Can the Nuggets reach true heavyweight status?


It’s just one game, sure—and it’s really only one half—and it goes against the whole Nikola Jokic thesis to put too much weight into a prime-time TV showdown in January. But something important was on display when his Denver Nuggets lost a road game to a highly galvanized Philadelphia 76ers team, behind Joel Embiid’s 47-point performance. Forget the MVP race; that stuff is for the birds, just another way for scale-based broadcasts to whittle a complex game down to comparisons between individuals, enriching themselves while making everyone who tunes in stupider.

The Nuggets’ loss in Philadelphia was meaningful, rather, because of how it showed a crack in the overall Denver project. It may not be an opening that any team in Denver’s own conference, the West, can exploit as much as the Embiid and P.J. Tucker frontcourt did, but if you’re running the Nuggets, can you really be so sure? If those two teams faced off again a few days later—as they would have if they were playing in, for instance, the 2023 NBA Finals—Jokic and coach Michael Malone would have had an answer, undoubtedly, after the big man was sent into a rare bout of paralysis in the second half of the loss, in which the Sixers outscored them by 22 points.

At halftime, Philadelphia realized that Embiid is a bad defensive matchup for Jokic. He’s too big and top-heavy; no one Jokic’s own size or bigger is as coordinated as him, none better at transforming the dangerous physics of being an enormous man into a nimble, balletic affair. He consistently lost Embiid off the ball with eldritch body fakes and in transition with his historically elite understanding of the exact moment that possession changes hands—Jokic would’ve fit well in the early 1980s, when leaking out and full-court passing led to scoreboard bonanzas that included the most points ever tallied in a game.

Jokic’s magic fizzled out when Embiid traded places with consummate fire hydrant Tucker, though. Lower, stumpy and almost impossible to move from his spots, Tucker stalked Jokic, while Embiid roamed near the paint to cut off the Serbian’s passing conduits toward the rim. Aardon Gordon was left alone to hoist as many threes as he wanted on the perimeter, but that’s not really his game—and he only tried (and missed) one of them. The last time Jokic looked this offensively challenged was in last year’s playoffs against the eventual champion Golden State Warriors and, before that, against the conference champion Phoenix Suns in the previous playoffs. 

In both cases, Jokic’s team was tragically undermanned, with no Jamal Murray in either series and Michael Porter Jr. absent from most as well. Last weekend, however, was a much different story, with the Nuggets at full strength and revamped by a series of strategically defense-first additions during the 2022 offseason; welcome, Bruce Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. All of it has led to the dominance of their conference and the second-best record in the league. There is, regardless, a growing sense, present before the loss to Philadelphia but certainly strengthened by that result, that as the trade deadline nears, the team needs to make a serious addition to take advantage of another elite season from Jokic, as well as the liminal experience of Brown, who will most likely opt out of his contract this summer to seek more money than Denver can pay him.

Second-year guard Bones Hyland is the name that’s out there in terms of whom Denver may move. A sometimes-scintillating scorer and passer, he’s undersized and one of the worst defenders in the league. Reporting suggests Hyland wants out, too, as he seeks a bigger role. It’s hard to see him starting anywhere but on a bad team right now, but Hyland has previously said, “All due respect to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, but I feel like I’m the real Bones,” so he’s obviously not afraid to put more in his mouth than any 22-year-old could reasonably chew. His quest for greater glory, necessarily at odds with one of the best-working machines in the current NBA, is an interesting and unexpected side-story on a team that’s not looking for any.

What the Nuggets most need is a backup center—they fall off a cliff when Jokic sits, because DeAndre Jordan has been half-retired for years, and Zeke Nnaji is young and not tricking anyone into thinking he belongs at the five-spot. Defensive and rebounding ballast of any kind would be useful for Denver, though. There is no need for more offense; in addition to Jokic’s one-man-offense charms (paralleled in the 21st century by only LeBron James and Steph Curry), the Nuggets have in Porter and Murray, two players who can make absurd, unschemed shots that break any defense. This is true enough, in fact, that you might guffaw at the doubts you just read above and go confidently toss the loaded Denver scoring dice in the springtime casino of the playoffs, but whether or not they make a substantial deal over the next week could be the difference between a fearsome gunner and a true favorite. 

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