How the Nuggets have become Western Conference favorites

Aaron Gordon Nikola Jokic
The Aaron Gordon trade has changed the Denver Nuggets. Photo from The Denver Post.

The Denver Nuggets are the most feared team in the Western Conference right now. Flyers have been sent out, TV and radio stations have been taken over, and the Nuggets’ message is loud and clear: ‘we got next’.

This Denver squad has taken its lumps. They have a decade’s worth of playoff scars crammed into the last two post-season runs. They are authors of the book titled: how to come back from down 3-1 TWICE.

Denver Nuggets record 2021: Ready to challenge for title

Last season’s run to the Western Conference finals was no aberration. The Nuggets must harbour ambitions of advancing to their first ever NBA Finals.

Denver have won seven games in a row. Expanding that out over the last 15 games the Nuggets have the joint-best record in the league, along with Brooklyn and Phoenix. Only the LA Clippers can match Denver’s offensive rating (117) among teams in the West in this stretch. What Michael Malone’s men have shown over the 15 games is classic example of peaking at the right time, just a little over a month out until the playoffs begin.

Aaron Gordon addition

Losing Jerami Grant in the offseason was a bitter pill to swallow for Denver. The Nuggets matched Detroit’s three-year $60 million deal. Grant’s desire to be the focal point of an offense was one of the reasons he departed Denver for Motor City. Essentially replacing Grant with Aaron Gordon gives you a team construct similar to last year.

Aaron Gordon on Denver is as close to basketball compatibility as you can imagine. Much was expected of Gordon for years. We wanted him to become the face of the Orlando Magic. That’s just not him, and that’s okay. What Gordon does possess however, st an elite swiss-army style of play that fits perfectly alongside Jokic who is able to find his teammates cutting to the basket.

His usage rate in the six games he has played for Denver is already over 6 percentage points less than when playing for the Magic.


Per Second Spectrum, Gordon registers 32 touches per game with the Nuggets, exactly half the amount of touches he had in Orlando. Dribbles per touch are at a lowly 1.2 per game compared to 3.4 for the Magic. Impressively however, Gordon is averaging more points per chance with Denver (1.2), showing how limiting his ball handling is positively affecting his game.

The likes of Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Michael Porter Jr lessens the offensive responsibility of the 6’8 power forward. Instead, his priority should be locking down the other team’s best wing player. Since joining the roster, Denver are an impressive 6-0 and Gordon is a plus 69 the minutes he’s played. He is shooting a ridiculous 73% from two-point range as well as registering a career high in steals per game (1.2).

MPJ’s Ascension

Michael Porter Jr is balling. His game has elevated to a level where he can prove to be the difference in a playoff series. What he is producing should be of little surprise. Taken as the 14th pick in the 2018 draft, Porter Jr was projected to be the first overall pick if not for health issues. He ended up missing the entirety of his first season in the league. It was not until the NBA bubble last season where MPJ really showed what he is capable of.

This year his leap has been evident. MPJ has shot 50% or higher in each of his last fifteen games. This stretch has also seen the 6’9 forward from Missouri College shoot an astonishing 53% from three on more than five attempts per game.

His defence has come along well as the season has progressed. Much was made about MPJ’s horrid defence entering this season. Staying in front of his man was a real problem and he was prone to committing fouls too easily. The level of defence he has shown this year is undeniably encouraging. What he has shown this season is a solid foundation for him to improve upon.

In the most recent win over the San Antonio Spurs (106-96) at 2:05 minutes left of the second quarter, Michael Porter Jr’s read and react defence shut down the pick and roll combo between Keldon Johnson and Jakob Poeltl, which ultimately led to Jokic throwing an outlet pass to Porter Jr for the easy dunk.

It’s these types of situations where MPJ will be crucial. In a conference where likely match ups include LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Devin Booker, Porter Jr will be expected to hold is own and make it difficult for these level of players to score.

MVP Jokic

It may seem a little unfair we mention Nikola Jokic last. He is Denver’s best player. He is leading the MVP race. A player of his stature should command front and centre adulation. Or maybe it’s because it’s a perfect reflection of the ego-less big man.

Jokic’s style of play is one we have not previously witnessed in all of NBA history.

We have seen heliocentric offenses before, most catered around a guard in modern basketball. The ones geared towards centres tend to be a more bully ball style where the centre backs into his man and finishes with aplomb. Jokic is doing this, don’t get me wrong, but it’s his passing that is the real eye-catcher. Per Dan Devine of The Ringer, Jokic has dished 16 assists to Aaron Gordon in the six games they have played together – that is one more than any Magic player has assisted to Gordon this season. Moral of the story: Jokic makes his teammates better.

This week Jokic passed Wilt Chamberlain in recording the most 10-assist games for a centre (82).

Only 26 years of age, Jokic will reset the record books and demonstrate an evolution of the game few can lay claim to. The Serbian is in pole position to win his first MVP, but more importantly, lead the Nuggets into the playoffs potentially to the NBA Finals.

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About Kelechi Ulu 10 Articles
It was during the 2018 Conference Finals my interest in the NBA began.Watching the Rockets and Warriors duel it out was something akin to a movie scene. It was then when I knew I was hooked onto the NBA...Since then I love reading all things NBA and listening to a plethora of basketball podcasts. It’s all for the love of the game

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