Early this season, Denver has become the best in the West. The Warriors are still undoubtedly the most talented team, but they don’t seem to care about regular season games. Additionally, Curry’s injury exposed their lack of depth. Obviously, it wasn’t a huge issue, the Warriors are still a top 2 team in the West. But now, teams such as the Nuggets have found themselves at the top of the conference with the Warriors. After a big win streak to finish off November Denver has looked unstoppable. What makes the Nuggets incredible start to the season more impressive is the injuries they’ve dealt with. Isaiah Thomas and Michael Porter Jr. haven’t played all season. Will Barton has only played in 2 games. Also, Gary Harris and Paul Millsap have already missed many games with injuries. So, how have they been so good?
It has been a surprise for most NBA fans, but the Nuggets are currently a top 5 defensive team. Last season the Nuggets ranked 25th in defensive rating and fell just one game short of the playoffs. The rapid turn around in defensive success is largely based on two players. The first is Emmanuel Mudiay. The former top 5 pick has shown signs of life in New York, but while with the Nuggets, he was awful defensively. He ranked last among players that played over 550 minutes with the team in every advanced defensive stats. His defensive on/off was also the worse of all players who received significant minutes. In a way trading Mudiay was addition by subtraction. With him gone there have been more minutes for Monte Morris and Malik Beasley who have both played well this season.
The second player critical to their defensive success has been Paul Millsap. After missing over half of last season with a wrist injury, the value of his defense has been obvious. Contrary to Mudiay, Millsap was among the top 3 in every advanced defensive stat and defensive on/off. He also averaged over 1 block and 1 steal, the only player on the team to accomplish the feat last season. So far this year, Millsap has still been an elite defender. He is near the top in every advanced defensive stat, defensive on/off, and is averaging over 1 steal and 1 block. Unfortunately, he was injured a couple weeks ago. The team hasn’t fallen off a cliff defensively, but they certainly miss his presence. Luckily another big man has stepped up his defensive play.
Surprisingly, Mason Plumlee has been one of their most valuable defenders. He is averaging over one steal and one block in just 18 minutes a game to go along with the highest defensive box +/- on the team at 5.2. Additionally, although they’ve only played 80 minutes together this season, lineups with Plumlee and Nikola Jokic have been very successful. Not only do they have a +16.4 rating on the court together, but they dominate the glass. Together they average 5.6 more rebounds than their opponent. Even without looking like an elite defensive team on paper, the Nuggets have made it work, leading them to the top record in the West.
This season players such as Monte Morris and Malik Beasley all have made significant and unexpected contributions. After playing a combined 608 minutes all of last season, the young duo has already played 1,327 minutes just 30 games into this season. On the season Beasley has put up an efficient 8 points on 56.4 eFG%, but the real star has been Monte Morris. Morris is averaging 10 points and 4 assists on 48% shooting to go along with a red-hot 45% from three in 25 minutes a game. He is only in his second year but has been a huge contributor.
Even better for the Nuggets, he and Murray have formed a dynamic backcourt. In over 350 minutes of play together, Morris and Murray are outscoring opponents by 9.3 points per 100 possessions. Morris’ defensive ability has been a huge help to Murray. Also, his ball handling has allowed Murray to play off the ball, aiding his shooting. Morris has easily been the most underrated player on the Nuggets. His unexpected contributions allowed the Nuggets to thrive despite injuries.
If this team is fully healthy once the playoffs start, they will not be easy to beat in a 7 game series. They already beat top teams such as the Lakers and the Warriors, as well as the Thunder and the Raptors, twice. Also, only one player receiving consistent minutes has a negative net rating. That player is Torrey Craig and once Will Barton returns from injury his minutes will be significantly reduced. This team has no obvious weak spots and has played extremely well together. While they may not have as much talent as the Warriors, the cohesiveness they’ve played with this season has earned them the one seed in the West.
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