Despite the injuries, the Nuggets are very much alive in the West
When it was announced that Michael Porter Jr. would undergo his third back surgery earlier this week, it was the latest in what seems like a lifetime of disappointments for Nuggets fans. Losing Porter along with P.J. Dozier for the season took the wind out of the fanbase’s sails and the championship-contending hopes of most fans were dashed.
If a championship this season is nothing more than a pipe dream at this point, what should we expect from the Nuggets the rest of this injury-riddled season?
Teams in every sport suffer injuries every year, and every year the initial reaction is that Team X can’t or won’t recover from a catastrophic loss. And more often than not, the initial reactions prove to be wrong.
Let’s take a look at the NBA standings where every team has played 20 or more games or about one-quarter of their season. The Warriors haven’t had Klay Thompson at all this season, and are still vastly outpacing the oddsmakers preseason win total prediction of 48.5 with an 18-3 start. Golden State could go 31-30 the rest of the season and still eclipse their projected win total. Similarly, Brooklyn has played without Kyrie Irving all year and is still on track to top their projected NBA-best 56.5 wins on the season.
Golden State and Phoenix have already created some distance from the field in the West, along with Utah sitting comfortably ahead of the rest of the pack early at 14-7. But the next seven teams in the standings all sit within two games of .500 more than a quarter of the way through the season.
So what does all of this mean for the Nuggets?
It means despite their deflating injuries and very disappointing 10-11 start, they’re still very much in the mix of where most experts projected them to be this season. Denver’s preseason over/under win total was 47.5, the sixth-highest in the West. Utah, the Lakers, Phoenix, Dallas, and Golden State were all expected to finish ahead of the Nuggets in the regular season.
After the current top three, Denver still has a good chance to finish with the fourth or fifth seed for the playoffs. Of course, they’ll have to play much better than they’ve shown so far, and certainly better than they did in a disappointing loss in Orlando on Wednesday. With Nikola Jokic, Aaron Gordon and Will Barton healthy, they’ve got a better roster than any of the other six playoff contenders, and are certainly capable of playing much better than any of those teams.
Denver has already dominated Dallas in one win and lost to them when Will Barton didn’t play. Despite Luka Doncic’s greatness, the rest of the Mavericks roster is lacking.
Ja Morant carried Memphis to two wins over the Nuggets in three days in Memphis, but he’s also injured after carrying a heavy load for a young team with a long way to go to earn a playoff spot.
The Lakers are an outright disaster who can’t play defense and have been exposed when LeBron James isn’t on the court. L.A. is a threat as a brand-name only.
The Clippers are the better of the two Los Angeles teams, but Paul George has to will that team to victory every night until Kawhi Leonard returns – if he returns at all after ACL surgery in July.
Portland has dealt with a slow start and injury to Damian Lillard early, but even when healthy hasn’t shown any indication that they’re going to be any different for Chauncey Billups than they have been in recent years under Terry Stotts.
Minnesota is an exciting young team that will battle for a playoff spot until the end of the season but hasn’t shown any consistency to make a big move up the standings.
So what does all of this mean for the Nuggets? It means if they can keep Jokic, Gordon and Barton healthy together (knock on wood), they’ve got as good of a chance as any of these teams to finish in the top five in the Western Conference. Especially if Jamal Murray makes a successful return after the All-Star break.
With the reigning MVP playing even better than he did a year ago, that group is certainly capable of winning 35 of their remaining 61 games, especially against the aforementioned competition. None of those other teams have the core or the centerpiece that has shown or even indicates that they are capable of doing the same.
Despite the injuries and the slow start, I’m willing to bet the Nuggets will be right where they were expected to be all along at the end of the regular season.