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Are the Denver Nuggets the real deal?

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The only team keeping up with the Warriors out west are the Denver Nuggets. A young team with loads of offense and a revamped defense, they could be a real problem.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Other than the Golden State Warriors, many of the high-profile teams out west have struggled to start the new year of basketball. The Rockets and Jazz were widely considered to be conference contenders, and they both sit at below .500. LeBron JamesLakers are already in turmoil, while the Pelicans and Timberwolves sit near the bottom of the conference. Injuries and small sample size notwithstanding, the standings so far are truly surprising.

The only two teams with one loss in the conference are the Warriors and Denver Nuggets. The Nuggets handed the Warriors their only loss, and dropped one game to the Lakers. Hosting a much-improved defense, they seem like locks to make the playoffs now.

Led by center Nikola Jokic, Denver has always had an impressive offense. Jokic’s shooting, finishing, and passing make him almost unstoppable when he’s aggressive. Jamal Murray and Gary Harris as a tandem are like a Splash Brothers-lite, providing explosive shooting and playmaking. Paul Millsap, Juancho Hernangomez, and Trey Lyles are all strong players, while Monte Morris and Malik Beasley have become solid rotation guys. They’ll get a boost when Will Barton returns from injury as well.

The last two years, their playoff pursuits have been thwarted by defensive struggles. Jokic in particular has never impressed on that end, and they’ve been among the worst defensive teams in the league for a while. But this year, they’ve turned it around, and are currently the third best defense. That’s so impressive one can’t help but think it’s a fluke.

But a lot of it is real. Gary Harris and Paul Millsap are particularly good defensive players, and can help cover up their teammates’ mistakes. But most importantly, the Nuggets have altered their defensive scheme: instead of dropping Jokic towards the paint in the pick and roll, where his lack of quickness and length can be exploited on drives, they’ve put Jokic up near the ballhandler, forcing him to make a play.

It’s a more aggressive system, and one that requires more communication between its players. But so far, it’s worked almost perfectly. I don’t expect the defense to stay as elite as it is now over the course of the season, but I do think it’ll probably end up as a good defense.

There’s a rising chance that the Nuggets will be the Warriors’ fiercest contender in the Western Conference. Historically, they’ve given the Warriors trouble: their fast pace and great spacing are always a concern, and the Dubs have had issues guarding Jokic in the past. And with such a young roster, they’ll be a problem for years to come.