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The 3 questions that will define the Nuggets' stretch run

Harrison Wind Avatar
February 21, 2024

Will the Nuggets push for the No. 1 seed?

At the All-Star break last season, the Nuggets were five games clear of the Grizzlies for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. Denver then won four of its next five, culminating in a statement win at home over the second-seeded Grizzlies that pretty much locked up the first seed. The Nuggets then went 8-10 over their last 18 games and eased into the playoffs.

The West looks a lot different this year. The Nuggets are 36-19 and currently fourth in the conference. The top four seeds are separated by only three games. It’s going to be a fight to the end and it doesn’t seem like anyone will be locking up the top spot in the West anytime soon.

Nov 1, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) drives while Minnesota Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert (27) defends during the first half at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

That’s partly why I don’t expect the Nuggets to necessarily chase the No. 1 seed. Also, the Nuggets proved last playoffs that they can win on the road, and I think Denver will prioritize health and rest down the stretch as long as they’re in the top-4 and guaranteed homecourt advantage in the first round. Based on conversations I’ve had with people close to the team, I think the Nuggets’ goal is a top-3 seed.

But is that good enough? I’m not terrified of the Suns in the postseason, but I wouldn’t want to play Phoenix (currently the fifth seed) in the first round. Getting on the Thunder’s side of the bracket would be best-case scenario for the Nuggets.

Will Michael Malone expand the rotation?

Coming out of the All-Star break, I think the answer is no. Malone was focused and serious at practice on Tuesday. He definitely wants to get the 3-game losing streak that the Nuggets entered the break on out of his mind quickly, starting Thursday vs. the Wizards. I bet we see the starters play heavy minutes right away to rack up a few wins.

And that brings me to my biggest and only real concern about the Nuggets right now: Fatigue. Denver’s starting five plays more minutes per game (20.4) than any other five-man lineup in the NBA. They’ve looked tired at different points this year. Part of that is surely the championship hangover that sets in at various points throughout an 82-game season after a Larry O-B. But I also wonder if they’re being overworked.

Feb 12, 2024; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon (50) drives for the basket between Milwaukee Bucks center Brook Lopez (11) and forward Jae Crowder (99) in the third quarter at Fiserv Forum. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

If there’s a reason why they have, it’s becasue the Nuggets’ bench has been awful for a second-straight season. I do think it would be the right move to expand the rotation a bit down the stretch, give Julian Strawther another shot at minutes, and play Jalen Pickett (I actually think his passing and table-setting can help a second unit that can’t put the ball in the basket or generate good shots.) But the more likely move is that the Nuggets just increase Michael Porter Jr.’s minutes with the bench.

Also, try to stay away from subbing Aaron Gordon in at backup 5. Those minutes are taxing on him. The Nuggets need all five starters fresh and playing at a high level to win another ring.

What do Christian Braun and Peyton Watson look like over the rest of the season?

Braun and Watson are two members of a three-man bench (with Reggie Jackson) that I assume will play every night in the playoffs. Don’t expect Denver to add anyone to the roster at this point in the season. From everything I’ve heard, this is the team. Braun played in the playoffs last year and played well at times. His 15 points off the bench in Game 3 of the Finals were huge. But Watson is untested in that environment.

Even though I think Watson right now is a better player than Jeff Green was last season, you trusted Green in the playoffs becasue he was a veteran. He had been there before. He probably wasn’t going to make fatal mistakes, and Green ended up delivering when it mattered.

I still want to see Watson grow more over the rest of the regular season. I do trust him, but the playoffs are just different. I want to see him continue to limit mistakes and really sink into the role that he’ll be playing for the Nuggets in the postseason. Defense should always be his No. 1 priority, although I think he has more playmaking potential and talent than many realize. The Nuggets will be counting on him.

Dec 22, 2023; Brooklyn, New York, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) celebrates with forward Aaron Gordon (50) and forward Peyton Watson (8) and guard Christian Braun (0) during the third quarter at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Braun is maybe the bigger question mark right now. He’s had a bad sophomore season. His 3-point shooting has improved marginally and Braun does look like a more confident shooter, but he hasn’t taken any other steps with his offensive game. He’s not defending at the level he was last year either.

I have faith that Braun will gradually ramp up and look like the player he was last season as we get closer to the playoffs. Denver will need him too.

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