ROUND UP

The Nuggets path to winning the 1 seed is clear, here’s how it looks

Mar 14, 2024, 1:27 PM

A season ago the Denver Nuggets took the No. 1 seed on Dec. 20 and never looked back—in 2024, things have been a bit tougher but on Thursday the reigning NBA champions once again woke up holding the West’s top spot.

The Nuggets are about the same team, if not a tad bit better than they were last season. Both the champs and the crew seeking a repeat were 46-20 at the 66-game mark. By season’s end, the Nuggets had a 117.6 offensive rating and 114.2 defensive rating—both those numbers have improved to 118.5 on offense and 113.8 on defense. These stats basically say that over 100 possessions the Nuggets offense is one point better than last year and the team’s defense is a half point improved. This has made the Nuggets the seventh-best offense in the NBA and 10th-best defense by ratings.

Denver has gotten better at just about everything since the All-Star Break and that has propelled the team to a 10-1 record where they regained first place. A month ago, Michael Malone made it very clear that the team would put health ahead of record down the stretch but at the same time, the head coach circled the first handful of games in the second half as a diving board for Denver.

“I hope people understand when I say health is paramount, I have never once said we don’t want the number one seed, we will surely take it,” Malone said on Wednesday after Denver’s win in Miami. “It (the top seed) was great to us last year, and that allowed us to have home-court advantage the entirety of the playoffs which helped us win the first championship and Nuggets history. So the fact that you know 16 games to go we currently sit at one in the West is great. But at the same time, we know we have plenty of work to do and there’s little margin of error in the Western Conference between us and OKC and Minnesota and the Clippers and New Orleans, who’s playing lights out right now. You have a little bit of a dip, then you look around and next thing you know you’re not in first place.”

Malone is right, so much so that the Nuggets’ first place is only virtual right now and Oklahoma City actually controls their own destiny, at this point.

West Standings

Denver                —           66 GP, 46-20
Oklahoma City  0.5 GB, 65 GP, 45-20
Minnesota          1.0 GB, 66 GP, 45-21
Los Angeles        4.0 GB, 64 GP, 41-23
New Orleans      6.5 GB, 65 GP, 39-26

The Nuggets path to No. 1

The reason the Thunder control their path is because they won the standings tiebreaker from the Nuggets by virtue of going 3-1 in the regular season series. Denver will not meet OKC again this season but the Thunder have a much tougher slate. They have three back-to-backs left and face the ninth-hardest schedule by strength of opponent over their final 17 games. Though this may not play out in the real world how well it sounds on paper given two of their tougher matchups are the last two games and both their opponents in Milwaukee and Dallas may be settled into position by then. OKC is just 4-3 in their last seven games as the Nuggets have shot up in that same period.

OKC’s path the rest of the way compared to Denver though, is still a lot rougher. The Nuggets only have one back-to-back left and have the fifth-easiest schedule remaining. Denver’s toughest games come when the Suns, Knicks and Cavs visit the Mile High City—and a trip to see the scuffling Clippers in L.A. All winnable games, but Denver’s three most important games left are obviously their matchups against Minnesota. The Nuggets lost in their lone trip to the Twin Cities earlier this season and will head back there this coming Tuesday. Unfortunately for the Nuggets one of the three matchups does occur as the team’s final second night of a back-to-back but the Wolves will be on the second night of a back-to-back in two of the three matchups. The one non-back-to-back matchup occurs late in March and for Minny, it’ll be the lone road game among seven of eight at home—often a situation where teams may not send their full team.

Aside from beating the Wolves in the playoffs last season, the Nuggets should feel pretty confident in placing above Minny given the scheduling and the fact that they are now without star big man Karl-Anthony Towns.

The Clippers have gone 7-8 over their past 15 games which has pretty much played them out of top spot contention and has pushed them closer to the Pelicans who could steal home court in the first round.

The Nuggets could realistically go 13-3 in their final 16 games for a staggering 23-4 finish to the season. That should easily take care of the No. 1 seed with a 59-23 record and would surpass 57, which is the current mark for most wins in the Nuggets’ NBA history. Even winning 11 to tie that mark should give the Nuggets a good shot at the No. 1 or No. 2 seed which would mean home-court advantage in the first two rounds.

Possible playoff matchups for the Nuggets

It seems that the Kings, Suns, Mavericks and Lakers are the most likely playoff opponents for the Nuggets at this point. Of course, Denver ran into the Suns in the second round last year and the Lakers in the third—which just goes to show how much better the conference is this year than last.

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The Nuggets path to winning the 1 seed is clear, here’s how it looks