By Avi Tyagi
Over the course of two rounds, my view of the league has shifted dramatically. Teams have fallen and risen in the small-sample spectacle that is the NBA playoffs. The Sacramento Kings and Golden State Warriors played an incredible 7-game series and were both conference contenders in the West. Neither made the Western Conference Finals, with the NorCal-champion-Dubs defeated by the persistence of the rebuilt Los Angeles Lakers and their defensive fulcrum, Anthony Davis. The Eastern Conference has been shaped by inconsistency and questionable late game decision-making. And yet, throughout the playoffs, one team slowly climbed the charts and – by game 2 of their conference semifinals series – became my pick to be favorites for the NBA championship. I present to you, the Denver Nuggets: whole, healthy, and spunky.
Every Nikola Jokic regular season on-off statistic was emblematic of two separate concepts. Number One: the bench units in the regular season struggled while the Nuggets searched for players to fill regular season minutes. Number Two: Jokic is absurdly talented and one of the most versatile offensive weapons in league history. He can maximize the offensive ceiling of any supporting cast around him and might be the best distributor of the last 15 years. Nikola was well on his way to deservedly winning the MVP this season before a combination of calf and wrist injuries merged with teamwide general 1-seed malaise to tank the last month of his season at the same time that his number one competitor for the award enjoyed the best individual month of his illustrious career. In the debates, Embiid vs Jokic became an all-consuming battle that often over indexed on each player’s flaws. Jokic’s team’s performances in the last few playoffs became a point of contention and the concerns about his defense took center stage in lackluster regular season losses to the Rockets and Spurs. I would have still voted Jokic MVP by a slim margin on the merits of the pure dominance of his offensive production for the first three quarters of the season. Embiid and Giannis have been tremendous defenders, but play to play, this was not either’s most active season. Embiid’s shot blocking prowess covered for an inconsistent motor in parts of the season, but he didn’t provide the level of scheme versatility or comfort as a switch defender for me to feel comfortable not anointing Jokic MVP for his passing wizardry. This is to take nothing away from the supreme talents of Joel Embiid or Giannis Antetokounmpo, it is merely meant to highlight the dominance of Nikola Jokic’s offense. Embiid would have had to have top-10 defensive seasons at their position for me to feel comfortable anointing him MVP and Giannis would have needed to be in the DPOY conversation (due to the gaps in pure offensive efficiency and jumper efficacy). That’s how dominant Nikola Jokic is – despite being a below average defensively for a starting center – as an offensive hub, capable of making every exquisite pass and finding easy openings to improve every player around him. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Nuggets had a 125.4 Offensive Rating and a +13.2 net rating in Jokic’s minutes on the court, despite few offensive creators on the roster and no All-Stars. Those otherworldly and incomparable figures form the resume of a top-3 player in the league (even with real flaws on the defensive end), and the cornerstone for a championship contender.
As an additional point, Jokic’s performances in last season’s playoffs were woefully underrated. Yes, he was cooked by Steph Curry on an island, but most big men are and he received little help from the perimeter defenders meant to help protect one of his relative weaknesses. On the supporting cast front, the 2021-22 Nuggets played 10 players more than 50 total minutes in the 5-game series against Golden State. Aside from Jokic, Aaron Gordon, and Jeff Green, here were the other 7:
- Monte Morris, the current Wizards starting point guard but a high-quality backup point guard on almost every other team on the NBA. His defensive deficiencies made him more of a luxury addition for the Nuggets than a true cornerstone piece on the idealized version of the roster.
- Will Barton, also traded to the Wizards in a deal which I was skeptical of at the time but proved to be a shrewd move by Nuggets management. They correctly identified that Barton’s excellence as a cutter and ability to play off of handoffs and off-ball with Jokic masked his decline as an independent shot creator. His free throw rate dipped significantly from 19.2% in 2020-21 to 2021-22 and his defense had been on a downward decline for years. They rightfully included him with Monte Morris to add a key starter (KCP) to their 2022-23 perimeter defensive juggernaut. For the first time since 2014-15, Barton was forced to create offense outside the Nuggets’ ecosystem and his season was rough. A 50% true shooting percentage mark led to a mutual parting of ways with the Washington Wizards and impending free agency will likely feature a tepid market at best. Perhaps the affable Barton will adjust better with a second season outside of the Denver ecosystem, but 2022-23 was a poor season that highlighted some examples of the benefits of playing with the league’s premier passing savant.
- Austin Rivers, JaMychal Green, and Na’Shon Hyland all featured prominently for Denver that series. All 3 have become deeper bench options for new teams and would not feature prominently and in a consistent role in a healthy playoff rotation.
- Bryn Forbes and DeMarcus Cousins are out of the league.
Jeff Green and Aaron Gordon are fantastic and reliable defenders and cutters, but neither is a bastion of self-creation. That’s the roster Jokic had to work with. As perhaps the only offensive option Golden State had to truly fear, Nikola Jokic dealt with doubles at all times, including frequent Kevon Looney and Draymond Green tag teams. Despite that defensive attention, Jokic averaged 31 points per game for the series on 64% true shooting – with 13 hard-earned rebounds and 6 assists per game for good measure. To prevent a sweep, Jokic scored 37 points on 78% true shooting in Game 4 against the dynastic Warriors in their march to a championship with the league’s 2nd best defense. Coupled with excellent playoff performances in the 2020 Western Conference Finals run, Nikola Jokic’s playoff resume is stronger than his playoff narrative. While his 2021 run was far spottier defensively, his 2022 playoffs showcase offensive and defensive improvements in terms of processing of responsibilities. If he looked just as bad on defense in the 2022 playoffs as he did in 2021, it was driven more by the fact that Steph Curry is the human torch and the best guard in the NBA. Conceding mid-rangers to Chris Paul or struggling to keep up to the level against a stagnant Portland offense is a different exercise entirely from keeping up with Steph Curry and a fully functioning Golden State offense. 2022 laid the groundwork for Nikola Jokic’s dominance in the 2023 playoffs.
From a team perspective: this is Denver’s moment. I thought the 2021 team (after the Aaron Gordon trade but before the Jamal Murray injury) was one of the most potent rosters in the league, but this team is just inarguably better. With a healthy Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic, playmaking and scoring is rarely ever a concern. Perimeter defense, the ability to match up with difficult forward assignments, impeccable spacing, and excellent defensive instincts as a help side defender have been the characteristics required of a strong supporting cast and this is undoubtedly the version of the roster that best checks those boxes. With another 2 seasons in his role as apex forward defender, Aaron Gordon has become one of the select few worthy of being considered a lockdown isolation defender against larger forwards. In 2022, I had him in consideration for an all-defense team, but only left him off due to some concerns about screen navigation. Not only has he improved his lateral quickness and become somewhat better at chasing opponents around picks, but even his isolation defense has become more overwhelming. 1v1, his performance against KD was the singular best defense against KD’s static isolations that I’ve seen in a long time. KD’s bread and butter plays, the ones often thought to be unguardable, finally met their match. According to Second Spectrum, on 230 possessions matched up against KD, Durant scored only 69 points with 12 assists to 12 turnovers and on 46% true shooting. An incredible showing. KCP, Bruce Brown, and Christian Braun have built a ferocious attack of perimeter defenders, all capable of knocking down open 3s to keep defenders honest, and all supremely alert as cutters to create easy reads for the Serbian magician. In my preseason preview, the lack of efficient secondary creators and questions about bench rotations and viable defensive options, in addition to questions about Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. held Denver back in my predictions. All were answered. Bruce Brown and Aaron Gordon provided just enough as secondary passers and shot creators to give Denver more options when possession stalls in bench lineups. Michael Malone dialed up the best month of his coaching tenure, as the Nuggets zoomed from rotation to rotation, nullifying most half-court advantages with effort and guile. Jeff Green and Christian Braun were playable enough offensively to allow the Nuggets to field a sturdy 8-man rotation with 4 above-average defenders (Gordon, KCP, Braun, and Brown), and the late season emergence of Peyton Watson provided another option on deck if need be. The team spent into the tax for the first time since 2009-10 and actually added Reggie Jackson on the buyout market 5 days after the trade deadline as a backup point guard change-up option. Most importantly, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., and Nikola Jokic were and are all relatively healthy and playing together in a playoff series for the first time since their conference finals run. It’s still the Final Four and it’s worth mentioning that anything can still happen. The sheer talent and versatility of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and the Boston Celtics may present the most difficult challenge of all with their own collection of long switchable wings and staunch guard defenders. That does not diminish what is possible for this team and its supporters. For an enduring fanbase, with 0 NBA Finals appearances, an audience largely unable to watch games because of contract disputes between the main television provider in the area (Comcast) and Altitude TV, this is the moment. The trophy awaits.