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The All-Star break is a ceremonial halfway point in the NBA regular season, but in reality, the Denver Nuggets have just 24 games between now and what could be the organization’s first playoff appearance in five seasons.
Denver has navigated turbulent Western Conference waters with injuries to its marquee free agent acquisition Paul Millsap, who the Nuggets committed roughly 29 percent of their salary cap to this season, without a reliable backup point guard for most of the year and injuries to other frontcourt mainstays in Nikola Jokic and Mason Plumlee. Injuries have caused both big men to miss stretches of seven and eight consecutive games respectively.
The Nuggets are currently sixth in a jumbled wild west where seeds three through 10 are separated by just four-and-a-half games. FiveThirtyEight.com’s playoff projections swing dramatically week-by-week, and the Conference’s playoff race looks like it will come down to the final few games.
Here are three storylines that will determine Denver’s playoff seeding come April — or if it reaches the postseason at all.
Can Paul Millsap pick up where he left off (on offense)?
There were growing pains at the beginning of the year when it came to Denver’s offense and Paul Millsap, which was expected when integrating a high-usage big. But after the first month of the season, the offense began to click.
Denver had the fourth-best offense through eight games in November before Millsap went down and was scoring an elite 115.4 points per 100 possessions with Millsap on the floor and 110.6 per 100 overall during that stretch. For reference, over Denver’s past 12 games where the Nuggets are 9-3, they’re scoring 114.6 points per 100 possessions.
The Nuggets were figuring things out on offense when Millsap got hurt and now have to go back to the drawing board when he returns, which Denver hopes will be in early to mid-March. There will be some growing pains on offense just like there were at the beginning of the year.
Millsap used a team-high 24.2 percent of Denver’s possessions, per NBA.com, which accounts for field goal and free-throw attempts as well as turnovers, in the first 16 games of the season. With Denver’s offense leading the league in points per game and second overall in offense over its past 12 contests, it’s possible Millsap takes more of a backseat than he did at the onset of the season.
Will the Nuggets start to win on the road?
Winning away from home is one of the toughest things to do in the NBA — especially if you’re a young team like Denver. The Nuggets are just 9-19 away from Pepsi Center this season, and those nine victories are by far the fewest among the 16 current projected playoff teams. Philadelphia has the second-fewest at 12.
Thirteen of the Nuggets’ final 24 games are away from Pepsi Center, and seven of those 13 games are against current projected playoff teams. Matchups in Cleveland (March 3), Miami (March 19), Washington (March 23), Philadelphia (March 26), Toronto (March 27), Oklahoma City (March 30) and Minnesota (April 11) on the final day of the regular season await Denver.
Millsap’s return will help, but he’ll still be tending to a core of 23-and-younger players in Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokic and Gary Harris.
How much can Denver’s defense improve?
While the offense will take time to mesh with Millsap, the Nuggets’ defensive captain should step in and immediately improve Denver’s defense. And boy do they need it. The Nuggets’ defense has slipped to fourth-worst over their past 12 games and eight-worst overall.
Millsap’s presence will help by itself. He’s good enough to hide some of his teammate’s weaknesses. He’s also a constant communicator on defense — an area where Denver has struggled for most of the season.
Plumlee’s return will help the defense too. While Millsap is Denver’s best interior defender, Plumlee is second. The seven-footer missed the Nuggets’ past eight games with a right calf strain but should be ready to go Friday versus San Antonio. Without Plumlee, Denver is surrendering a league-worst 55.0 points per game in the paint. Before Plumlee went down Denver gave up an average of 45.4 paint points per game.