NUGGETS

Top seed is not the priority for Malone’s reigning champion Nuggets

Feb 21, 2024, 4:08 PM

The Denver Nuggets weren’t just the top team in the NBA last year, capturing their first-ever championship—they were also the top team in the West during the regular season.

The 2022-23 finish in first place helped the Nuggets to a 16-4 record in the postseason—only losing once at home. So seemingly it would be pretty important for Denver to get the number one spot in the West to repeat. Nobody disputes this, but head coach Michael Malone doesn’t want the standings to be the Nuggets main goal coming out of the All-Star Break.

As it sits now, Denver is fourth in the West with 27 games to play. It’s shaping up to be a four-team race with Minnesota on top, three games ahead, followed by Oklahoma City and the Clippers sandwiched between the Wolves and Nuggets. Record-wise and statistically the Nuggets are nearly an identical team to where they were at this point last season; what has changed is the teams around them have gotten stronger.

“It’s not a top one or two priority, to be very honest,” Malone said about the No. 1 seed. “We talked about that as a team today. The good thing is Minnesota is number one, we play them three more times. We’re three games out. So we have avenues to become the number one team. It’s definitely attainable. But I don’t want to win that battle and lose the bigger wars.”

Malone makes a good point, which is because the West was so weak last year, Denver had a chance to rest on their lead heading into the postseason. Two-time MVP Nikola Jokic only played twice in the final seven games of the season, which meant he put just about 50 minutes of game action on his legs over 17 days before Game 1 of the first round. Even if the Nuggets have to play strong down the stretch to secure seeding, they only have two back-to-backs left for the rest of the season—one of which is this Thursday and Friday. Beyond that, Denver’s first ten games out of the All-Star Break include seven games at home and only one matchup with a top-four team in either conference—Boston. Similarly, the final six games of the season includes a matchup with the Clippers and Wolves, but the other four are weak opponents.

“When our starting unit plays, our record is 24-6, 75% win percentage,” Malone continued. “That to me is most important, going into the playoffs with our starting five healthy and ready for the load placed upon them. When we get there the rotation shrinks and we’ll play them heavier minutes. So having them on the court in the first round is very important and having a healthy team going into the postseason is very important, but if we happen to be the number one seed that’s just the cherry on top.”

There it is. Expect the Nuggets to prioritize the health of Jokic, Jamal Murray, Aaron Gordon, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Michael Porter Jr. down the stretch and not the top seed. Those five have played more than any other lineup in the NBA this season and outscore opponents by 12.4 points per 100 possessions when on the floor together, the fifth-best mark among five-man lineups in the league. And most still say Denver’s starting five is the best in the league based on last year’s playoff run.

It is important to keep this in mind too; it’s not out of the realm that Malone would pick and choose carefully which games to win in the season’s dying days so that Denver could manipulate their postseason matchup—it’s something the coach may have done before.

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Top seed is not the priority for Malone’s reigning champion Nuggets