Predicting Disney: Denver Nuggets
Have you seen Quarantinikola Jokic? Have you?
If you haven’t, then let me spell it out for you: the days of Chunky Honey and the summer hangover are long gone. Look:
The Serbian police are reportedly still trying to figure out who stole half of Nikola Jokic. If he can kick COVID-19 (he’s reported multiple negative tests after a positive one a few weeks ago) and lead the Nuggets through the bubble, watch out!
There used to be a kind of graceful walrussian ballet in Jokic’s play; without a toddler’s worth of additional weight to carry around, there might be some actual athleticism to go with his passing savvy, basketball IQ, and all-around excellence.
Let’s not forget that when play was suspended, the Nuggets were the three-seed in the West, and looking to build upon last year's Game 7 loss at home in the Western Conference Semifinals. This is a motivated squad whose their best player is actually looking like he’s in the #bestshapeofmylife. Throw in their snooty accommodations at the Gran Destino Tower, and the Nuggets look primed to eat well, sleep better, and play some of the best basketball of their lives.
August 1st vs. Miami Heat - W
The Heat are good - make no mistake. But the Heat are good in the same way that the Nuggets are good... and the Nuggets are just better at it. Both are deep, versatile teams that can expect key contributions from unexpected sources, but the Nuggets’ pieces are better than the corresponding ones in Miami. Bam Adebayo has been a revelation as a unique, passing big man in this breakout season, who - if he continued along his trajectory of improvement - would hope to someday be Nikola Jokic. Kendrick Nunn has come out of nowhere as a combo guard who thrives with someone else being the focal point of the offense. At his peak, he’d hope to be Jamal Murray. Jimmy Butler is the one player on the Heat who is noticeably better than his counterpart, and he doesn’t play the Nuggets well. Out of the gates, 1-0.
August 3rd vs. Oklahoma City Thunder - W
We move quickly to W number two. Not that I don’t think the Thunder are good, but they simply don’t have the depth to hang with the Nuggets. I think that while there are elements of the bubble format that will even the playing field (such as the unexpected return of Andre Roberson), a big determining factor of bubble success is going to be the urgency of the participants. No one expected much of the Thunder this year after they traded Paul George and Russell Westbrook, so they’ve been playing with house money. The Nuggets are a win-now team, and I expect them to show up and make a statement against a division rival, claiming their second in a row to open the restart. 2-0.
August 5th vs. San Antonio Spurs - W
With LaMarcus Aldridge undergoing season-ending surgery, the Spurs aren’t a real threat to do much of anything in the bubble; if they didn’t have such a ridiculously easy schedule, I’d pick them to get absolutely hammered. With matchups against the Sacramento Kings and Memphis Grizzlies preceding their game against the Spurs, San Antonio likely has a better chance of coming into this game undefeated than the Nuggets do. Rest assured that the Spurs will not be undefeated coming out of this game. 3-0.
August 6th vs. Portland Trailblazers - W
Back-to-back games against the Spurs and the Portland Blazers represent the cupcake portion of the schedule for Denver, and I don’t expect them to stumble against the Blazers, who Denver harbors a great deal of animosity towards for ending their 2019-2020 season. While the Blazers may be fortified by the healthy returns of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins, the bubble is an awfully tough place to re-integrate new rotation pieces on the fly. Let’s not forget that Portland was the lone franchise that voted against the restart -- this was a season to be forgotten in Oregon, and I don’t believe their hearts will be in it. 4-0.
August 8th vs. Utah Jazz - W
Another team that may have trouble coalescing in Florida is the Utah Jazz, who were at the eye of the storm when the season was abruptly halted, and although rumors have picked up that Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell are attempting to mend the rift, having your two best players feud at all is normally not great when attempting to sustain some level of long-term success. Throw in Bojan Bogdanovic’s season-ending surgery and you’re looking at a very different Jazz team than the one that surged to the four-seed in the West and appeared to be a dark-horse title contender. I don’t think they’ll be awful in the bubble; I just don’t think they beat the Nuggets in this one. 5-0.
August 10th vs. Los Angeles Lakers - L
All good things must come to an end at some point. The factors that have most influenced my predictions thus far have been roster quality and team urgency, and the Lakers sport both in spades. LeBron has notably been one of the loudest voices in the ‘Let’s Play!’ camp, likely because he is aware of his basketball mortality, and doesn’t want to let a potential MVP-and-title-winning season slip away. The Lakers are the West’s cream of the crop for a reason: they’ve got a great team, and they are very motivated to win here. The Nuggets take their first loss in the bubble. 5-1.
August 12th vs. Los Angeles Clippers - L
And follow it up with L number two against the other LA team two days later. It’s tough to get their most recent match-up out of my mind, when the Nuggets went to the Staples Center with two solid days of rest and the Clippers waxed them by 30. The Clippers, like the Lakers, have top-of-the-roster quality that actually surpasses the Nuggets, and the same win-now urgency to maximize its on-court implementation. The Clippers look to be one of the big beneficiaries of the extended break, as both Paul George and Kawhi Leonard got additional time to rest and rehab injuries that had contributed to extensive load management throughout the season. When the Clippers have their whole roster, they’re tough to beat. The Nuggets don’t get it done here, slipping to 5-2.
August 14th vs. Toronto Raptors - W
Seriously though: who in the Nuggets hierarchy did an NBA league office member dirty? The Nuggets home-stretch into the playoffs features the best of the West in the Lakers and Clippers, topped off with a bubble-buffet inspired cherry in the defending NBA champion Toronto Raptors! Suffice it to say that no other team in the bubble has anywhere close to the same gauntlet as the Nuggets to wrap the regular season. But I foresee a bounce-back for the Nuggets, who won’t let themselves jump out to a 5-0 record just to stumble to the finish line with three straight losses. Like the Heat, the Raptors use their depth to beat inferior foes, and the Nuggets are just the better team, as their last match-up showed; Toronto needed 32 points out of OG Anunoby to only lose by 15 on March 1st. Some motivated play from Denver means the team finishes the bubble's regular season slate with a record of 6-2.
The Nuggets would really have to shoot for the moon (i.e. beat one of the L.A. teams) to hit back-to-back 50-win seasons; I think they’d feel pretty good about keeping the three-seed in the West and entering the playoffs with a slimmed-down Jokic and otherwise healthy roster in place.
Final Record: 49 - 24 (6-2 at Disney)