Nikola Jokić’s season has been one for the ages. The Denver Nuggets are first in the West, first in offensive efficiency, Jokić is a god according to almost every analytics metric as well as the runaway favorite to become the first MVP in three consecutive seasons since Larry Bird ran the table between 1984 and 1986. And yet, it’s lonely at the top as Jokić will be the only Nugget participating in Sunday’s All-Star Game festivities.
In fact, among the top seeds in the East and West, Denver is the only top-3 seed from either conference without a pair of 2023 All-Stars inside its locker room. Boston’s offense is carried by Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum on its wings.
The hierarchy in Denver behind Jokić is more abstract than on most contenders. We are well aware that Khris Middleton is Antetokoumpo’s No. 2 when healthy. In the void left behind by Middleton, Jrue Holiday’s defensive plans were arranged and played well enough to earn his first All-Star bid in a decade. James Harden to Joel Embiid is the NBA’s highest-scoring assist-to-score duo according to PBP Stats. Memphis’ Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. will be headed to Utah. Even Sacramento sent De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis.
In fact, the only other All-Star peer of Jokić’s on Denver’s roster is DeAndre Jordan, who was anointed as a reserve waaay back in 2017. And maybe Nuggets bench maestro Michael Malone, who’ll be theoretically “coaching.”
If Denver finishes the 82-game schedule as the No. 1 seed, they’d be the first one in the Western Conference without multiple All-Stars since the 2014 San Antonio Spurs won their final title of the Duncan era. On a roster that boasted a 22-year-old Kawhi Leonard two years before his first All-Star nod, Tim Duncan on track for retirement, and Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker the fulcrum.
Popovich was also an original innovator of load management, their stars were in their mid-30s, ready to keel over from more than a decade of playoff basketball, but were playing at an All-Star level, but in reduced minutes. In the postseason, that quartet had more to tap into, but not the legs to sustain it for an 82-game grind.
Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, and Jamal Murray’s impact
The Nuggets are relatively young and haven’t made a deep playoff push outside of a trip to the 2020 Western Conference Finals. Their fresh legs are an advantage and yet, none of their other starters were even considered. Michael Porter Jr., Jamal Murray, and Aaron Gordon sat on the fringe of All-Star recognition this offseason, but the trio was found wanting by their peers. Each is more of a specialist than a bonafide secondary star. This begs the question, is Denver’s All-Star power outage a form of disrespect from the league that chooses reserves or a sign that the league believes their specialists are a mirage? And if so, are they enough to traverse the postseason battles that await them?
Michael Porter Jr. is a C-List star, but his gifts as a pure scorer are muted on a deep roster. Porter Jr. has left behind scorched nets all season, but his one-dimensional role puts him at a disadvantage. Aaron Gordon is an All-Star Saturday vet, who killed a man in the dunk of the year, but he’s never come close to having the singular impact on winning that an All-Star does. However, Jokić to Gordon is the fourth-most active passer-to-scorer duo.
Jamal Murray is an All-Star caliber threat and the Nuggets’ primary ball handler and he’s assisted Jokić on more buckets than all but five duos in the league, but since a slow start out of the gates, the 25-year-old combo guard has rediscovered his scoreboard-destroying form as the season’s dragged on. However, the Nuggets have also been cautious with his minutes and usage in his first season back since tearing his ACL in 2021. Murray sat the last six games leading up to the All-Star Break and the Nuggets still won four of six in that span.
Murray’s best shot of being regarded as an All-Star might be heading East. Even when fully healthy, Murray is in a losing battle with the wattage of the Western Conference’s guards. Against the likes of Ja Morant, Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, De’Aaron Fox, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and possibly Kyrie Irving if he remains in Dallas past this season, Murray may always be a tier below.
At their peaks, Porter Jr. and Murray may just top out as above-average starters, which means these Nuggets are attempting to become the most ordinary team organized around a single constellation since the 2011 Mavericks won an NBA title with Dirk Nowitzki and uh… J.J. Barea.
Catalyzing the offense, depositing celestial passes to the wings and amplifying the talent surrounding him have always been Jokić’s superpower and the supporting cast is a testament to that. For instance, Will Barton, Malik Beasley, and others crashed down to earth after they were knocked out of Jokić’s gravitational pull. In comparison to the new-look Suns, Grizzlies, Bucks, Cavaliers, and Celtics, though, Denver is miles behind in the distribution of star wattage.
What is Denver’s playoff kryptonite?
The thing that could come back to haunt them is their defensive efficiency. Golden State has proven they can activate their asphyxiating defense. Memphis’ bullyball unit is second in defense, Lopez and Antetokounmpo’s penumbra gives the Bucks’ defense two stoppers, Boston’s team defense has no leaks and Embiid plugs up any holes in Philadelphia’s. It’s Denver’s middle-of-the-pack defense that could come back to haunt them in the postseason, especially if Murray can’t keep pace with the upper-echelon guards in the West.
Donovan Mitchell has seemingly made a leap that Murray hasn’t. In the postseason, Denver will need Jamal Murray to mature into the consistent high-scoring All-Star he flashed the potential to become against Mitchell in the bubble to take some of the weight off of Jokić’s shoulders. Ironically, both the aforementioned 2011 Mavericks and 2014 Spurs knocked rings off of LeBron’s hand. Jokić’s electricity animates the ensemble, but their other stars need to shine brighter once the playoff lights hit.