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The Nuggets’ 9-1 start to the regular season had Fat Lever’s phone buzzing. The national spotlight cast on Denver prompted some of Lever’s former teammates like Wayne Cooper and Danny Schayes to reach out to reminisce about their 1980’s glory days when they were racing up and down the floor at the old McNichols Sports Arena.
“A lot of the old guys started calling me,” Lever told BSN Denver by phone. “We’re all talking with each other about the team, sending out stupid text messages, yelling at (Nuggets television analyst) Bill Hanzlik. Coop called me the other day and said, ‘Nobody had a better record than we did at 12-2 in 1984-85.’ I’m like, ‘Coop, don’t even make me think back that far!’”
The Nuggets are 1-5 since, but Lever and Alex English, who played alongside one another from 1984-1990 in similar Rainbow Skyline uniforms to the ones Denver debuted last week, still have high expectations for the Nuggets this season. Through 16 games, Denver has the fourth-best point differential in the league and is one of just three teams (Toronto, Portland) to place in the top-10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
“They’re one of the top three teams in the Western Conference and probably one of the top-5 teams in the NBA,” said English. “If they get to the playoffs, which I feel they will if everybody’s healthy, and you’ve still got Will Barton out, you’ve got Isaiah Thomas yet to come back as well and the rookie, Michael Porter Jr. If they can maintain and get to the playoffs, they could be an upsetter.”
Surprisingly, it’s the Nuggets’ defense, not their offense that’s carried Denver throughout the early portion of the regular season. The Nuggets are the sixth-best defense in the league and give up only 105.3 points per 100 possessions, a stark improvement on the 109.9 points per 100 possessions that Denver gave up on average last season.
English and Lever can relate. In the six years that the two played alongside one another, the Nuggets on average finished 10th in defensive efficiency. Denver was able to post strong defensive numbers under coach Doug Moe while playing at the top pace in the league in all but one of those seasons.
“Being ranked that high may be surprising but I always felt like they had the tools to be a pretty good defensive team,” said English. “When they got Paul Millsap, I felt like their defense would improve because he’s a good defender, but he’s also a good offensive player. He plays both ends of the floor. And they have Jamal Murray and Gary Harris who are just tough defenders. I felt like they would be good and Trey Lyles off the bench, he comes in there and gives them great defense as well. And then Mason Plumlee, he’s a defensive guy. I felt like they would be good early in the season but I expect them to be pretty good all year long.”
Lever thinks Denver can get even better on that end of the floor once the Nuggets get their starting small forward back from injury.
“Will Barton not being out there hurts, because he’s probably the best defender on the team,” said Lever. “In the past, Denver wasn’t playing a lot of defense, so it wasn’t demanded from him, but he has the ability to do it. When Malik Beasley and the bench comes in, those guys are good, but they’re not Will Barton. Millsap helps. He’s a positional type of defensive player. He’s always going to be in the right position and get everyone else in the right position. He can dictate how Denver plays on that end, but he’s not a true shot blocker. Not having a true shot-blocker, that eliminates how good you can be defensively, but as a group, I think they’re a good defensive team, not a great defensive team.”
Denver has gotten more consistent defensive play from star center Nikola Jokic this season. Jokic, like the rest of the Nuggets’ roster, came into training camp with a renewed focus on that end of the floor which has carried over to the regular season. The multiple-effort mentality that’s been a staple of Denver’s improved defense is present from Millsap and Jokic all the way down to the end of the Nuggets’ bench.
The entire league already knows what Jokic can do on the offensive end of the floor. Last season, Jokic tallied 10 triple-doubles (the fourth-most in the league) and became the third big man in league history after Wilt Chamberlain and Kevin Garnett to average at least 18 points, 10 rebounds and six assists per game. His next step is to lead Denver to its first playoff appearance since the 2012-13 season.
Is Jokic a true No. 1 option on a championship-level team?
“I think he is because he’s so versatile,” said Lever, who’s 43 triple-doubles are the eighth-most in league history (Jokic has 16 in his career). “If they’re playing an uptempo game he can spread the floor. “When they’re slowing it down, he can back you down and not jump over you but shoot around you and score in the painted area. His versatility really helps, especially when he’s passing the ball to Jamal and the guys are making jump shots. And when they’re hot and Gary is making his shots, it’s easy for them.”
“To me, he is already that number one piece,” added English. “When you can have a big guy that does what he does on both ends of the floor. Just watching Al Horford play him the other night, and Horford is a pretty mobile big man, he had trouble guarding him because he can shoot the three, he can drive to the hole, he’s a triple-threat guy. He makes great passes. He’s a smart basketball player. So he’s already that guy to me. You’ve got great guards, you’ve got great complimentary guys. Without him, they’re pretty good, but with him, they are a major contender for the Western Conference Finals and possibly a championship team if everyone stays healthy.”
One of those complimentary players that both English and Lever hold in high regard is Murray, who’s had an up and down start to his third season but garnered national headlines earlier this month when he scored a career-high 48 points against the Celtics.
Lever likes Murray’s upside because he can play both backcourt positions and thinks he has the size to eventually become an above-average defender. English has thought highly of the playmaking guard since watching him play as a teenager.
“I saw Jamal Murray years ago when he was a young player in Brazil,” said English. “The NBA had a camp in Rio De Janiero and I was there and these guys were telling me, ‘We’ve got this kid from Canada who’s going to be a great basketball player.’ And I watched him play. He was the best player there. Now when I look at him I look at the confidence he has and the way he plays. I feel like the Nuggets have three potential All-Stars.”
English and Lever have a combined 26 season of NBA experience under their belts. They know the 82-game regular season is a marathon, not a sprint. Injuries and fatigue will creep up throughout the year but believe that Denver has a built-in advantage with its depth and next-man-up mentality that can carry it to the playoffs.
“Other teams will hit their stride and teams will start to adjust to you,” said Lever. “Having guys who can step up at different times, that’s a huge plus. But I picked them in the top-4 in the West at the beginning of the season. I thought Millsap being healthy coming in, getting the guards back, also having Will back here and then with Joker putting up the numbers he did last year, and he was getting better as the season went on. With how they finished the end of the season and losing on the last day, Isaiah Thomas coming in, that will be a tremendous help. So with the other guys getting better, I looked at the rosters and I thought, ‘OK, they’re going to surprise a lot of people.'”
“The key is taking it one game at a time,” English added. “But the positive thing about getting off to a great start is it lets you know and gives you a positive feeling. It makes you realize, ‘Hey we can do this.’ You watch the Nuggets, they’re like the Raptors, everybody’s on the same page. They’re playing great team basketball and its different people on different nights that contribute. I’m happy for them. I’m proud of them. They’re a fun team to watch it’s great to see the Nuggets back in a groove. I don’t think they’ve had this type of team since the years that they had LaPhonso (Ellis) and Dikembe (Mutombo) and even that team was not as good as this team they’ve got now.”