41 games in the books, and the 2023-24 Denver Nuggets have a record of 28-13 so far this season.

Last season’s record at the same point? 28-13.

Oh, and the Nuggets won the championship last year.

“I think, considering everything, it’s not bad,” Jamal Murray shared about Denver’s 28-13 record this year. “I was out for a month. Minute restriction when I came back for a few games after rolling my ankle twice. We’ve had guys in and out of the lineup. We’ve relied on rookies heavily early on, and I think they’re growing tremendously, so I’d say we’re in a pretty good spot.”

The Nuggets are in a relatively good position as they embark upon a five-game road trip. Currently in the midst of their toughest stretch of the season, the team is in a good place. Sure, the Nuggets currently have all five starters listed as questionable on the injury report, but they’re still in a good place health wise. Something tells me that if Game 7 of the NBA Finals was tomorrow, they’d all play, and they’d all play pretty well.

“I think we’re in a good spot,” echoed Michael Porter Jr. in his postgame presser. “I think we’re about what you can expect with a vastly different bench lineup than last year. Coming off of a championship with a short summer.”

Lineup Data

At the bare bones of the Nuggets lies Nikola Jokic and perhaps the best starting five in the NBA. When Jokic is on the floor, the Nuggets outscore teams by 11.5 points per 100 possessions. That difference ranks fifth in the NBA among players to exceed 25 minutes per game this season, according to NBA.com’s database. Last season, the Nuggets outscored opponents by 12.5 points per 100 possessions, so there’s been a minor drop but nothing too concerning.

When Denver’s starters take the floor together is when the Nuggets do most of their damage. In lineups with Jokic, Murray, Porter, Aaron Gordon, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the Nuggets outscore opponents by an impressive 16.5 points per 100 possessions. That margin ranks sixth among the 49 lineups to exceed 100 minutes played together in the NBA so far this season. It also improves beyond last year’s margin of 13.1 points per 100 possessions, a good sign that Denver’s primary formula continues to work.

So, what are some of these differences from last year to this year that could haunt Denver?

Well for one, the non-Jokic minutes continue to be an issue, though the Nuggets are working through those problems reasonably well.

When Jokic is off the floor, the Nuggets are only being outscored by 7.4 points per 100 possessions. The previous season, the Nuggets lost those minutes by 10.4 points per 100, meaning there have been discernible improvements made in Jokic’s absence. Looking at the above graphic though, those improvements haven’t really come from Zeke Nnaji, who is out of Denver’s rotation. According to Cleaning the Glass (a different source that eliminates garbage time from the calculations), the Nuggets have been outscored by 21.7 points per 100 possessions when Nnaji is on the floor. That’s about as bad as it gets. The Nuggets signed Nnaji to a contract extension in the offseason hoping to see some improvement and stability from the fourth-year big man. Unfortunately, the Nuggets struggle too much in Nnaji’s minutes to see if he can fulfill that promise.

DeAndre Jordan has played a lot lately for Denver, and his numbers (-7.2 points per 100 possessions when on the floor) are pretty good. His chemistry with Reggie Jackson appears pretty solid, yielding a +0.4 Net Rating together in 380 possessions. Unfortunately, that same chemistry hasn’t extended to Jamal Murray yet, which is probably Denver’s next big challenge. Murray and Jordan together have yielded a fairly disgusting -29.0 margin (in only 115 possessions together) and will have to improve. Murray’s going to stagger with the bench in the playoffs, which means he has to build chemistry with Jackson, Christian Braun, Peyton Watson, and even Jordan.

Aaron Gordon will probably also play some center in those lineups, and the Nuggets have only rolled out the Gordon at center lineups for 166 total possessions this year, per CTG.

The result? +13.2 points per 100 possessions with a defensive rating of 99.4…so pretty darn excellent.

The Road Trip

The Nuggets have been discussing this five-game road trip for awhile. They’ve been discussing the stretch they’re currently on, facing +.500 teams in 10 out of 11 games, as a defining period for their season, a chance to prove to themselves and others how good they can be.

“I think the biggest thing is taking care of this road trip and bringing the same energy that we do at home on the road,” Murray shared. “I think that will be our biggest challenge so far throughout the season.”

On the season, the Nuggets are actually 11-9 on the road. That would have been cause for celebration in the Western Conference last year when very few teams had positive road records. This year, there are currently eight teams with road records above .500, including the Memphis Grizzlies, who somehow have an 11-10 road record and 4-15 home record.

Cleaning the Glass paints a less glossy picture for Denver’s road record as well, where the Nuggets have the 16th best Net Rating on the road this season at -1.1 per 100 possessions. Denver’s Net Rating at home ranks fourth, so there’s a large disparity there.

The Nuggets have proved they can win on the road in prior years, but they didn’t have to in last year’s playoffs by being the top seed in the Western Conference. The Nuggets started every playoff series at home and went 10-1 on their home floor in the playoffs, their only loss coming in Game 2 of the NBA Finals vs the Miami Heat. Denver still went 6-3 on the road, so it may not matter as much as one may think, but it still matters.

Denver is currently third in the West, battling the Minnesota Timberwolves and Oklahoma City Thunder for the top spot. The Nuggets are two losses behind the T’Wolves and one loss behind the Thunder, so they’ll have to make up some ground in the second half of the season. There’s no better place to make up ground on the rest of the conference than winning more road games than expected.

“Obviously, we’d love to be number one in the West, but we’re a couple games behind it,” Porter emphasized. “We’re feeling good. Guys are healthy. That’s all you can ask for.”

How Denver fares on this road trip will probably define their chances for the top seed in the West. The Nuggets will face the Philadelphia 76ers tonight, the Boston Celtics on Friday, the Washington Wizards on Sunday, and both the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks next week. That’s a hard schedule, even factoring in the Wizards. If the Nuggets manage to go 3-2 or better, they’re still firmly in the race. If Denver goes 2-3 or worse, they’re definitely in jeopardy of falling too far behind. The T’Wolves and Thunder have difficult schedules of their own from a rest perspective, so it will be interesting to see how seriously each team values homecourt advantage throughout the West playoffs.

Whatever happens, it’s clear that the first half of Denver’s regular season was successful. Denver’s record matched last year’s record, the Jokic minutes and starting lineup combinations are as strong as ever, and the Nuggets even found a way to get Braun, Watson, and Julian Strawther extended minutes.

The strong first half of the season doesn’t mean Denver’s next 41 games will be great, but it’s certainly not a bad sign. Anecdotally, it feels like the Nuggets are pacing themselves fairly well. The minutes haven’t been too taxing, and the rotation hasn’t been cut short too often. The times when the Nuggets starters kick into a higher gear are also very noticeable and often extremely potent. The team is about to be tested on this road trip with some tough opponents, and if they’re ready for the matchups and show some dominant stretches, they will prove to everyone just how ready they are for when the games truly matter.

Will a strong road trip bode well for the playoffs? Who knows? It can’t hurt much, though.