for itself, but the Mavs also managed to pull one out of the fire in Los Angeles on Tuesday.

11. Chicago Bulls (39-23, Last week — 6th)

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Chicago was artificially high in the rankings last week as a result of a winning streak against bad teams. This is a harsh market correction given that the Bulls just lost to the Grizzlies and Heat, both of which are outstanding. Broadly speaking, Chicago’s defense isn’t playing at nearly the same level that it was early in the year, and that caps the ceiling, even if DeMar DeRozan is out of his mind.

12. Minnesota Timberwolves (34-29, Last week — 14th)

Minnesota has wins over Memphis, Cleveland and Golden State since the All-Star break. Of course, the Wolves were blasted by the Sixers in the middle of that run, but it’s an overall positive nonetheless.

13. Toronto Raptors (34-27, Last week — 12th)

After losing four of five, the Raptors got right with a back-to-back sweep over Brooklyn. As we’ll touch on later, beating the current Nets isn’t a huge accomplishment, but Toronto needed those wins. They also have a three-game cushion over Brooklyn for the important No. 7 spot in the East.

14. Cleveland Cavaliers (36-25, Last week — 13th)

Cleveland hasn’t been the same team lately, largely due to injury-related issues. The Cavs are 1-4 in the last five and, while this was already the case, Cleveland is now the most frequent answer for “which team at the top of the East do you want to play in the first round?”

15. L.A. Clippers (33-31, Last week — 17th)

In a bizarre scheduling quirk, the Clippers have played three of their last four games against Houston. That will pad the win column under any circumstances, and it did so here with a four-game winning streak. I’m not sure we learned anything about L.A., but the wins count.

16. Brooklyn Nets (32-31, Last week — 16th)

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March is here, and we still don’t know much about the Nets. Kevin Durant hasn’t played since Jan. 15, and Brooklyn is 5-16 since then. Ben Simmons is still ramping up and seems further away than anticipated, and Kyrie Irving still can’t play at home. It’s a holding pattern still.

17. Atlanta Hawks (29-32, Last week — 15th)

The Hawks just can’t get it going. Atlanta led by 17 points in Boston on Tuesday, only to give it all back and lose another competitive game. On the bright side, the Hawks are 12-7 in the last 19 games and six of the seven losses are against quality opponents. Unfortunately, the Hawks dug a sizable hole with a slow start, and they can’t keep losing tight ones, even against good teams.

18. New Orleans Pelicans (25-36, Last week — 22nd)

CJ McCollum is averaging 28-6-6 since joining the Pelicans, and he is riding a 63 percent true shooting clip. That almost has to regress to some degree, but he’s been a difference-maker. New Orleans is 22-20 since a 3-16 start and a very solid 23-24 when Brandon Ingram is in uniform. They are also trying to win right now, and that is evident.

19. San Antonio Spurs (24-38, Last week — 20th)

San Antonio beat Washington in double overtime and then hung with Miami all the way to the buzzer before losing respectably in Memphis. That was on-brand for the season in San Antonio, with the Spurs now 14 games under .500 but still out-scoring opponents through 62 games. Wild stuff.

20. Charlotte Hornets (30-33, Last week — 21st)

Having Charlotte in the top 20 is a nod toward a talented roster, but injuries and ineffectiveness remove a lot of optimism. The Hornets are 2-11 in the last 13, and a blowout win over Toronto this week is the reason Charlotte stays ahead of teams like Washington.

21. Portland Trail Blazers (25-36, Last week — 18th)

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The post-break reality smacked Portland in the face. The Blazers won four in a row in mid-February, defying logic of a team that is shifting to rebuild mode, but Portland just lost two games by a combined 69 points at home. The losses came to quality opponents, but that was a swift reminder of where this roster is right now.

22. Washington Wizards (28-33, Last week — 23rd)

It is almost unthinkable that the Wizards could be within one game of the play-in, but they are. Washington just finished a 1-2 week that wasn’t exactly impressive, but they held serve against Detroit on Tuesday, and the Wizards are… just lurking there.

23. Los Angeles Lakers (27-34, Last week — 19th)

Enough ink has been spilled on the Lakers recently but, in a word, yikes. Shaq openly discussed the potential that the Lakers have quit on Tuesday and, despite a valiant comeback effort, Los Angeles lost again. They are 3-10 in the last 13 games and 0-3 since the break, with each loss coming at home.

24. Sacramento Kings (23-40, Last week — 25th)

It’s not as if the Kings were good this week, losing the first two games after the break, but a lopsided win over OKC allows Sacramento to rise. That has more to do with what the Knicks did (see below) than anything, but De’Aaron Fox has at least 20 points in every game since returning on Feb. 8. It’s good to see him finding his groove again.

25. New York Knicks (25-36, Last week — 24th)

Woof. The Knicks are on a five-game losing skid and, since MLK Day, New York is 3-15 with a -6.8 net rating. That is dreadful, of course, and it is easy to forget the Knicks were one of the more positive stories in the league last season. A lot has changed in a short period of time.

26. Oklahoma City Thunder (19-42, Last week — 26th)

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Shai Gilgeous-Alexander missed almost a full month with injury, but he has shined since returning. Gilgeous-Alexander has scored 32 points or more in each game since the All-Star break, including a 36-8-5-3-2 effort in a win over Indiana. Oklahoma City’s defense is also strong, but keeping SGA going, at least long-term, is vital.

27. Indiana Pacers (21-42, Last week — 27th)

In an effort to be positive, the Pacers thrashed the Celtics this week and hit 17 threes in that basketball game. Tyrese Haliburton is also playing well and, when Indiana’s key players are actually available, they can be competitive. The Pacers can also rack up the losses they need for draft reasons. It’s a win-win.

28. Orlando Magic (15-47, Last week — 29th)

Markelle Fultz returned to action on Monday for the first time in more than a calendar year. His presence won’t fix everything in Orlando, but the Magic have quietly won two in a row, even if both victories came at home against bad teams. The Magic still have more intriguing (and future-facing) talent than most teams near the bottom, and getting Jonathan Isaac back would be the next logical step.

29. Detroit Pistons (15-47, Last week — 28th)

The Pistons have technically won three of the last five! They almost beat Washington on Tuesday! There should really be a five-spot break in the rankings between Detroit and Houston right now, but it’s true that the Pistons have the NBA’s worst net rating (-9.5) for the full season.

30. Houston Rockets (15-46, Last week — 30th)

It probably shouldn’t be this bad in Houston, but it is. The Rockets have lost 1o in a row and 14 of the last 15. They are allowing more than 1.2 points per possession in those 15 games, and the growing pains can be felt across the league.

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