Beating The Bucks Does Not Make You A Contender. Just Ask Denver

Someone DM’d me on the last episode of This League asking whether Denver was primed to contend again. It’s an interesting question. The Nuggets made the Western Conference finals last year, after going down 3-1 in two separate series against the Jazz and Clippers. 

So there were MAJOR expectations this year. And after an inconsistent start to the season, they’ve been getting a lot of media attention recently for supposedly righting the ship and becoming a contender again. 

Just this week they beat Bucks by 30 in a nationally televised game.  

I hate to burst your bubble, but I’m here to tell you, beating the Bucks is not an accomplishment any more. It’s one game in the middle of the season when players and coaches are not scheming to get the match ups they want. Mid-season NBA is mostly a pickup game, with not a lot of time for Xs and Os. This is why beating one good team in the regular season doesn’t make you a contender.

And it’s why the playoffs matter, it’s a seven-game series. Chess moves. Counter moves. Adjustments. Scheming. Game planning.

You may think based on the Nugget's success in the bubble, that it’s a possibility they might have the same success in the postseason this year. But they’re missing a critical piece of last year’s roster, someone who could have been an actual All Star this year.

I’m talking about Jerami Grant, who they let walk to the Pistons for a paltry 3 year $60 million.

Grant was a key piece in a number of big win in the playoffs last year. For example, Grant had 18 points when Denver was down 3-2 in Game 6 against Utah, and scored 14/5/1 off the Bench in a series-clinching Game 7 against the Clippers. Even against the Lakers he had great success, averaging 21/5/1 over the last 3 games. 

That’s why you know they should have re-signed him, because this year, he’s putting up even better numbers with the Pistons. Grant is averaging 23.4/5/3 since his arrival to Detroit. 

This illustrates Denver’s Achilles heel: their bench. Denver is 21st in bench points this season with 33.9 points per game and ranked in the 20s in just about every bench metric. It’s just not a deep team.

The best example of this comes in the ten games leading up to the All-Star break, when everyone was saying the Nuggets are back. Jokic and Murray both averaged over 30 points a game during this stretch, and they had good wins against the Lakers, Blazers, and the Bucks. 

But guess what? They also lost 4 games in the past two weeks. Anytime your two best players are putting up thirty a game EACH and you’re still only 6-4? That’s a problem. Because it means guys like P.J. Dozier and Paul Milsap are going to have to make the significant contributions that Grant was making last year to have similar success. Not exactly easy to replicate. 

So the Nuggets head into the break in 6th place but only three games out of 10th in an incredibly competitive West. Best case scenario is a match-up with the Lakers or Suns or Clippers. The worst case is they fall to a #8 and have to compete in the play-in tournament against the likes of the Mavs, Grizzlies, and Warriors. Either way, they have a hard road cut out for them ahead if they want to replicate even part of the surprise success they had last year.

The latest episode of This League is out where we talk more about the Nuggets, why the Atlanta Hawks have been so trash, why the Pelicans got back to playing a completely different kind of fun basketball than last year, and James Harden’s triumphant return to Houston.