Do Nuggets have enough to reach NBA Finals? Nikola Jokić says ‘probably’: West thoughts
Thirty-four thoughts for Luka Dončić’s 34-point triple-double that I witnessed in person as part of a four-games-in-four-nights barnstorm through the Western Conference last week.
1. The Denver Nuggets have earned the right to ask themselves this simple question: Do they have enough to get to the NBA Finals and win? Well, do they?
3. It’s a longer story as to why, but I visited with five of the top eight teams in the West — or at least they were in the top eight when I saw them. By the time I was through with the Nuggets, they were 26-13, a half-game up on Memphis and winners of eight out of 10 while boasting the league’s top defense over that stretch. I saw the Phoenix Suns, who have dealt with as many potentially catastrophic problems over the last two seasons as any team in the league. The LA Clippers reminded me of a typical, regular-season team under Tyronn Lue, and they also smacked me in the face with an audacious statement from their star player. The New Orleans Pelicans punted against the Dallas Mavericks, and Dončić caught the punt and ran it back for a touchdown.
4. Considering the circumstances and the total body of work, I came away most impressed by what is happening in Denver, where a Nuggets team that’s overachieved for years — through either growing pains of a young group or maddening, season-long injuries — may finally have it all together.
5. These Nuggets are, to borrow Joker’s phrasing, “probably” the best team Michael Malone has ever coached. He was an assistant on the 2007 Cavs that rode LeBron James’ back to the NBA Finals before being swept by the Spurs. These Nuggets are way deeper than that group. The Nuggets reached the Western finals in the NBA bubble in 2020, where they fell in five games to James and the Lakers. Jokić has been the NBA’s best player for most of the 2 1/2 seasons since. Jamal Murray (knee) and Michael Porter Jr. (back) missed all, or just about all, of the 2021-22 campaign. Neither is quite at his peak, but both are back on the court and taking big steps toward getting back to the top. Porter, known as a defensive liability, earned the team’s defensive player of the game award in Thursday’s 122-91 destruction of the Clippers I witnessed. For the first time in close to two years, Murray was able to play both nights of back-to-back games.
6. “Continuity was a strength of ours for a while,” Malone said, pointing to the difference between this year’s team and his good Nuggets teams with Jokić and Murray and Porter from the past. “Granted, getting Jamal and Michael back, and we still have Nikola, but we had eight new pieces coming in, so I think for us to be 39 games in and to be where we are is pretty incredible when you consider all the new pieces.”
7. “I really feel that we have another level that we can get to,” Malone said.
8. I want to focus on one of the Nuggets’ “new pieces.” Mr. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The Nuggets acquired him from Washington in a trade for Will Barton and Monté Morris — two players who were long a part of the “continuity” Malone mentioned.
9. At 6-5, KCP is a gritty defender at the two-guard position who is capable of guarding up if need be. He is the NBA’s second-best 3-point shooter this season at an astounding 47.9 percent. And he’s the only player in Denver’s locker room with a championship ring on his finger — the one he captured on the defensive-minded, LeBron-led Lakers team that beat the Nuggets in the conference finals a couple years ago.
10. “I definitely feel like I see a lot of the same traits from that championship team that we had (in L.A.) here,” Caldwell-Pope told me. “We just gotta keep it together, be a unit, keep holding each other accountable.”
11. Beyond KCP, you’d have to squint to find the similarities. Those Lakers were massive (LeBron started at point guard, Anthony Davis started at power forward and they had Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee in the middle), whereas the Nuggets are either really young (Vlatko Cancar, Zeke Nnaji) or really old (DeAndre Jordan) behind Jokić. But when it comes to dominating a game, Jokić is able to put his mark on each game the way LeBron did. That is not a comparison I make lightly.
12. “I compare those two a lot, and people think I’m crazy, but, aside from the athleticism, their IQ and their ability to play chess and not checkers is just remarkable,” Malone said. “Nikola, he’s like a computer man. He reads that stuff really quick and he makes the right read 9.9 times out of 10.”
13. Malone said this after Jokić went for 28 points, 15 rebounds, and 10 assists in a home win over Cleveland. Jokić’s points (25.3), rebounds (10.8) and assists (9.4) per game are all down from the past two seasons, but he has way more help — from Murray, Porter, KCP and Aaron Gordon, who’s enjoying arguably the best year of his career and could be Denver’s second All-Star. If this group, with Jokić running the show, can borrow that trait from the 2020 Lakers and get into teams defensively, as they have over the last three weeks, they are the favorite to come out of the West.
14. “I think ‘consistency’ is the word probably that they circle around the NBA — when you’re consistent, hopefully you can make something happen,” Jokić said. “That’s why I think we are playing good the last two months, probably, with some up and downs. But when you’re consistent, you can make bigger things happen.”
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15. A brief interlude. For those of you familiar with my coverage at The Athletic over the years, you know I write these “thoughts” packages from time to time. They were created and honed in their current form years ago by The Athletic’s Jason Lloyd, when he worked for the Akron Beacon Journal, I was writing for the Plain Dealer and we were goofing around the world covering LeBron’s Cavs. They are just bits and pieces of reporting and observation, broken up by numbers. The gimmick is to create a count of thoughts equal to a statistic that stands out from the game in which you just covered. Lloyd was and is the best at it, and the rest of us, when we copy the model, always play for second. Over the years I’ve done my share of silver-medal hunting, but this is the first crack at “thoughts” of the 2022-23 season and first since the conference finals from last year. In a moment of clarity, I’d like to tell you why. There is this one Golden State Warriors fan, a vocal one, who HATES these kinds of listicles. Rips my behind in the comments up and down every time I write one involving their favorite team — which is fairly frequently. I did “thoughts” for all of the 2019 finals between the Warriors and the Raptors, for instance. Anyway, this commenter is like a supporting character in “Mean Girls,” and I, ahem, thought I’d leave them alone during the 2022 finals between Golden State and Boston. Also my ego needed the break. But I didn’t see the Warriors last week, so, Katie, bar the door. The thoughts are flowing now.
16. The Suns went to the NBA Finals two years ago and last year were the best regular-season team in the NBA. As of this writing, they were tied for eighth, losers of five straight and just 2-8 in their last 10. Devin Booker is out at least a month with a hamstring injury. Chris Paul missed weeks earlier this season. Cam Johnson hasn’t played since Nov. 4. But that’s not all.
17. Since losing the 2021 finals — a hard-fought, six-game affair against Milwaukee, which is always hard to digest — the Suns have had to cope with the ESPN bombshell report that owner Robert Sarver had made racist and sexist comments to employees for years. They had a COVID outbreak in the 2022 playoffs and were blown out in Game 7 of the conference semis by Dallas. Contract negotiations with Deandre Ayton were contentious, and his feelings were hurt. Sarver is selling the team. Jae Crowder has been ex-communicated, and the Suns are trying to trade him. He hasn’t played all season. Am I forgetting anything?
18. “If I sit and think about it, yeah, it’s been a little bit different,” coach Monty Williams said on Wednesday, before the Suns blew a game in Cleveland they had led for most of the night. “I don’t think any coach looks around the league and (compares one set of circumstances to another), but when I look at the things that have happened to the organization, yeah, it’s a lot of stuff.”
19. “I always go back to the fact that it’s still basketball,” Williams continued. “Nobody’s going off to war. I’ve dealt with a lot worse than tough stretches in basketball. I understand what comes with the tough stretches is criticism, is criticism, is criticism. You know what I’m saying? No one likes that. But it’s just basketball.”
20. Clippers coach Tyronn Lue seemed to draw some criticism internally Thursday for sitting all five starters after halftime, with the Clippers trailing Denver by 34 points. That’s not a misprint.
21. “I feel like these are the times where we need to be in there and dig ourselves out those holes and learn what we’re doing, instead of flipping the page and going to the next game,” Leonard said after the game.
22. Leonard is not exactly a firebrand. He speaks in low, hushed tones. He added that this was just “my perspective,” as though there was room for others, like Lue’s. But at the same time, Leonard has played in just 17 games this season due to injury management, missed all of last year recovering from the knee injury he suffered in the 2021 Western semifinals and hasn’t played more than 60 games in any campaign since 2016-17. He is the proprietor of load management. The Clippers, meanwhile, were playing again the next night in Minneapolis, and Leonard is always a candidate to sit on the second night of a back to back. Paul George is also often limited by injury and is currently dealing with a hamstring issue. George labored against the Nuggets and shot 1 of 9. Leonard, at 2 of 7, was no better. I am not sure players with such a spotty track record of availability could, or should, worry about being robbed of a chance to dig out of a 34-point hole they dug in the first place on a Thursday night in January. Then again, neither Leonard nor George played that Friday against the Timberwolves.
23. The Clippers had lost five straight entering play Sunday and were seventh in the West. For years, though, in Cleveland and Los Angeles, Lue has been a coach who prioritizes health and patience in the regular season. This year is no different.
24. As an aside, I needed to interview Lue privately, and it had to be done in a quiet space because sound quality is important for this particular body of work; the visiting coach’s office was not an option. “There’s a thousand people in there,” he said, raising his eyebrow to me like he does when he’s annoyed. So we improvised.
25. There’s a closet in the hallway at Denver’s Ball Arena where the Nuggets’ media relations team prints copies of box scores. There is enough room for a thin table, two chairs, a copier and some paper. And that’s where we went, interrupted twice by Nuggets staffers stopping in to pick up their backpacks to go home. The door crashed into me both times it opened.
26. From Denver I flew to Dallas on Saturday to catch up with Jason Kidd and see the Mavericks and Pelicans. The flight was packed, and I mean packed, with fans of two different schools. Filing past me, seemingly one after the other, were men, women and children wearing sweaters for either North Dakota State or rival South Dakota State. Their teams were facing each other in the FCS national championship football game in Dallas.
27. “Jackrabbits suck,” North Dakota State fans said on the plane to their South Dakota State counterparts. “Bison suck, go Rabbits,” the SDSU faithful shot back.
28. The Pelicans were playing on the second night of a back to back — which, nowadays, means NBA means fans should prepare to see the understudies. CJ McCollum and Larry Nance Jr. were both given the night off after playing Friday, a “PTO day,” union president McCollum told me. Zion Williamson (hamstring) is out for weeks, and Brandon Ingram hasn’t played since Nov. 25 because of a toe injury. He’s supposed to return on this lengthy road trip. Would have been a nice lift for the Pels to get him back with all the other big guns out.
29. Even with Ingram and Williamson in and out of the lineup all season, the Pelicans are a solid bunch currently ranked third in the West. They will have depth, outside shooting, veteran presence and versatility when fully healthy. There is an undeniably breezy feeling inside New Orleans headquarters and amid the explosion of wine-soaked, well-attended team dinners. It’s a dramatic change from when there were persistent rumors that Williamson was unhappy, from when they fired Stan Van Gundy as coach in 2021 and even from when Williamson missed all of last year. Pelicans coach Willie Green has been a perfect fit. And they get the Lakers’ first-round pick. Man, it’s good to be David Griffin right now, with this much talent and the Pelicans under the luxury tax.
30. Dallas is playing better overall after a slow start and is in fourth, though Kidd joked that during a recent seven-game winning streak the Mavericks were No. 1 in offense and 29th in defense. (They were actually No. 2 in offense and No. 11 in defense from Dec. 21 to Jan. 3, according to Cleaning The Glass.) They were ripped at home Thursday by Boston and hung on for a 10-point win against the Pelicans’ B-team. We’ll get to Dončić in a sec. Dallas is now 11-1 when Tim Hardaway Jr. makes at least four 3s, like he did Saturday, and Jaden Hardy, who’s leading the G League in scoring, put up 15 points off Kidd’s bench against New Orleans. Dončić was not expected to play in Sunday’s game at Oklahoma City, and Hardy was expected to see more time.
31. Dončić is, again, vying for his first MVP. He posted 34 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds against New Orleans, for his ninth triple-double of the year — one behind Jokić — and the 29th 30-point triple-double of his career. Whether some or all of the Pelicans are in uniform, Dončić finds a way to detonate. His four triple-doubles against them are tied for the most he’s had against any team. Dončić’s 34.0 points per game is tops in the NBA and easily a career high. For the first time in his career, Dončić is shooting north of 50 percent from the field. He also said he isn’t watching MVP competitors closely.
32. “Not really. I watch some NBA games, I always say I watch more Euro League than NBA, but if there’s a good NBA game on, I’ll watch it,” Dončić said.
33. It’s 12:42 a.m. on Sunday, and I’m in Dallas. I am boarding my first flight to get home in less than five hours. That is a story of loyalty, to an airline that has treated me well (so I am willing to connect), and to a Cleveland Browns football team that hasn’t (it played its last game of the season Sunday). So I’ll leave you with this. Dallas’ American Airlines Center is one of the few arenas where reporters still sit on the court. So I had a close and personal view of the halftime entertainment — a man and a woman, wearing Luka jerseys and old-fashioned roller skates, spinning and whirling on an elevated octagon of a platform that couldn’t have been more than six feet wide. At one point, the man put on a blindfold and the woman hung from an apparatus around his neck as he spun her through the air. The guy behind me was losing it as he watched. “‘Why?” he shouted. “Can’t they make a living doing something else?’”
34. My buddy, the Warriors fan, knows the feeling. Thanks for reading, and I’ll talk to you on down the line.
(Top photo of Nikola Jokić and Michael Porter Jr.: Bart Young / NBAE via Getty Images)
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