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The coronavirus pandemic halted the NBA season four months ago, the equivalent of an entire offseason. It is easy to forget where everyone left off, let alone what has changed since we last saw them play basketball. In order to get you up to speed before the July 30 season re-opening slate at Walt Disney World in Orlando, we will be reviewing and previewing each of the 22 teams scheduled to participate.
[More NBA restart previews: Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Dallas Mavericks • Houston Rockets • Indiana Pacers • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Memphis Grizzlies • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Toronto Raptors • Utah Jazz • Washington Wizards]
Where were the Denver Nuggets?
Place: Third in the West
It was extremely Nikola Jokic to begin the season out of shape and give almost no ground. His Denver Nuggets picked up where they left off last year, when they held steady in the top half of the Western Conference standings during the regular season but faced questions about their ability to truly contend in the playoffs. Those questions continue to linger, even after Jokic arrived to training camp in great shape.
Jamal Murray still has not made the leap to stardom that many expected after steady improvement in his first three seasons left him hovering on the edge, and Gary Harris has been underperforming in relation to his contract, but Denver’s depth of talent still delivers regular-season wins without starpower beyond Jokic. Will Barton is one of the more underrated role-playing wings in the league, Paul Millsap is still a valuable contributor at age 34, and Jerami Grant has fit seamlessly after being acquired last summer.
The Nuggets are just a well-run organization from the top down, and you can count on coach Mike Malone’s charges to be better than good at everything but short of great, save for Jokic’s brilliance.
Who’s in and who’s out?
The Nuggets have couched reasons why they do not yet have a full contingency of players in Orlando, but they do expect to be fully healthy for the playoffs. The unavailability of a handful of players forced Denver to start a tall-ball lineup in its first scrimmage. Gary Harris and Torrey Craig came through the NBA’s quarantine protocol this week, but Michael Porter Jr., Monte Morris and P.J. Dozier had yet to join the team. All five missed Wednesday’s scrimmage, allowing for Bol Bol’s breakout performance.
NBA Finals odds: +1400
Championship odds: +2200
Porter was an elite prep prospect whose injuries cut short his freshman season at the University of Missouri and cost him his entire first season with the Nuggets. He debuted in Denver’s sixth game this season, scoring 15 points on eight shots. Signs of what made the 6-foot-10 wing’s slip to 14th in the 2018 draft were evident from the start. Still, he had trouble earning Malone’s trust for the first two months of the season and did not crack the regular rotation beyond minutes here and there until late December.
It was Porter’s 25-point effort on 11-of-12 shooting that caught the NBA’s attention at the start of January, and he was a reliable contributor until spraining his ankle at the end of the month. In 15 games this past January, Porter averaged 12.3 points on 52/48/81 shooting splits and 6.9 rebounds in 21.4 minutes a night. The 21-year-old is one of few players on Denver’s roster with true star potential, and realizing that this season could make the Nuggets a true threat in the playoffs. The deadline-day trade of impending free agents Malik Beasley and Juan Hernangomez should at least afford him the opportunity.
(All times Eastern)
Aug. 1: Miami Heat, 1 p.m. (ESPN)
Aug. 3: Oklahoma City Thunder, 4 p.m. (NBATV)
Aug. 5: San Antonio Spurs, 4 p.m.
Aug. 6: Portland Trail Blazers, 8 p.m.
Aug. 8: Utah Jazz, 3:30 p.m. (TNT)
Aug. 10: Los Angeles Lakers, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Aug. 12: L.A. Clippers, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
Aug. 14: Toronto Raptors, TBD
The Nuggets are ripe for a first-round upset, since they no longer enter the playoffs with one of the best homecourt advantages in sports. Denver barely edged a seventh-seeded San Antonio Spurs team in the first round last season, before losing to the Jusuf Nurkic-less Portland Trail Blazers in the second round. The Nuggets own a negative net rating away from the Pepsi Center this year, seventh-best in the West.
None of their first-round opponents will feel like considerable underdogs, especially if the Houston Rockets remain in the sixth seed. Yet, the Nuggets will enter the playoffs with the experience and confidence that comes with knowing they were a C.J. McCollum hot streak away from the 2019 Western Conference finals. Reaching that stepping stone this season would feel like an accomplishment. It is incumbent upon Murray and the supporting cast around Jokic to find a level of consistency throughout the playoffs if Denver wants to challenge top-heavier teams, but that feels unsustainable for two months.
Yahoo Sports NBA prediction
Place: Third in the West
Finish: Western Conference semifinals loss
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