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The Nuggets have exceeded expectations, but can still improve

(Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

I think all of us expected the Nuggets to be good this season. I just didn’t they’d be this good.

Fifteen games into the season, Denver sits second in the Western Conference at 12-3, trailing only the Lakers. They’ve tallied quality wins against the Trailblazers, 76ers, Rockets and Celtics along the way, and lost just one game away from the friendly confines of the Pepsi Center. Most importantly, they aren’t even playing their best basketball yet.

After a relatively quiet offseason for Tim Connelly and Company, some may have questioned the team’s “continuity is key” approach (myself included). As of now, those concerns have been pushed to the side.

So much so, that the Nuggets two biggest offseason “additions” – Michael Porter Jr. and Jerami Grant – haven’t really had an opportunity to shine. That hasn’t mattered much at all.

Grant is averaging just 8.0 points and 3.5 rebounds off the bench. That’s solid, but not great.

Porter has found his way into just 10 of the 15 games so far and has played more than 10 minutes just three times. His first appearance was by far his best, with 15 points and four boards. In his other nine games, he’s put up a total of just 22 and 19.

Even with those additions, the Nuggets bench has been significantly worse than it was last season. In 2018-19, Mike Malone’s second and third units sat in the top half of the league in scoring. So far this year, they’re in the bottom five in the league and averaging almost six fewer points, a significant difference in basketball terms.

This is in large part due to the emergence of Will Barton and Paul Millsap on the offensive end. Those two starters made up that gap and provided much needed consistency in the scoring department.

The most-surprising thing about the Nuggets season so far? Nikola Jokic has, by almost all metrics, been worse than last season.

In 2018, he averaged 20/11/7. This year he’s at 17/10/6. His shooting percentage, both from the field and the three, has fallen five percent. A 26.3 PER (player efficiency rating) last year, near the top of the league, has dropped to 21.

The Joker hasn’t been bad, but he’s certainly not playing up to the MVP-candidate level he did just 12 months ago.

Somehow, these three big negatives haven’t stopped the Nuggets from finding success.

The luxury of Porter lying in wait is one teams across the NBA would covet. If at some point the front office decides he’s an excess of riches, it would make all the sense in the world to use him as the centerpiece in a package to bring in an All-Star caliber player – say Bradley Beal – to take the team over the top.

During the last few games, the bench has found its groove and seems to be getting back on track. I can’t imagine Jokic won’t do the same here very soon. He’s too good of a talent not to.

So maybe this is the year for Nikola, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and the rest of the guys to raise the first NBA title banner in Nuggets franchise history. There’s a long way left to go in the season, but as far as I’m concerned, all signs are pointing to another exciting summer here in Denver.

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