By: Rajan Nanavati
Those NBA fans who enjoy the NBA but haven’t kept a close eye on the standings early on in the 2018-2019 might find themselves doing a double-take when they see one of the team’s at the top of the current standings.
It’s anything but a surprise that the Golden State Warriors have won eight of their first nine games. It’s not overly surprising that the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors both have seven wins in their first eight games, considering they might have the two best players in the Eastern Conference in Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard.
But the Denver Nuggets, sitting at 7-1 through eight games this season, with the second-best record in the Western Conference to date? Now that’s a surprise.
Coming into the season, we knew that the Nuggets had a really interesting team. From a starting five perspective, you could argue that they had one of the more underrated units the entire NBA, comprised of Jamaal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Paul Millsap, and Nikola Jokic. Jokic and Murray were the headliners of this group, but the versatility of Harris and Barton, plus the steadying presence of a veteran like Millsap really rounded on the group. Off the bench, the Nuggets had high hopes for third-year forward Trey Lyles, and took a fascinating low-risk, high-reward gamble by signing Isaiah Thomas to a one-year, “prove it”-type deal.
So, one season after being eliminated from the playoffs on the final evening of the regular season, it’s not that surprising to see Denver in the playoff mix. What’s even more surprising, even if they are a team coached by Mike Malone, is that they’re allowing the second-fewest points in the Western Conference through Saturday morning’; coming into this season, we expected this team to win in spite of its defense, not because of it.
On offense, Jokic was fantastic over the first month of the season, averaging 21.6 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 7.1 assists per game, and leading the Nuggets in each one of those categories at the moment. Though had one triple-double in October, he came within a rebound and/or an assist away from making that three triple-doubles. Barton is averaging a cool 22-5-5 to date, while shooting over 55% from three, while Millsap has been a defensive stalwart while on the court for the Nuggets.
Critics of the Nuggets will point to the fact that four of their first seven wins came against teams who figure to be prominent members of the 2019 NBA Draft Lottery conversation, like Cleveland, Sacramento, Phoenix, and Chicago. Those who are fans of the Nuggets will point to the fact that two of those first seven wins came against Golden State (the only time this season the Warriors finished with less than 100 points in a game) and New Orleans.
To that end, we’ll get a better sense of just how legitimate the Nuggets are by the end of this month, considering they’ve got games against teams like Utah, Boston, Milwaukee, and Portland (currently in third place in the West) over the course of November, and that’s not even mentioning games against Houston and the Los Angeles Lakers.
But while teams like Houston, Minnesota, and San Antonio are still figuring out where they stand in the Western Conference pecking order, we should take note of just how good this Nuggets team has looked so far.