After winning his first MVP in 2020-21, Jokic is putting together an excellent case to become the 13th player in NBA history to go back-to-back. But despite employing the league’s top player right now, few fans would consider the Nuggets as legitimate title threats.
However, as long as the Joker is on the court, Denver is a force to be reckoned with. And in a few short weeks, it’ll be far easier to see why.
Nikola Jokic has carried the Denver Nuggets this season
The NBA community marveled at Jokic’s 2020-21 season. The sixth-year center set career-highs of 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 8.3 assists while playing in all 72 games.
In year seven, the Joker is somehow better.
Through 60 games, the 27-year-old is averaging 26.1 points, 8.1 assists, and a whopping 13.9 rebounds. He’s also shooting 57.1% from the field and holds an effective field-goal percentage of 61.4%, a career-high.
The last few days have been especially impressive for the Serbian star. In a four-game, five-night stretch, Jokic averaged 34.8 points on 61.9% shooting to go with 14.3 rebounds and 10.0 assists. Denver went 3-1 in those contests, improving its overall record to 40-27.
There is a laundry list of other stats Jokic dominates in, though none show his impact on the Nuggets more than box plus-minus. According to Basketball Reference, “BPM uses a player’s box score information, position, and the team’s overall performance to estimate the player’s contribution in points above league average per 100 possessions played.”
With 0.0 considered league average, Jokic enters the weekend at 13.9. To put that into perspective, Michael Jordan’s best season was 13.0. This means the Nuggets are being led by a center putting up one of the greatest seasons in NBA history.
The Nuggets are flying under the radar in title conversations
For the vast majority of the season, the Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors have been the favorites to win the West. Out east, there are numerous teams getting some title buzz, including the first-place Miami Heat and the Joel Embiid-led Philadelphia 76ers.
There hasn’t been much talk around the Nuggets this season. After all, their 40-27 record only places them sixth in the West, two games ahead of the Minnesota Timberwolves and the play-in round.
That needs to change as soon as possible.
Thanks in large part to Jokic, Denver is eighth in offensive rating and 11th in defensive rating. Only the Suns, Warriors, Heat, Memphis Grizzlies, and Boston Celtics are top-11 in both. But keep in mind, the Nuggets have also played without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., their two best players not named Nikola Jokic.
With Porter expected to return from back surgery within the next couple of weeks and Murray almost a year removed from a torn ACL, Denver has a very good chance to add two high-caliber players to one of the best all-around rosters ahead of the playoffs.
When fully healthy, the Nuggets have already proven their ability to make noise in the tournament. In 2020, Jokic, Murray, and Porter helped lead Denver to seven-game victories over the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers before falling to the LA Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. Even as the six-seed, Denver could do something very similar this year.
One projection likes the Nuggets’ chances to make noise in the playoffs
If Jokic is healthy, the Nuggets will be a threat. But his greatness alone is not enough for Denver to win its first NBA title.
On average, oddsmakers aren’t too worried about Murray and Porter’s inevitable returns. The Nuggets are roughly 11th or 12th on the list of teams with the highest odds to claim the Larry O’Brien Trophy. But one projection model thinks Denver is getting the short end of the stick.
FiveThirtyEight‘s NBA projections, which update daily, give the Nuggets a 26% chance to win the West and a 14% chance to win the Finals. Those are the second-highest percentages in the West behind Phoenix and the fourth-highest in the league. Additionally, Denver’s “full-strength rating” is even higher than the Suns, who just clinched a playoff spot with Chris Paul on the shelf.
In other words, the Nuggets with Jokic, Murray, Porter, and a deep collection of role players are easily one of the best teams in the NBA and a largely-overlooked threat to win the title.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.