Why a healthy Denver Nuggets can finish first in the Western Conference

Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murry, Denver Nuggets. (Photo by Justin Tafoya/Getty Images)
Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murry, Denver Nuggets. (Photo by Justin Tafoya/Getty Images) /

The 2022-23 NBA season began about three weeks ago, and the Denver Nuggets currently own one of the better records in the league.

Sitting at 8-4 on the young season, Denver is tied with Phoenix for fourth place in the Western Conference, trailing only the top-seeded Utah Jazz, the red-hot Portland Trailblazers, and the Ja Morant-led Memphis Grizzlies.

Based on their early-season play, there’s a realistic path for the Nuggets to pave their way to the top of the Western Conference. If healthy, they could easily claim the No. 1 seed in the conference standings, handing them a home-court advantage against any opponent in the playoffs.

Golden State’s shaky start to their title defense has left the conference wide open. If the Warriors were to repeat as world champions, they would become the first-ever team to win a ring after a 3-7 start to the regular season. Whereas the Denver Nuggets show real value to contend thanks in large part to their potential on the offensive end.

The Denver Nuggets are shooting lights-out right now

Denver currently leads the NBA in field goal and three-point percentage, with the Nuggets shooting a league-best 49.7 percent from the field and an unmatched 41.9 percent from beyond the arc. Combine that level of efficiency with a 115.1 offensive rating (third-best in the league), and you have an elite offense just waiting to erupt.

The Nuggets currently drain the ninth-most three-pointers per game in the NBA while only taking the 23rd-most three-point attempts, a true testament to their efficiency as a unit this season. The team also ranks second in assists per game, third in field goals made per game, and fifth in points per game.

The Denver Nuggets’ elite ball movement heavily revolves around back-to-back MVP Nikola Jokic. Although the superstar center is yet to hit peak form from a shooting and scoring standpoint, even if he is on pace for a career-high in assists. In fact, the Serbian sensation is responsible for a sizable chunk of his team’s 28.6 assists per game as he dishes out 8.5 dimes per contest.

Denver’s second and third options have made their long-awaited comebacks this fall, which has naturally boosted the team’s offense. With that said, the Nuggets’ passing game has truly been firing on all cylinders, with the team currently leading the league in assist ratio and ranking fifth in assist percentage.

The impact of MPJ and Murray back in the lineup

Upon returning from their significant injuries, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. have only missed one game each. However, both players are averaging under 30 minutes a night, an especially low number for Murray who was averaging over 35 minutes per game during his 2020-21 campaign.

With that said, Murray is putting up 15.5 points per game on solid shooting (43.1 percent from the field and 34.7 percent from three) as he works his way back from a long layoff. His consistent availability early in the year bodes well for his chances of returning to his pre-injury brilliance.

Meanwhile, Porter Jr. has been shooting the absolute lights out so far, sinking 46.3 percent of his three-pointers with an effective field-goal percentage of 60.6 percent. As long as the lengthy forward can stay on the floor, he will impact the Nuggets in a big way through his versatility as a scorer and floor-spacer. The Denver Nuggets offense will only continue to trend upward as the two stars make their way back to peak form.

The Denver Nuggets still need to improve on defense

Clearly, Denver has what it takes on offense to make a legitimate run for the No. 1 seed, but unfortunately, their defense could still use some serious work. After finishing last season with the No. 15 defensive rating, the Nuggets have begun their campaign ranked 25th in that category.

Despite their lackluster play on defense, there is reason to believe Denver can find a rhythm on that end as the season progresses.

For starters, the Nuggets are still integrating significant new additions like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown into their defensive rotations. Projected to give Denver’s defense a major boost, KCP and Brown have actually made their biggest impact on the perimeter.

KCP currently leads the entire NBA in three-point percentage, with the sharpshooter converting a ridiculous 56.6 percent of his three-pointers on 2.7 attempts per contest. Brown has also impressed shooting a solid 40.5 percent clip from downtown, respectively.

The Denver Nuggets also average the least fouls in the NBA with 18.3 per game, a trend that could bode well for their defense in the long run. For instance, last season, elite defensive teams like Boston and Milwaukee finished bottom five in fouls committed.

In addition, Denver boxes out as well as any team in the league, ranking top ten in defensive rebounding and top five in defensive rebounding percentage, and historically, many of the best defensive teams have tended to excel in this area as well.

While the Nuggets have struggled to slow down their opposition in the scoring department, they have displayed some incredibly disciplined habits on defense through their impressive rebounding and lack of fouls. At worst, Denver should be able to regain its place in the middle of the pack among the league’s defensive units.

While major playoff success will likely require a significant jump in defensive production, the Nuggets simply need marginal improvement on defense to make their way up the standings behind a high-powered offense.

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