Western Conference Finals 2022 Preview: Nuggets versus Mavericks

Dallas Mavericks forward Luka Doncic (77) visits with Denver Nuggets forward Juancho Hernangomez (41) and center Nikola Jokic (15) after the game at the Pepsi Center. Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Scary thought: The best player in tonight’s Nuggets-Mavericks game isn’t Nikola Jokic.

Scarier thought: The best player is also just 20 years old.

Scariest thought: The owner, the one who employs that player, is just plain nutty about winning. Smart money says his money will be used to surround this player with a roster worthy of a championship.

Remember that window the young, up and coming Nuggets had in which to win an NBA title? The one – since the Nuggets had soon-to-be stars that recently ranged from 21-24 years of age in Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokic and Gary Harris – that seemed like it was going to be open for a long, long time? Yes, that window?

Well, it’s still there. It’s still open. But whether the incredibly – admirably – patient Nuggets ever forecasted it or not, there are going to be a lot of teams trying to shimmy themselves through that same exact window for, well, a long, long time.

That’s the darn trouble with the NBA these days: Patience isn’t necessarily rewarded.

This is not to say that the Nuggets don’t have a “shot” at an NBA title – this year, next year, or the year or two after. They do. But others, more than likely, will have a better shot. That’s absolutely true right now, given how fast the Lakers and Clippers became good, considering they were assembled just this past summer.

The Lakers’ window? A couple of years, or for however long LeBron James feels like playing.

The Clippers’ window? Let’s call it three.

Don’t bother looking at the standings. Just because the Nuggets are second in the West doesn’t mean they’re the second-best team – the Lakers (but only with James) are the best and the Clippers are second. Houston can knock just about anyone off, but when it’s playoff time, and the whistles get swallowed and the defense tightens up, Houston won’t – per usual – be able to play the way they do in the regular season and get away with it (we’ve seen their act before). Rest assured, either the Lakers or Clippers or both will be competing in the Western Conference Finals.

And Denver, that’s okay. The Nuggets are still building. They’re a good team – a very good team – that simply needs a little time and maybe a piece or two. Maybe they’ve already got one in Michael Porter Jr. (they might even find out one day, if, he’s given enough minutes to figure out defense in the NBA). Then again, even if they have time or pieces, it seems that the rest of the NBA isn’t going to sit back and watch as the Nuggets take “their turn.”

Want to see a preview of the 2022 Western Conference Finals? Tune in tonight, as Jokic battles that aforementioned “best player” in this evening’s affair, Luka Dončić. Oh, one more really, really scary thought: At age 20, and currently – arguably – one of the top-5 players in all of basketball, Dončić isn’t even in his prime. To point: Luka Dončić ‘s latest 30-point triple-double, a dominant 38-point, 11-rebound, 10-assist performance in a 118-110 win over the Bulls on Monday, gives him more than rest of NBA combined. Dončić is a consistent scorer (ehemm, Jamal and Joker) at 29.7 points per game; he’s played 32 games so far this season and has scored 20 points in all but three of those.

Yikes.

At least that one of those games came against the Nuggets, who held him to just 12. (one was against the Lakers, where Dončić had 19 points, the other only lasted 1-minute and 40-seconds following an early injury). Against Denver Dončić averages 19.7 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 8.7 assists. A great line for most players, and “okay” line for him.

By the time that Jokic and Dončić meet in the Western Conference Finals in 2022, Dončić will only be 23 – and if he’s not the very best player in the NBA by then, somebody came out of nowhere. Jokic will be a jolly old 27. Both players, if all goes right, should be at or near their prime.

Neither the Mavericks (23-13) nor the Nuggets (25-11) are winning it all this year. Scratch that: Neither the Mavericks nor the Nuggets are winning it all this year unless something major happens at the trade deadline. But don’t bet on that, especially in Denver (again, that’s okay; the Nuggets shouldn’t toss away their good doings simply to lose to the Lakers this season anyway). The Mavericks and their 20-year old superstar have all the time in the world.

But one or both teams should be looking at a much wider opening in the window two to three seasons from now. That’s great news for both teams, but it also keeps the pressure on – especially in Denver, where “growth” and “maturation” are major ingredients in Nuggets soup.

Want to see if Gary Harris should be a part of the longterm plan for the Nuggets? Put him on Dončić all night and see if the 6-foot-7 point guard’s 12-point performance was a fluke or a trend.

What about Michael Porter Jr.? Michael Malone should play 30 minutes against the Mavericks and give him a taste of the playoffs before his prime. MPJ, BTW, will be 24 when the Nuggets and Mavericks meet in the 2022 WCF. Give him the minutes required to be a silkier version of Kristaps Porzingis (who won’t be playing tonight due to injury).

And Jamal Murray? Sure, he’s a more traditional point guard than Dončić, but which team boasts the best backcourt? Now? In 2022? To some extent, “now” doesn’t matter, but the Nuggets will use tonight to help pencil in that road map to a championship if they’re smart.

When the 2019-20 season is in the books, the Jan. 8 game between the Nuggets and Mavericks won’t likely mean too much. Then again, it could be the start of a rivalry, if not a starting point for two teams on the path toward becoming a title contender.

Who’s further ahead?

Who will get there first?

This one could be telling.

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