The regular season has finally come to a merciful end.
After all of the games lost due to health and safety protocols as well a plethora of injuries, the Denver Nuggets managed to secure the sixth seed in the Western Conference. They finished with a 48-34 record and now have a date with the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs.
Now that the regular season is officially in the rear-view mirror, the Nuggets and Colorado’s NBA bettors can look ahead to the playoffs.
The conference play-in tournament games will start Tuesday, and first-round series get underway Saturday.
Online sportsbooks in Colorado are at the ready.
Meanwhile, the Nuggets have four questions they need to answer before they can decipher just how high their playoff ceiling is.
Will Denver’s defense be able to handle elite scorers in the postseason?
Slowly but surely as the season went along, the Nuggets’ defense became less and less productive.
From the start of the season up until Jan. 1, Denver had the NBA’s 16th-ranked defense with a 108.9 rating. Ever since the first day of 2022, the Nuggets’ defensive rating jumped to 113.2, but their bad defensive play has crescendoed over the last 10 games of the regular season with an atrocious 119.9 rating.
There are very real concerns about Denver’s defensive ceiling in the playoffs.
Aaron Gordon is its best defender. He has shown the ability to lock down individual matchups well while also offering weak-side help defense.
But he cannot make up for the Nuggets’ abysmal perimeter defense between Monte Morris and Will Barton III. Both Morris and Barton have been asked to shoulder a significantly bigger minutes load than expected with both guard Jamal Murray and forward Michael Porter Jr. out for virtually the entire season.
Additionally, Jeff Green has been helpful. However, depending on him to make up for such porous perimeter defense is a tough ask.
Denver will likely rely heavily on Austin Rivers off the bench in order to stabilize its perimeter defense. That will be of particular importance against the Warriors in the first round.
Still, the entire roster will have to step up in a major way on defense to win.
Will Murray or MPJ return?
Let’s start with a quick rundown of the current Murray/Porter injury situation:
- Both Murray and Porter have begun to ramp up their pregame warmup routines recently. But Murray’s workouts are much more thorough at this time.
- Coach Michael Malone, when asked about a possible Murray return at any point this season, said to “keep hope alive.” But he chose not to comment on Porter’s timeline as he walked off the podium after losing to Minnesota on April 1.
- When Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly spoke recently on Denver radio station 104.3 The Fan, he said that it is “100 percent,” up to Murray when he returns to the court. Connelly added that Murray “has done a great job in rehab; he looks really, really good.”
- Inversely, there has been little-to-no information that would indicate Porter could return any time soon. His basketball activities that media have witnessed have been much less intense than Murray’s recent regimens.
At this point, it seems unlikely that Porter could return this season.
His ramp up into basketball activities has gone slower than Murray thus far. And there is no tangible information that points to his return being imminent.
On the other hand, it’s starting to feel like Murray will be ready once the playoffs arrive.
Nuggets-Warriors Game 1 is Saturday so the the answer to this question will be revealed soon enough.
If they do return, how much would they be able to help?
This is the toughest of these questions to answer simply because there is no true way of truly knowing how mentally prepared and physically conditioned either Murray and/or Porter could be when — or if — they return.
It takes somewhere around six months after beginning to play full five-on-five basketball for a player to get fully back to the best version of themselves after tearing an ACL.
That process has just begun for Murray. So expecting him to have the explosion, quickness, strength or conditioning he once had this postseason would be foolish.
Murray still has a long road ahead of him to get back to the near-All-Star player he was prior to his injury.
The outlook is even less clear for Porter after having yet another back surgery despite only being 23 years old.
He has looked good when shooting before Nuggets games, but he is not pushing himself hard in warmups and did not practice with the team as recently as Saturday morning.
With so little five-on-five play under his belt, it’s hard to expect any meaningful postseason contribution from Porter even if he is activated.
The short answer is that neither Murray or Porter should be expected to dramatically affect the Nuggets’ playoff ceiling this season even if they are able to return.
They have not played competitive basketball in too long and would be asked to produce in the intensity of playoff basketball.
Additionally, both would more-than-likely return with a minutes restriction and play most of their time with the reserves.
What are the Nuggets’ odds of beating the Warriors?
This is a tough ask.
As Denver reserve Bryn Forbes said Sunday after losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in the final game of the regular season, “Golden State is no pushover.”
The biggest issue for the Nuggets against the Warriors will be their perimeter defense. Or lack thereof (as discussed earlier).
How are the Nuggets going to keep the Warriors’ potent trio of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Jordan Poole in check?
Morris and Barton are not equipped to defend either Murray or Thompson. And Rivers or rookie Bones Hyland off the bench will have trouble containing Poole.
Yes, there is no assurance that Curry will be ready for the playoffs. The former league MVP is coming off a foot injury and hasn’t played since March 16.
That is a glimmer of hope for the Nuggets.
But, overall, this is going to be an incredibly difficult team for Denver to overcome in the first round.