We’re officially at the mid-way point of the regular season. The Nuggets are 28-13 through 41 games and sit atop the Western Conference. Denver is in a groove. DNVR Nuggets looks back on the first half of the year and ahead to what storylines will define this team’s run to the playoffs.
What’s your top takeaway from the first half of the season?
Adam Mares: The blueprint has never been more clear. Clavin Booth brought in defensive minded, unselfish, high IQ players with length and they have fit in swimmingly. KCP is having a career year and looks like the 99th percentile fit at shooting guard alongside Jamal Murray. Bruce Brown is a home run. Christian Braun even looks like a key piece of the team’s present and future. The blueprint is crystal clear.
Harrison Wind: This is the best Nuggets team, definitely of the Nikola Jokic ever, and probably in franchise history. The Nuggets are currently the best offense in NBA history — I still can’t get over how easily Denver scores against everyone — and can defend when they want to. They’re deep, experienced and not afraid of anyone that they’ll face in the playoff, which I think that’s an underrated aspect of this group. They’re not going to be intimidated or scared by anyone in the West, even the Warriors. I think they gained confidence against Golden State from that first-round matchup last season. They’ll enter that series feeling good about their chances if the Nuggets and Warriors meet again in the postseason.
Brendan Vogt: They are who we thought they are. The Denver Nuggets look like contenders. The case would be easier to make with a more impressive defense to date, but it’s been trending up, and the Nuggets are notching quality wins left and right. There’s another level for this team to reach. There’s more value to extract from Michael Porter Jr., and Jamal Murray’s been predictably inconsistent in his return. Should they each level up, Denver will emerge as the team to beat. Still, the Nuggets look capable of winning it all as we stand on January 13. We don’t have to dream of hypotheticals.
Who’s having an underrated season so far?
Adam: Vlatko Cancar. There was a large portion of the Denver Nuggets fanbase that was furious when the Nuggets brought Cancar back on a three-year deal for $6.8 million. Why waste a roster spot on a guy who is only here to be Jokic’s friend? Now he’s shooting 50% from 3, dunking from the foul line, guarding 3-5 on defense, and keeping the ball poppin in a bench unit that otherwise has a tendency to get stagnant. There are more reasons than not to believe that Cancar should be a top 9 rotation piece for the Nuggets now and going forward, allowing the team to use their limited resources on other positions.
Harrison: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has been everything the Nuggets could have hoped for and more. He’s played in 40 of 41 games, which is tied with Bruce Brown for a team-high. He’s been solid defensively and after watching him for half a season you have to trust him big-time in a playoff environment. He’s shooting the lights out too, which is the key storyline surrounding KCP’s year. Caldwell-Pope is shooting 48% from 3 on 4.4 attempts per game. His previous career-high from 3 was 41% in 2020-21 with the Lakers. I don’t know how much he’s going to regress either. Every shot Caldwell-Pope gets within the Nuggets’ offense is a high-quality look. He’s shooting 47% from the corners and 49% from above the break. He’s an elite, elite marksman and the perfect championship piece.
Brendan: Michael Porter Jr. is embracing his role. We’ve seen him miss significant time, and we’re watching him struggle to score. Still, he’s making a winning impact. Porter’s been asked to remain a confident shooter yet not shoot too often. He’s been charged with a relentless focus on defense, even when the ball isn’t finding him consistently on the other end. He’s been told to make an effort on the glass, an increasingly difficult proposition with each back surgery. He’s done it all without complaining and done much of it well. All while each mistake is slid under the proverbial microscope.
What’s the biggest question facing the Nuggets over the next month?
Adam: Can they maintain the consistency that has defined this great stretch of offensive and defensive basketball. Lots of teams can hit peaks. The Celtics had a November peak before crashing back to Earth. But every year one team finds a rhythm and never loses it. That team usually goes deep into the playoffs. Are we seeing a hot streak or the beginning of a team that is finding a permanent groove?
Harrison: Can they separate from the rest of the West’s top teams? The Nuggets are atop the Western Conference but have the same record as the Grizzlies. Stacking as many wins as possible right now is key. The Nuggets getting the No. 1 seed would be huge for this team heading into the playoffs with how dominant they are at home. Plus, you can ensure the playoffs go through Denver. That would be my thinking.
Brendan: It’s still about the defense for me. We’ve seen enough in the last month to know they’re capable, but it would be optimal to talk about consistency. If they follow this stretch up with another month of improved defense and court quarter efforts, it will be hard to temper expectations.
The next concern is the bench, but that’s less alarming to me when evaluating their chances at playoff success. The rotation will shrink, and the talent is there. It’s still about the defense.
How do the Nuggets reincorporate Jeff Green once he returns?
Adam: It’s the toughest call of the season. Right now I love the look Cancar and Nnaji are giving Denver. Both guys play hard every second they are on the court and know why they are out there. Jeff is more talented than both of them but also more inconsistent with his energy. When he is re-inserted back into the lineup, I’d like to see Malone experiment with playing him alongside Gordon and Jokic in a blended front court that is too big and skilled for teams that try to play small.
Harrison: Everything has come together for Denver’s second unit as of late. Jamal Murray has taken command of that group. Bones Hyland has gotten from 3 and is finding more space to operate with Murray on the floor. Vlatko Cancar and Zeke Nnaji have added some life and energy to a group that always seemed so stagnant early on this season. It would suck to break that up right now, and I’d continue to roll with what the Nuggets have found for a while. But when this group hits a rough patch (it eventually will) then look at Green.
Brendan: It may come at the cost of Vlatko Čančar minutes, which I can’t co-sign. Vlatko is playing genuinely good basketball on a struggling unit. Removing his IQ and activity from the lineup feels like a step in the wrong direction. That said, I expect Jeff Green to play. Michael Malone trusts him.
What do you want to see the Nuggets do in the trade market?
Adam: I think a trade is in order. You can’t play all 4 of Nnaji, Cancar, Jordan, and Green. I don’t see the team moving on from the two veterans and Cancar has more value in Denver than elsewhere. As much as I love Zeke, is he a player that can be more valuable to a team short on his talent and high on his upside? I start there while also being cognizant of the fact that this team needs to start preparing for the playoffs. No defensive liabilities, no high variance players.
Harrison: Be aggressive in looking for upgrades but don’t take a risk. After thinking the Nuggets would definitely make at least one trade ahead of the Feb. 9 deadline, now I wouldn’t be surprised if they stood pat, based on what I’m hearing. They like their roster and the chemistry, and the vibe with this group right now is so good. You don’t want to mess that up. If a scenario develops where Denver can find another wing defender (one that Michael Malone will play), I think the Nuggets will look to make that move but as long as it doesn’t disrupt the ethos of this team.
Brendan: A defensive wing or backup big would be ideal. While the backup center slot isn’t a damning weakness for an otherwise strong roster, it would be preferable to enter the playoffs with at least one option that feels playable. Zeke Nnaji isn’t a center. And DAJ won’t cut it at that point. Is Denver content to enter the tournament without a real solution?