The Denver Nuggets are ready for your attention. They’re ready for the league to schedule them in big games. They’re ready to be circled on the schedule as a big matchup.
The Denver Nuggets feel ready, and they might be right.
Friday night’s game represented an interesting anniversary for the Nuggets. It was one year since Nikola Jokic became a starter for this team. The 12 months in between have seen the Nuggets stock continually rise as Jokic’s abilities morph from superb passer to triple-double machine and Serbia’s best natural resource.
On Friday, Jokic was back on the court making plays, but not ready to take over the game because he was still recovering from injury. The Nuggets’ second-best player, Paul Millsap has been out with an injury for weeks.
Things started out poorly. The Nuggets trailed 33-20 after the first quarter as they struggled both defensively and offensively.
Credit the crowd at Pepsi Center on Friday night. They seemed to know something the media did not. They knew that this game was a proving ground. The crowd was loud and swelled to peak levels, even without being a sellout. The Nuggets fought their way back against the Pelicans over the next three quarters. It was an atmosphere that has been lacking at Pepsi Center since the Nuggets fired George Karl.
Without the two stars of the team healthy, the emergence of other Nuggets players continued to take shape. The long-term hierarchy of players after Jokic is still yet to be determined on the court, but Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Will Barton continue to put up performances that transform the Nuggets into a formidable foe.
The Nuggets’ weakness, defense, was also covered up on the night by strong efforts by center Mason Plumlee and rookie Torrey Craig. Craig was just called up from the G League and then started the game. Throw in a quality game from continually rising star Trey Lyles and it was the kind of marque performance that has fans excited.
Yes, the Pelicans are not one of the West’s elite teams, but they possess a pair of stars with higher profiles than anyone (for now) on Denver’s roster. It was a win the Nuggets needed.
The NBA has emerged as the most interesting professional league in terms of matchups. Just because we feel like we know the ending it doesn’t make the games less interesting. The Golden State Warriors will probably face LeBron James in the Finals, but all of the movement around this fact continues to cause intrigue.
The NBA’s summer movement was what the NFL dreams about. The enthusiasm outside of the games was interesting, but so are regular-season matchups. It’s what the NFL was five years ago and now the NBA is taking away the spotlight in terms of interest for the sports world.
Knowing how the San Antonio Spurs play against the Houston Rockets or how the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers will play each other brings real passion to the sport. With the league still focused on a battalion of stars, it feels like superheroes facing off.
NBA fans want to see how the Warriors will take on Karl-Anthony Towns, Jimmy Butler and the Timberwolves. They want to know how the retooled Russell Westbrook Thunder look against the John Wall/Bradley Beal Wizards.
This is the area that the Nuggets now find themselves in. They are a team where NBA fans want to know how teams will match up against the Jokic Nuggets (we’ll get to the second player in a moment).
A Sports Illustrated article talked about how NBA nerds love the Nuggets since the arrival of Jokic. They’re really starting to manifest as a team that people want to watch every night.
In a Western Conference where the top 10 teams all have interesting elements, the Nuggets fit into that echelon. They’re built to make a playoff run this year and have a lot of young, interesting elements.
The floor right now for the Nuggets is falling out of the eight-team playoff field and facing some major restructuring in the offseason. The ceiling for the Nuggets (and this is a reach) is the fourth seed in the West. They could even try and win a series.
All of these elements were not possible a year ago, before Jokic was inserted into the starting lineup and emerged as one of the league’s rising stars.
Jokic is still developing, as is this team. The house money is on Murray becoming that second star, but the Nuggets supporting cast continues to make it interesting. On any night, Barton or Harris can be the best player on the court. Trey Lyles is becoming more interesting. Add Kenneth Faried, Wilson Chandler and Millsap’s return and the star power is always bubbling below the surface.
The thing that makes the Nuggets interesting is this collective talent. It’s that they can play each team differently because there isn’t one formula for success. That’s why a December home game can mean something in Denver, Colorado.
On Friday Night, this potential led to the Nuggets taking down Anthony Davis and Demarcus Cousins. That name — Nuggets — is starting to mean something in the NBA again.