After a roller coaster of a regular season, the playoffs are finally here for the Nuggets

Apr 7, 2022; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) controls the ball as Memphis Grizzlies guard John Konchar (46) guards in the third quarter at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

There was never a moment of calm during the regular season for the Denver Nuggets. At every point of this messy year, there was some problem to contend with or adversity to overcome.

The first domino to fall to begin the cacophony of chaos that was the 2021-22 season was Michael Porter Jr. struggling out of the gate. It was clear that he was hindered in ways that goes beyond a shooting slump. In his nine games, Porter averaged just 9.9 points despite playing 29.4 minutes per game. He shot a horrid 35.9% from the field and 20.8% from 3-point range, but even worse was his 55.6% on free throw attempts. Porter is one of the most gifted shooters on this planet. If he is shooting that abysmally from the foul line, there was clearly something wrong.

Lo and behold, it came to light that Porter would be out indefinitely because he needed lumbar spine surgery which kept him on the bench throughout the rest of the regular season. He has not officially been shut down for the season thus far, but there are no indications thus far that his return is imminent.

From there, the season spiraled out of control with games lost due to injuries and players in health and safety protocols. Murray missed all 82 games, Porter played just nine games, and a whole host of players were in-and-out of the lineup at different points. Monte Morris and Aaron Gordon each missed seven games, Jeff Green and Jokic missed eight games, and Barton missed 11 matchups as they attempted to shoulder a significantly heavier load than originally anticipated. To make matters worse, all three of Bones Hyland, Austin Rivers, JaMychal Green — three of the staples of the Nuggets bench unit — all missed at least 14 games. After those 10 members of the core rotation, the likes of Vlatko Cancar and Zeke Nnaji also missed multiple games due to injuries and time spent in the league’s health and safety protocols.

Overall, Denver was sixth in the NBA in games lost due to injury according to Spotrac with 328 missed games between 16 different players including Murray and Porter for essentially the entire season. Of the teams in the top 10 for games missed due to injury, only two of them are a top-six seed in either conference; the Nuggets and the Golden State Warriors.

For Denver to overcome all of that instability and lost talent to still win 48 games is truly remarkable and most of the credit can be given to the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player in Nikola Jokic.

When Jokic has been on the floor, the Nuggets have the best offensive rating (117.3) in basketball and would be tied for fifth in defensive rating (108.9) which equates to a net rating of +8.4 which would also lead the league. Jokic is also the only player in the league currently top-10 in points, rebounds, and assists per game which is not surprising considering he leads the Nuggets in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks.

All of that adds up to a stat line of 27.1 points, 13.8 rebounds, and 7.9 assists despite playing on a roster that was enterally in flux and essentially never featured Denver’s second or third best players. Jokic put the Nuggets on his back and carried them to wins night after night on his way to likely his second-consecutive MVP award. Jokic currently has the best odds to win MVP per FanDuel Sportsbook at -300.

Even with Jokic’s nightly brilliance, Denver would not have been able to reach 47 wins without the help of his teammates.

All year long, Monte Morris has been a stabilizing force on offense. He has kept a great assist-to-turnover ratio, has been an effective 3-point shooter all season, and has excelled in the two-man game with Jokic.

Aaron Gordon become the two-way multi-tool for Malone to help in whatever way the team may need. Gordon has helped Denver win games as the secondary option on offense, as a lockdown defender, and as a glue guy who perfectly blended the skills of his teammates together.

Even Will Barton III – despite some ups and downs as a shooter and defender – did a wonderful job of giving the Nuggets a downhill driving threat who can also spot up for 3-point shots in a similar way Murray did before getting hurt.

Jeff Green also found ways to contribute by dunking seemingly every shot within six feet of the rim, rolling hard to the rim, hitting his open shots from beyond the arc, and just keeping the ball moving on offense while playing stable defense.

Off the bench, Bones Hyland grew seemingly every minute he played. His combination of 3-point shooting, dynamic handles, creative finishes around the rim, and the pure energy and joy he plays with allowed him to blossom as a lead guard off the bench for the banged up and battered Nuggets. Both JaMychal Green and Austin Rivers also found a role and rhythm with the reserves over time.

It was never consistent and no one player stepped up as the running mate alongside Jokic’s mastery, but when totaled together the Nuggets role players did just enough to help the Nuggets win consistently and finish the season with 48 wins.

Now, the Nuggets have earned the sixth seed in the Western Conference and they will be taking on the Golden State Warriors in the first round; a task that will prove very difficult for a defensively inept Nuggets team over the past couple weeks. The Nuggets are +1040 to win the series according to FanDuel Sportsbook.

“We are playing two of the greatest shooters of all time; constant threats on the floor from basically everywhere,” DeMarcus Cousins said after the loss to the Lakers. “They are a well oiled machine. They have championship DNA and they have been here plenty of times.”

Denver knows the task ahead of them will not be an easy one, but all of the hard work and fighting through adversity led them to exactly this moment.

All that is left is to see if the Nuggets can step up and secure an upset series win in the first round of the NBA Playoffs against the once-dynastic Warriors.

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