The NBA world is one step closer to the 2022-23 season.
Yesterday, after much waiting and plenty of leaks to major outlets, the NBA finally dropped the 2022-23 regular season schedule. With it, the 82-game season for the Denver Nuggets finally came into focus. I wrote about it yesterday, detailing several of the tidbits about schedule strength, national TV games, and much more.
A day later, it’s time to hone in on the best matchups of the 2022-23 season for the Nuggets. These are the 10 most pivotal games as they pertain to standings, narratives, and how the Nuggets can set themselves up for playoff success.
Let’s take a look in reverse order:
10. March 25th vs Milwaukee Bucks
It’s the best player in the world versus the second best player in the world. However you rank Nikola Jokić and Giannis Antetokounmpo is up to you, but combined, they account for the last four MVP awards. They have also both made First Team All-NBA in all but one time during that stretch (Anthony Davis was the First Team center during the 2019-20 season).
The reality is, both players have dominated the last four years, and they play against each other on a Saturday night in Denver, Game 74 of Denver’s 82-game season. This will be an important matchup for both teams, fighting for playoff seeding down the stretch and hoping to show their best form of the regular season. For Jokić and Giannis, this could be part of a race for an MVP award at the end of the year as well. Both players are in their respective primes and are likely to headline 50+ win teams. It’s not outlandish that this game could serve as a pivot point.
In the grand scheme of things, an Eastern Conference game doesn’t mean much to the Nuggets. Still, it’s Giannis vs Jokić. It just means more.
9. January 28th at Philadelphia 76ers
Much like the above matchup against the Bucks, this game doesn’t mean particularly much for the Nuggets. It’s against an Eastern Conference opponent during late January. If the Nuggets lose this one, it certainly isn’t the end of the world.
But it’s Nikola Jokić vs Joel Embiid.
In each of the last two seasons, Jokić won the MVP award and Embiid was left as the runner-up, much to the chagrin of Sixers fans everywhere. Jokić won the last matchup last season on national television, and his performance perhaps nailed down the award, given that it came against a direct competitor.
The league is now leaning into this matchup, using it as a Saturday matchup in ABC to basically cap off “Rivals Week.” This is a new concept the NBA is trying where they pit a bunch of rivals against each other on national television, and Nuggets-Sixers made the cut in a prime slot.
It doesn’t mean much for the playoff picture, but this game will mean a lot to a lot of Nuggets and Sixers fans. The trash talk between the two fanbases reached incredibly high levels, and the league is hoping to foster another talking point in the “best center in the NBA” conversation.
We will see who shows up.
8. October 21st @ Golden State Warriors
The best impression is often the first one.
Though the Nuggets will face the Utah Jazz on the road in their official season opener two days prior, this ESPN matchup against the Warriors is Denver’s most interesting early season game. The Nuggets lost to the eventual champions in five games during the first round of last season’s playoffs. Of course, the Nuggets were without both Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., and their returns could tip the scales in Denver’s favor next time around.
Both Murray and Porter will assumably suit up for that game; however, head coach Michael Malone previously stated that the Nuggets would be careful with both players on back-to-backs. Denver’s home opener will happen the following day, Saturday October 22nd, against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Malone may have to choose which game to play each of his returning stars. If he chooses to play them versus Golden State, expect some fireworks.
7. February 15th vs Dallas Mavericks
Remember what I said about impressions? This game against Luka Dončić and the Mavericks will be Denver’s final game before the All-Star break. It’s an opportunity to put a stamp on the bulk of the season, one that the Nuggets have taken advantage of before. There was last year on a buzzer beater versus the Warriors. There was a game against the Indiana Pacers a year before when Denver’s big three were starting to click. Also, a 2019-20 overtime thriller against the Los Angeles Lakers, proving the Nuggets could handle the main stage.
This year, that lasting impression will come against the Mavericks, last year’s Western Conference finalist. If both teams are around equal in standing, a strong showing by one side or the other will leave an impression on the national audience. In addition, the Mavericks racked up more wins than the Nuggets last year. The Nuggets will have to pass them in the standings to get where they want to go.
6. December 25th vs Phoenix Suns
After a one year hiatus, the Nuggets are back on the Christmas schedule and will face the Suns in the nightcap of the five-game slate. This will be Denver’s first game of the season against Phoenix, and it’s positioned to be a great matchup. The Nuggets will presumably have their full roster available, and this should be around the time when the team starts firing on all cylinders. Murray and Porter should be close to done with minute restrictions as well and will have had two full months to get used to playing again.
The Suns specifically are an important matchup too. They’re a shoo-in to win 50+ games and will be competing for a high playoff seed at the end of the year. With Chris Paul, Devin Booker, and Deandre Ayton, the Suns have as strong of a top three players as there are in the league. This will be a great opportunity for the Nuggets, and Murray specifically, to prove that the playoff loss with Murray sidelined didn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things. The Nuggets have a lot to prove in this spot.
5. March 3rd vs Memphis Grizzlies
The top five games are all played February or later against presumed West playoff teams. This matchup against the Memphis Grizzlies is another way of proving the Nuggets are back to being top dogs in the West. The Grizzlies won the second most games in the entire NBA last season, filling the void of “young, exciting smaller market team with a dynamic star.” Ja Morant is incredible, but there was a time when Morant and Murray were in the same tier in terms of impact. Unfortunately for Denver, Murray gets hurt, and Morant ascends to superstardom.
Jaren Jackson Jr. will assumably be back from offseason surgery by the time this game takes place, and it will be a fun one if all of the stars are healthy. Michael Porter Jr. is one of the most talented young shooters in the world, but Desmond Bane is right there too. The Nuggets also brought in players like Bruce Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to match up with point-of-attack scorers like Morant. This will be a great test of if they can hold up against a superstar in what will assuredly be a playoff environment.
4. February 26th vs Los Angeles Clippers
Any number of games against the Clippers could have been selected, but this one takes place just after the All-Star break on ESPN. By this point, both the Nuggets and Clippers should know just how close or far away they are from becoming the best, healthiest versions of themselves. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George remain dynamic two-way players, and the Clippers’ depth featuring Reggie Jackson, Norman Powell, Robert Covington, Ivica Zubac, Nicolas Batum, Marcus Morris, and now John Wall should bolster the two stars well.
The lasting memory of the Nuggets right before Murray’s injury was a game on April 1st, 2021 against the Clippers, a national television game where the Nuggets controlled things from start to finish. Aaron Gordon had just arrived, and the Nuggets were looking like a special team.
Now, A little under two years later, the Nuggets will have another opportunity to show just how ready their core is to compete with the best of the best.
3. February 5th and 7th @/vs Minnesota Timberwolves
After Tim Connelly left Denver to lead the Minnesota Timberwolves, these matchups were always going to be mixed with a little something extra. Now, Connelly made a the biggest trade of the offseason by adding center Rudy Gobert, one of Jokić’s main adversaries during his seven-year career. Adding Gobert to a team that already features Karl-Anthony Towns is intriguing enough. The matchup with Denver specifically? Incredibly spicy.
The Nuggets will play a home-and-home against the Timberwolves in early February. These two games will be the final two matchups the division rivals have against each other, and they will probably both mean a lot in the grand scheme of tiebreakers and playoff matchups. Both teams would love to win the division and basically lock up homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs. These two games could flip a 3 seed to a 5 seed very quickly.
There’s already enough drama between these two franchises after a close division race last year. Adding Connelly and Gobert to the mix pushes this to another threshold.
2. April 2nd vs Golden State Warriors
The final two games in this ranking will occur one after the other. The second game is this one, a matchup with the Warriors in early April. It’s the fifth to last game of the season for Denver. While the Nuggets may know around what playoff seed they will get, this matchup could very well prove to be the difference down the stretch.
The Warriors will still be looking to defend their title. While exact seeding probably matters less to them than a team like the Nuggets, it will still matter if they’re trying to guarantee avoiding the play-in tournament. That should be a fairly competitive race in the West this year with the Nuggets, Warriors, Suns, Clippers, Grizzlies, Mavericks, T’Wolves, and Pelicans all fighting to avoid the play-in mix.
Will the Nuggets right last postseason’s wrong and win enough games to avoid a difficult first round matchup? That’s what will be on the line here against Stephen Curry and the Dubs.
1. March 31st and April 6th @ Phoenix Suns
The game just before the Nuggets play Golden State, they will travel to Phoenix to play the second night of a back-to-back after playing a primetime game against the New Orleans pelicans the night before. This game will occur at a major disadvantage for Denver, but Denver will just have to grin and bear it. Like the matchup against the Warriors, this game against the Suns could have serious playoff ramifications.
Six days later, the Nuggets will be back in Phoenix once again. It will be the third-to-last game of the year, and perhaps the Nuggets will take some extra time to rest if seeding is all but locked into place. Still, this will be Denver’s last major tune-up opportunity before the playoffs, and it comes against a likely playoff opponent.
If Suns recover their mojo at some point next season, they will be a formidable playoff opponent. If the Nuggets recover their mojo after all of the missed injury time, they will be a formidable playoff opponent themselves. These two teams have a chance to be the best two in the conference when it’s all said and done.
The battles right before the playoffs will mean a lot to both sides, on and off the court.