The Denver Nuggets are effectively tied at the top of the Western Conference with the Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Minnesota Timberwolves heading into tomorrow’s NBA Trade Deadline. The Clippers are 34-15 while the Nuggets, Thunder, and T’Wolves are each 35-16, and when it comes to championship potential, the margins for each team remain thin.

The Nuggets, as reigning NBA champions, have a leg up on the rest of the competition having gone through the playoffs before and proven their capabilities. It remains to be seen if the other three teams can do that, but the reality is the Western Conference is more competitive in the regular season than last year. The Nuggets may not be able to earn the top seed in the conference, and Denver has to go on the road for additional playoff games, the path to repeat will inevitably become tougher.

Nuggets head coach Michael Malone emphasized how important the standings are, and how much different the circumstances are from last year.

“I hate saying this, but I think our guys got a little bored last year,” Malone said of Denver being at the top of the standings by themselves. “I think there were stretches where our guys were like, ‘Let’s just get to the playoffs.’ This year is totally different.”

“You wake up and you see the standings in a four-way tie for first place…there’s so much riding on every game…maybe it helps our guys stay a little bit more locked in and engaged knowing that if you drop a game, you could go from first to fourth.”

For that reason, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to hear the Nuggets were being aggressive at the trade deadline, trying to shore up regular season weaknesses to ensure their place in the standings. That would make sense in theory.

And yet in practice, that doesn’t appear to be the case.

“I don’t feel there’s a need to address something that isn’t there,” Malone shared about where the Nuggets trade deadline talks stand. “I think all of our players understand this is a business. You never know what kind of phone calls you will get. You have to answer that phone. That’s Calvin’s job. That’s his number one responsibility.”

The Nuggets have primarily focused on youth and development with their bench this year, playing young wings Peyton Watson and Christian Braun extended minutes. Reggie Jackson has handled things reasonably well at backup point guard. The Nuggets effectively split minutes between Zeke Nnaji and DeAndre Jordan at backup center but have trended away from Nnaji lately. Denver’s regular season minutes at backup center have been bad, but their playoff minutes at backup center (likely featuring Aaron Gordon in an exclusive role) are expected to be much better.

“You’re always looking at ways to get better, but you wake up after 51 games, you’re tied for first,” Malone reiterated. “We’re trying to develop a lot of young players, and I still think that we have another gear that we can get to. I think we’re in a pretty good place.”

Other teams around the Western Conference are still loading up though. The Timberwolves just acquired old friend Monte Morris to be their backup point guard. The Thunder have the flexibility to be active and may acquire a big man in the next 24 hours. The Clippers have less flexibility but will be aggressive adding bench depth where needed.

The teams around the Nuggets are being aggressive, and one wonders whether the Nuggets should match their aggression to try and stay ahead of the pack. Whatever happens, the Nuggets still have the best player in the world in Nikola Jokic and the best two-man pairing in the playoffs with Jokic and Jamal Murray. Perhaps that will be enough.

Perhaps not.