One of the favorite talk topics around the Mile High Sports offices is the “In/Out” conversation.
On a given day, at least once you’ll hear a writer, editor, radio host or producer ask: “As it stands right now, is __________ a playoff team? Are they in or out?”
No matter the season — spring, summer, fall or winter; football, baseball, basketball or hockey — trying to predict who’s in and who’s out is a matter of regular discourse.
It’s understandable, given the nature of sports news and information. Everyone wants to say, “I had it first.” Whether breaking news about where a player is signing or predicting which team is going to be the next to surprise everyone and go on a championship run, the competitive world of sports media is no different than the play on the field. Everyone wants to be first.
Rewind to 2013. Five years ago. It’s hard to believe, but that’s when an upstart Golden State Warriors team led by Steph Curry and Klay Thompson upset a 57-win Denver Nuggets team in the first round of the NBA Playoffs.
How many people then were projecting the Warriors as the NBA’s next superpower?
If you’re being honest, back in those days you probably knew more about Richard Jefferson (who at 32 years old averaged just 5.1 minutes per game in that series) than you did about Klay Thompson. Don’t feel bad. You weren’t alone.
No one was too shocked when those Warriors lost in the second round to the No. 2 seed Spurs. Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobli were aging, but their trip to the NBA Finals that year was all but a foregone conclusion. (They lost to LeBron James and his Super Heat in seven games.) The Spurs returned to the Finals in 2014 and won it all, but haven’t been back since.
The Warriors, meanwhile, have been a part of the last three Finals — winning two. Not many people were predicting that in March of 2013.
Back here in the present day, people have been calling the Nuggets “the next Warriors” since October.
They do have one thing in common: Richard Jefferson.
Now 37, Jefferson is averaging 9.1 MPG for Michael Malone’s Nuggets this year. (We’ll see how many minutes he logs if the Nuggets make the playoffs.) But this column isn’t just about the ageless wonder, Richard Jefferson.
It’s about predicting success. Specifically, predicting success that will equate to Denver’s first playoff appearance since that series against Jefferson’s Warriors of 2012-13.
It’s why at the start of this season the biggest sports outlet in the world, ESPN, suggested that the Nuggets could very well be the next great NBA team.
But before they can do that, they have to get to the playoffs. Which brings me back to that ever-popular topic of conversation here at the MHS offices. Are the Nuggets in or out?
Last Friday I said with relative certainty that the Nuggets would not make the playoffs.
They had just coughed up the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference standings by blowing a massive second-half lead to the Clippers. Doc Rivers had effectively waved the white flag, down by 19 and calling on reserves like Boban Marjanovic with 4:06 remaining in the third quarter. But the Nuggets had no answer for Marjanovic, who scored 18 points and was a mind-boggling plus-27 in his 15:09 on the floor.
With 13 of their final 21 games to be played on the road, including the next three, the odds were not in Denver’s favor.
Yes, they had won their two previous road games. But one of those was against the lowly Suns (the other was against Milwaukee). And their road record before those two wins was just 7-19 — a .269 road winning percentage. Even with those wins it was just .321.
Based on that paltry percentage, the math suggested that the Nuggets would win three, maybe four, of those 13 remaining road games. Even with their impressive .727 home winning percentage, Denver seemed likely to secure no more than 8 or 9 wins over those last 21 games.
Would 41 or 42 wins be enough to get them into the playoffs?
It would have been for the past two years. For the three years before that, it would not.
In a season where (at the start of play on Monday) the No. 3 seed and the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference were separated by just two games, 41 or 42 wins seems like a dangerously thin margin for error. Especially when tiebreakers with certain conference foes had gone by the wayside, as they did with that loss to the Clippers.
Then the Nuggets went out and won a pair of road games on back-to-back nights, the second coming in Cleveland, to reclaim a playoff spot. Denver with a very winnable game in Tankville (a.k.a. Dallas) on Tuesday can maintain its precarious hold on the No. 8 seed and perhaps gain ground on the Clippers, who host New Orleans (another team fighting for its playoff life) that same night.
After Dallas the Nuggets play three of their next four at home before embarking on a season-long, seven-game road trip. Four of their last six are at home. Their final four games of the season are against teams that will likely be fighting tooth and nail for a playoff spot.
Will Denver be in the same boat? I’m not even going to speculate at this point.
The Nuggets have been wildly unpredictable this season.
Losing at home to the Suns and Hawks. Wins on road against the Warriors and Cavaliers.
Then again, the Western Conference on the whole has been wildly unpredictable this year.
For what seems like the first time in the Greg Popovich era, the Spurs are no lock for the playoffs. Neither are the Thunder and all their All-Stars.
With just over one month of the season remaining, eight teams have a legitimate shot at six playoff spots.
So, are the Nuggets going to make the playoffs?
After that devastating home loss to the Clippers, I said no.
After they beat the Cavs in Cleveland on the second night of a road back-to-back, I have no idea.
Trying to predict who’s in and who’s out comes with the territory in the sports media world, but from here forward I’m going to stop speculating about these Nuggets and simply enjoy the ride.
The odds are in their favor.
Six of those eight teams will get in. Paul Millsap is back. Nikola Jokic could go off for a triple-double any night. Jamal Murray is becoming more of a leader with every trip down the court. Gary Harris is proving to be more Gary Harris than we ever could have imagined. Wilson Chandler is playing like a man possessed.
Are the Nuggets the next Golden State Warriors?
That’s speculation for another day.
Will they make the playoffs?
In the words of Alfred E. Neuman: “What, me worry?”