After months of anticipation, the NBA is only a few weeks away from resuming its season at the NBA Disney Bubble in Orlando, Florida. This week, the first NBA teams began arriving at the Disney Bubble for the resumption of the 2019-20 season. The 22 teams will be NBA Disney contenders or pretenders. But, this isn’t the normal NBA. With consideration of this unique NBA landscape, the Last Word on Pro Basketball staff decides which teams are contenders and which are pretenders, starting with the Denver Nuggets.
Only the 22 teams in playoff contention are invited to the bubble. The games will be played without fans, amidst high levels of COVID-19 concerns. And, there’s a potential play-in tournament for the eighth seed and playoffs.
Does Nikola Jokic have enough talent to carry the Denver Nuggets to a title run?
NBA Disney Bubble Contenders or Pretenders? Denver Nuggets
The Jokic Factor
There’s no question that Jokic, a two-time NBA All-Star, carries the load for the Nuggets. He ranks first on the team for points (20.2), assists (6.9), and rebounds (10.2) per game. In addition to his rebounding skills, Jokic is an incredibly skilled passer and shooter at the center position.
Denver is able to space the floor and share the ball effectively when their star big man is on the floor. This opens up space for their talented roster of scorers including Jamal Murray and Will Barton. As a result, the Nuggets rank top-six in the league for second-chance points (6th) and assists per game (4th).
There are, however, questions over Jokic’s health and lack of speed and athleticism in today’s fast-paced NBA.
Last month, Jokic tested positive for COVID-19 at home in Serbia. Although he has now retested negative for the virus, he’s been unable to rejoin the Nuggets due to travel issues. Jokic will be ready to join the starting lineup when games resume on July 30, but these are unforeseen hurdles that may have lasting effects. Additionally, Jokic’s lack of speed and athleticism has, at times, affected the Nuggets in fast-break situations.
The Nuggets have the sixth-best record in the NBA this season at 43-22, sitting third in the Western Conference. Throughout the season and much of the team’s history, Denver has done its damage at home. This season is no different. In 33 games at home, Denver has rattled off 25 wins. The team plays more like a middle-of-the-pack team on the road, with an 18-14 record.
Professional sports teams have to prepare differently and ultimately perform differently playing in the high altitude city of Denver, Colorado. The thinner air contributes to the visiting player’s level of fatigue and lack of ability to play for longer stretches of time. Add in the city’s loyal and loud basketball fan base, and that equates to a serious home-court advantage for the Denver Nuggets.
When the Nuggets play their home games at the NBA Disney Bubble, there will be no high-altitude. There will be no fans. There will be no home-court advantage. This is a serious negative mark for Denver’s title chances.
Despite the league’s second-slowest pace of play, Denver has performed in the top-tier of the league offensively this year. The Nuggets hold the ninth-best offensive rating in the league and rank third in offensive rebounding percentage. However, the team’s size doesn’t translate as effectively on defense.
Denver ranks only 12th in overall defensive rating and is in the bottom third of the league for defensive rebounding percentage and defensive rebounds per game. This can be attributed to their lack of speed and athleticism in the transition game.
Serious questions around Denver’s transition defense proves a big liability in the Western Conference. This will be a problem against the fast-paced styles of play of teams like the Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Lakers and Memphis Grizzlies.
Denver Nuggets Verdict: Pretender
Nikola Jokic is an elite center in the NBA. He’s well-rounded on offense and the best passing big man in the league. Despite his talents on offense, the Nuggets have serious questions on defense. This defensive liability will be an issue for the likes of Anthony Davis and the Lakers, or other potential match-ups such as the Los Angeles Clippers or Rockets. Without that valuable home-court advantage of the “Mile High City,” the Denver Nuggets are NBA Disney pretenders.