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The Nuggets just won’t go away

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Despite injuries and youth, they’re still fighting for the first seed in the conference

NBA: Houston Rockets at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Few predicted the Nuggets to be this great this year. After barely missing the playoffs last season, the Nuggets stuck with their young core and have blossomed into one of the best teams in the league. They’re on pace for 57 wins, they’re currently first in the Western Conference, and they’re young enough to keep improving for many years.

Their team revolves around All-Star Nikola Jokic, one of the most unique centers in a league full of unicorns. Averaging 7.7 assists per game, he might be the best passing center in NBA history already, and he’s only 23. He’s also a handful to cover in the low post and a career 35% shooter from beyond the arc. He doesn’t score in as much volume as other elite centers, but he makes up for it with efficiency and playmaking.

For the last three years, the Nuggets have had a top-five offense with him at the helm, despite a revolving, fairly mediocre supporting cast. And this year, even with major injuries to Will Barton, Gary Harris, and Paul Millsap, the Nuggets have held strong with Jokic at the helm.

But he’s had help. The Nuggets have gotten surprisingly solid seasons from contributors who were non-factors in seasons past. Monte Morris has been red-hot from deep and boasts one of the best assist-turnover ratios in the league. Malik Beasley has been their highest scoring bench player and is a few free throws away from a 50-40-90 season. Mason Plumlee, Juancho Hernangomez, and Torrey Craig have also proven useful this year. With Gary Harris and Will Barton returning to form after injuries that robbed them of much of the early season, the team should be even better.

The Nuggets’ offense is special: they don’t initiate most of their actions with a guard or wing ballhandler as most teams in the league do. They begin it with Jokic in triple-threat at the top of the key, where he can hit cutters and shooters as they spring free. Almost everybody on the team can hit a three, and they don’t over-extend from their roles. It’s currently the second best offense in offensive rating this year.

The Nuggets’ Achilles heel in past seasons has been their defense. With Nikola Jokic’s lack of mobility and verticality, they’ve had a difficult time defending the paint. But this year, they’ve seemed to turn it around. They were top five in the league in defensive rating for a while, but it’s slipped recently to 14th. How their defense fares for the rest of season will be crucial for assessing their chance at playoff success.

They do have some solid wing defenders, and Paul Millsap is certainly a strong glue guy to shore up lapses on that end. But against offenses like the Warriors, you just have to be concerned about their lack of size and athleticism. They have a difficult time switching, and they can still make undisciplined defensive mistakes typical of such a young team. When the Warriors played in Denver in January, they roasted them for open shots all night long.

Another potential weakness for the Nuggets in the playoffs is their lack of ballhandling. The Nuggets’ second best player this season, Jamal Murray, is their nominal point guard, though most of their offense runs through Jokic. Murray scores in volume, but he’s been inefficient this season, with a True Shooting percentage of .528. He’s also turnover-prone and not the best passer. He’s drawn comparisons to Steph Curry in the past, but as of right now, he’s not an elite playmaker or shooter.

At age 21, Murray still has a bunch to learn about being a point guard in the NBA, and many of his weaknesses are covered up by Jokic’s absurd offensive talent. Though I’m sure he will improve as a ballhandler and creator in the future, it could still be a weakness in the playoffs.

Nevertheless, the Nuggets are a dangerous team and probably the second best team in the West. Although they could end up taking the first seed, I do think the Warriors probably beat them out eventually. Even so, given their fantastic offense and improved defense, I think there’s a slim chance that the Nuggets could defeat the Warriors in the playoffs. And even if they don’t this year, they’ll be a problem for years to come.