Conventional wisdom would suggest that the Denver Nuggets should beat the Utah Jazz in the first round of the 2019-20 NBA Playoffs.
The reasons the Nuggets should win are the plentiful: They’re the higher seed (and could have been – should have been – even higher); Denver holds a 3-0 regular season record over Utah; the Nuggets match up well with Utah and are relatively rested and relatively healthy.
And, Denver is a simply a better team.
But in year that’s been anything but conventional, it’s quite possible – perhaps even probable – that things don’t go to plan.
After essentially tanking their final three games in bubble, resting starters and forgoing wins against the Lakers, Clippers and Raptors, the Nuggets did get what they wanted: A first round matchup with the 6th-seeded Jazz, rather than the 7th-seeded Mavericks. Whether one agrees with that strategy or not is somewhat irrelevant; on paper, Denver definitely matches up better with the Jazz. During the regular season, the Nuggets struggled against Dallas, compiling a 1-2 record. For a team that could have been the second-best team in the West, the strategy feels a bit defeatist, but it’s a strategy nonetheless.
Does basically (and openly) telling the entire basketball world that you’d rather play the Jazz light a fire under Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert that might be tricky to put out? The old school way of thinking says not to provide bulletin board material for one’s opponent; modern analytics suggest the Nuggets have done the right thing.
The good news is that appears as if the Nuggets have found the third leg of their “big three” in Michael Porter Jr. And the fact that Michael Malone may not be tempted to tinker with the minutes allocated to Porter Jr because both Gary Harris and Will Barton are injured might be a blessing in disguise. Most certainly, Denver is better and deeper when both of those veterans are healthy and ready, but consistency is worth something, too. Prior to intentionally throwing in the towel, the Nuggets were one of the hotter teams in the Bubble – largely because of the consistent play of Michael Porter Jr. – so riding the rookie makes sense.
The drawback of course, is that Porter Jr. doesn’t have playoff experience. There will undoubtedly be a steep learning curve no matter how well he’s played in Orlando. How impactful Porter Jr. can be for the Nuggets could come down to how well he plays early on, and if he doesn’t, what type of patience Malone will have with his youngster could determine the fate of the Nuggets. Rest assured, if Harris and Barton become healthy, there will be a huge temptation to bite into Porter Jr.’s minutes.
If you’re a subscriber to the theory that the very patient, built-from-within Nuggets have been constructed just as the Golden State Warriors were prior to becoming one of the most dominant franchises in sports, then there’s potentially more bad news. By and large, the Nuggets are on a very similar trajectory to that of the Warriors. Depending on the starting point you choose for Denver, the Nuggets are right on pace with the 2012-13, or 2013-14 Warriors. They’re a good young team, loaded with young talent, that just got a taste of the postseason last spring.
In the spring of 2013, the Warriors ousted the No. 3 seed Nuggets from the first round of the playoffs. Golden State lost to the Spurs in round two, but there was undoubtedly something special taking place in the Bay Area. Many people tend to forget, however, that the Warriors did not escape the first round of the playoffs the following year. In fact, following the 3-4 series loss to the Clippers, then head coach Mark Jackson was fired and replaced with Steve Kerr.
The rest, of course, is history.
Is there a similar pressure on Malone? A contending roster has undoubtedly been assembled in Denver. After winning a series in last year’s playoffs, and putting together a regular season worthy of a No. 2 seeding, shouldn’t the Nuggets be expected to advance at least as far as they did last season if not further? And if they don’t, what might the Nuggets’ next move be?
By all accounts, the Nuggets are good and getting better.
But if their bubble is burst in Orlando – especially after the way they chose to enter the postseason – what happens next?
Denver should beat Utah.
But in the strangest of years, they might not.