Why a healthy Denver Nuggets can finish first in the Western Conference

The 2022-23 NBA season started about three weeks ago, and the Denver Nuggets currently own one of the better records in the league.

Denver is fourth in the Western Conference in the young season, 8-4, trailing only the top-seeded Utah Jazz, the red-hot Portland Trailblazers and the Ja Morant-led Memphis Grizzlies.

Based on their play earlier in the season, there’s a realistic path for the Nuggets to pave their way to the top of the Western Conference. If healthy, they could easily claim No. 1 in conference standings and give them home field advantage against any opponent in the playoffs.

Golden State’s shaky start to the title defense has left the conference wide open. Should the Warriors become world champions again, they would be the first team to win a ring after a 3-7 start to the regular season. While the Denver Nuggets are showing real fight value thanks in large part to their potential on offense.

The Denver Nuggets are shooting with no lights right now

Denver currently leads the NBA in field goal and three-point percentage, with the Nuggets shooting a league-best 49.7 percent from the field and an unmatched 41.9 percent from beyond the arc. Combine this level of efficiency with an offensive rating of 115.1 (third best in the league) and you have an elite offensive line just waiting to break out.

The Nuggets are currently pulling off the ninth most three-point attempts per game in the NBA while only 23rd most three-point attempts, a true testament to their effectiveness as a unit this season. The team also ranks second in assists per game, third in field goals made per game, and fifth in points per game.

The Denver Nuggets’ elite ball movement revolves heavily around back-to-back MVP Nikola Jokic. Although the superstar center is yet to hit peak form in terms of shooting and goals, though he is on course for a career high in assists. In fact, the Serbian sensation is responsible for a sizable chunk of his team’s 28.6 assists per game as he dish out 8.5 cents per contest.

Denver’s second and third options made their long-awaited comebacks this fall, which naturally boosted the team’s offense. That being said, the Nuggets’ passing game has really been off the hook, with the team currently leading the league in assist ratio and fifth in assist percentage.

The influence of MPJ and Murray back in the lineup

After returning from serious injuries, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. each missed just one game. However, both players average less than 30 minutes a night, a particularly low number for Murray, who averaged over 35 minutes per game during his 2020-21 season.

Still, Murray is amassing 15.5 points per game with solid shooting (43.1 percent from field and 34.7 percent from three) while working his way back from a long layoff. His consistent availability earlier in the year bodes well for his chances of returning to his pre-injury brilliance.

Meanwhile, Porter Jr. has been hitting the absolute lights so far, sinking 46.3 percent of his three-pointers with an effective field goal percentage of 60.6 percent. As long as the long forward can stay grounded, he will make a big impact on the Nuggets with his versatility as a goalscorer and placeholder. The Denver Nuggets’ offense will only trend higher if the two stars return to their peak form.

The Denver Nuggets still need to improve on defense

Obviously, Denver has what it takes to make a legitimate run for the No. 1, but unfortunately their defense could still use some serious work. After finishing last season No. 15 in defensive standings, the Nuggets began their season ranked 25th in that category.

Despite their lackluster defensive play, there’s reason to believe Denver can find a rhythm as the season progresses.

For starters, the Nuggets are still incorporating significant signings like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown into their defensive rotations. KCP and Brown, designed to give Denver’s defense a big boost, have actually exerted their greatest influence on the perimeter.

KCP currently leads the entire NBA in three-point percentage, with the sniper converting a paltry 56.6 percent of his three-pointers on 2.7 attempts per contest. Brown also impressed filming a solid 40.5 percent clip from downtown.

The Denver Nuggets also commit the fewest fouls in the NBA, averaging 18.3 per game, a trend that could bode well for their defense in the long run. Last season, for example, elite defensive teams like Boston and Milwaukee finished in the bottom five in fouls committed.

Additionally, Denver performs as well as any other team in the league, ranking in the top ten in defensive rebound and in the top five in defensive rebound percentage. Historically, many of the best defensive teams have excelled in this area as well.

While the Nuggets struggled to slow down their opponents in the scoring department, their impressive rebounds and lack of fouls showed them some incredibly disciplined defensive habits. Worst-case scenario, Denver should be able to reclaim its midfield place among the league’s defensive units.

While a big playoff win will likely require a significant increase in defensive production, the Nuggets only need a minor improvement in defense to climb up the ladder behind strong offense.

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