The Scouting Report: Denver Nuggets
Projected starting line-up: Jameer Nelson, Gary Harris, Kostas Papanikolaou, Kenneth Faried, Joffrey Lauvergne
Injuries: Emmanuel Mudiay (ankle, missed last nine games, out indefinitely), Wilson Chandler (hip, out for season), Jusuf Nurkic (knee, expected out until January)
The Denver Nuggets, like almost every team in the Western Conference, are in the thick of the playoff race. Despite earning their 20th loss of the season last night against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Nuggets are just 2.5 games out of the 8th seed in the West. With Utah’s Alec Burks joining Rudy Gobert in being out for an extended period and Phoenix’s implosion, more teams may feel that they’ve got a shot to make the playoffs.
Does any fan base really want their team to sneak into the playoffs only to face a historically great Warriors team and lose in four games? Well, that’s another story. But for the players trying to prove their worth and make it in the league, making the playoffs can change a player’s perception and perhaps influence whether another team, or their current team, thinks about them. Although it seemed very clear before the season which teams had a chance to make the playoffs in the West, the picture has become far more complicated than expected.
The Nuggets and the Blazers are in somewhat similar positions in the standings. But if any team and their fans should be rooting for the Blazers to make the playoffs and for Utah to fall out, it’s Denver. Thanks to the Arron Afflalo trade last season at the deadline, the Blazers will give their 2016 first round pick to the Nuggets if they manage to make the playoffs this season. That’s not a likely scenario, but it could happen and prove to be a nice boost to Denver’s rebuild by giving them another first round pick. The lottery protections carry on through the 2017 draft as well, just in case the Blazers rebuild doesn’t go as smoothly as planned and they’re not back in the playoffs next season.
But another result of the Arron Afflalo trade has been Will Barton’s emergence in Denver. Last season, the former Blazer started to blossom in a bigger role in Denver. Despite playing under three different coaches in his short time in Denver, Barton’s improvement hasn’t slowed down. He has not only been one of Denver’s best players, but is a legit candidate for Most Improved Player and possibly a frontrunner for 6th Man of the Year. He even got name-checked on the Bill Simmons podcast the other day.
Often, players that are in the first year of a new contract don’t live up to expectations, but Barton is proving to be one of the NBA’s best bargains. He’s also one of the biggest reasons that I’m 5-2 in my salary cap fantasy basketball league. They want you to believe the last pick of the draft doesn’t matter!
Anyway, after signing a 3-year, $11 million deal in the summer, Barton is averaging 15.8 points per game, which is the second-highest scoring average off the bench in the NBA this season. What’s been most surprising about Barton’s game has been his 3-point shooting, which is at a career-best 39.7 percent. Barton has worked hard throughout his four seasons to improve in all aspects, but his jumpshot was probably the biggest weakness in his game. Mike Malone has praised Barton publicly several times throughout the season. The match-up between he and Allen Crabbe off the bench should be a fun one when the second units for each team take the court. But like Crabbe, Barton is usually in at the end of games.
In transition, the Blazers have to be aware of Kenneth Faried at all times as well as Barton. Without Nurkic, the Blazers don’t have to deal with Denver’s best overall big man.
Portland has played well in the last two games and will be getting back-up big man Ed Davis back after he missed Sunday’s win over Sacramento with an ankle sprain.
The Nuggets defeated the Blazers 108-104 back on Nov. 9. However, with the point guards for both teams almost certainly not playing, it will have a very different feel as the last meeting came down to the point guards for both teams down the stretch.