Somehow, there are only 17 games left in the regular season for the Denver Nuggets.
The regular season is rapidly coming to a close which means the playoffs are just right around the corner; just about a month to be specific.
With the postseason so close, the Nuggets must utilize this time to prepare themselves for the battles to come and there are many uncertainties to address before the Nuggets can be the best version of themselves.
So what goals lie ahead for the Nuggets before they reach postseason play? What can they do to ready themselves for what Denver hopes is a deep and successful playoff run?
I have identified three ways the Nuggets can put themselves in a position for success when they reach the playoffs: finding time to rest and getting healthy, solidifying their playoff rotation under the assumption the roster is mostly healthy, and avoid the play-in tournament at all costs.
Finding time to rest core rotation members and getting players back from injury
Every team in the NBA that is on a playoff trajectory has this goal. In the Western Conference alone, the Phoenix Suns are missing Chris Paul, the Golden State Warriors are missing Draymond Green, the Los Angeles Clippers are missing Kawhi Leonard and Paul George while the Nuggets are without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. in addition to a couple other important players — such as Will Barton III and Bones Hyland — currently on the injury report as well.
For Denver, they will be patiently waiting to get Murray and Porter back from their respective injuries because once they do, their roster becomes significantly more terrifying for opponents.
Murray tore his ACL in his left knee and eventually had surgery on April 21 of last year. It has been roughly 10.5 months since then and all indications point to Murray ramping up his rehabilitation in recent weeks. Mike Singer of The Denver Post reported that the Nuggets had planned to send Murray to the G-League to get more practice time and that he would be physically cleared before the end of the season, but scheduling conflicts ended up taking that plan to head to the G-League out of action. Murray was still labeled as out on the Nuggets injury report one day prior to taking on the Sacramento Kings, but it is clear he is getting closer and closer to returning to the court.
Porter, who had lumbar spine surgery on Dec. 1 of last year, is in almost an identical circumstance as Murray. Singer also reported that Porter would be physically cleared to play this season and that he was also scheduled to head to Grand Rapids to get some G-League practice in with Murray, but as everyone now knows, that plan was ended early. Still, Porter has progressed to live contact play against one defender and should be on his way to playing three-on-three, four-on-four and then five-on-five shortly. Porter seems to be even closer to playing than Murray.
While getting players back from injuries is important, so is keeping healthy players from ending up back on the injury report. In Denver’s last two games, they had to add both Barton (left ankle sprain) and Hyland (right knee soreness) to the injury report. Both players are hyper-important to what the Nuggets do and losing them send a negative ripple effect through the roster.
With that in mind, are there games that the Nuggets could look to rest some of their core players? I found three games that made sense to rest players in Denver’s final 17 games.
The first one is the battle with the Warriors on the second night of a back-to-back and as the fourth game in five nights. Denver already beat the Warriors on Monday night so why go all out to beat them against with the schedule working abasing them so much? It seems to make much more sense to rest Jokic, Gordon, and/or Morris and let the chips fall where they may. Plus, the Nuggets might end up facing the Warriors in the playoffs. Junking up their game against the Warriors — three days after the Warriors did exactly that to Denver, to be clear — would help limit the amount of information the Warriors have on the Nuggets playbook while also keeping their core players healthy and rested.
The second game would be against the Washington Wizards on March 16. This game comes in the middle of a three-game road trip on the east coast for the Nuggets. The first game of the road trip could decide who wins the MVP award. Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets will head into Philadelphia to take on Joel Embiid and the 76ers. At the time of this writing, Embiid is a slight favorite to win MVP (-140) while Jokic has the second-best odds (+170) according to FanDuel Sportsbook. After that, Denver has one day off before facing off against the Wizards with a matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers to follow. So why wouldn’t Denver look to rest between two high caliber road games like that?
The third game is Denver’s battle in Indiana against the Pacers on March 30th. The game comes two nights before what could be an important game for the Nuggets against the Minnesota Timberwolves if they are still at risk of slipping into the play-in tournament, but more on that later. It would make sense for the Nuggets to rest on the final game of that two-game road trip in order to be better prepared for a game that is potentially much more important.
Solidifying the playoff rotation
Let’s just assume the Nuggets are fully healthy for the playoffs. What would their rotation even look like? Which nine or ten players would be included?
Well, the starters are easy so let’s just list it off. Murray would start at point guard with Barton sharing the back court with him. Porter would step back into the small forward roll pushing Aaron Gordon back to power forward. Lastly, the MVP of the league in Jokic would anchor both ends of the court from the center position.
But what does that mean for the bench? Monte Morris would step back into the reserve unit to lead them from the point guard slot. Alongside him would be sharpshooter Bryn Forbes, but the rest of the group gets murky from there.
Will Hyland get a chance to play out of position as a small forward in a game with such high stakes or will Malone put his trust in Austin Rivers, who performed admirably in the playoffs last year? Between JaMychal Green, Jeff Green and DeMarcus Cousins, who gets the final two front court slots? Will the Nuggets even play 10 players in their rotation when healthy or will Malone stagger Barton or another starter with the bench unit?
Those are the questions the Nuggets need to answer in these final 17 games. None of these answers will be easy to swallow, but they are direly important to the Nuggets chances of going deep into the playoffs.
Avoiding the Play-In Tournament
This needs to be priority No. 1 for the Nuggets.
Thankfully, they have done most of the hard work already. All the Nuggets need to do now is just avoid a complete collapse.
Still, there is risk. The Minnesota Timberwolves have grown tremendously as a team over the course of this season and now they are 8-2 in their last five games and on a five-game winning streak. If the Nuggets leave the window open, Minnesota could catch them; especially considering they already own the tiebreaker over the Nuggets.
(Denver can only tie the season series with the Timberwolves and are far behind in record against their division which eliminates their chances of retaking the tiebreaker)
So that means the Timberwolves do not need to overtake the Nuggets; just catch them. Denver is currently 39-26 while Minnesota is 37-29. In simplistic terms, if the Nuggets go 10-7 over their final 17 games, the Timberwolves need to go 12-4 over their final 16 games to catch Denver and ultimately pass them by virtue of tiebreaker.
Over the Nuggets final 17 games, they will play five teams who are outside of the play-in tournament, six teams who are currently slotted to participate in the play-in tournament, and six teams who are currently in the top-six seed of their conference. That is a very balanced schedule with plenty of winnable games.
For the Timberwolves, their push to the end of the regular season with be fraught with tough opponents. They have a 10-game stretch that features the Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks, Dallas Mavericks twice, Phoenix Suns, Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors and then what could be one of the most meaningful games of the season in Denver against the Nuggets.
On paper, Denver has pretty good odds to stay in the top-six seeds of the Western Conference and avoid the play-in tournament so long as they continue to win 60% of the games the play; a mark they have reached all season long. The only team that can get in their way is themselves.