With three games remaining do you think the Nuggets still have a chance to sneak into the playoffs? Why?
Dan: Unfortunately, no. I do think they can win their final three games since Oklahoma City is pretty much locked in the sixth seed and Dallas is done for. The final game in OKC will be a tough one, especially if Russ is still on the hunt for the record-breaking triple double. But I don’t see Portland choking their last two games away.
The Spurs might play them tough but they close with the Pelicans at home. Mark that down as a win. It was a valiant effort by the Nuggets, but it’s time to start thinking about the draft and building on this season.
Joel: Although they haven’t been mathematically eliminated, the Nuggets’ playoff hopes are effectively dead. The chances Portland will lose both of their remaining games and the Nuggets will win all three of theirs are so infinitesimal as to be practically zero. The Blazers’ last two games are both at home, where since the All-Star break, they’ve won 10 of their last 12, including 3-of-3 without Jusuf Nurkic.
By contrast, two of the Nuggets’ last three are on the road, where post-All-Star break they’ve lost 5 of 11. Moreover, two are against the Thunder, who have defeated Denver in both their matchups this season, and show no indication of resting Westbrook, who will more than likely personally seal Denver’s fate.
Johnny: There’s certainly a chance, but given Damian Lillard’s determination and performance last night against the Utah Jazz, a team that should have been able to pound the Blazers in the paint without Nurkic, I think it’s unlikely that Portland holds up their end of the bargain and wins at least one of their last two games.
The Nuggets will certainly face a challenge against Westbrook as well, but at this point, the Thunder are all working together to get him stats, and that doesn’t always translate into wins.
T.J.: I would be beyond surprised if they found a way to fight their way into the playoffs but crazier things have happened. Denver needs to win all three of their remaining games while the Portland Trail Blazers need to lose their final two games.
There is a situation where Denver can make the playoffs. Portland plays the San Antonio Spurs next and after the Spurs lost to the Los Angeles Clippers, Gregg Popovich ripped his team for their lack of physicality and said that the final two games will not be games in which he rests his players. Portland will have to face a Spurs team that is rested and has a fire in them after Popovich called them out. The Trail Blazers defensive identity has nearly vanished after the injury to Nurkic and they are largely depending on Damian Lillard going nuclear every night, which has been working so far. But they will have to hold off a motivated Spurs team that has the firepower to rip through the Trail Blazers.
If Portland loses to San Antonio and Denver finds a way to beat Oklahoma City then anything could happen. Denver will face a lowly Mavericks squad before heading to Oklahoma City to play a Thunder team that has already locked themselves into the sixth seed and should be resting their main contributors. This race for the eighth and final playoff spot could get more interesting than originally anticipated.
Do you think it is more valuable to continue to push for wins and a playoff berth or to get the younger players more playing time?
Dan: I know I dismissed their chances to make it to the playoffs but until they’re officially eliminated I hope they go all out for it. If only to reinforce to themselves how difficult a playoff run can be. I’d like them to remember how a poor defense held them back this season.
So go all out for it in these last three games and savor that bitter taste once Portland likely clinches. A year from now, when the Nuggets are making a push for the sixth or seventh seed, the pain of going for it and not making it this season will be a valuable motivator, worth more to them than three games of experience for young guys at this point.
Joel: Given the extreme unlikelihood of Denver making the playoffs now, the only approach to the last three games that makes any sense is maximizing the opportunity for the Nuggets’ young players to get a little more playing time and experience.
A week ago, when the Nuggets had seven games remaining, I called for them to start tanking hard in order to slightly improve their draft position from 13th in the lottery to 10th. Ironically, since then their only loss in the first four of those seven was the game at Houston in which they started veteran Jameer Nelson over rookie Jamal Murray. I don’t fault them for playing the youth and winning, but the inconsistency of reinserting Nelson shows a lack of clarity of vision regarding youth development and sends a confusing mixed message about the Nuggets’ own priorities in answering this question.
Johnny: One of the best parts of this late-April race to the playoffs has been the fact that Murray, Nikola Jokic and Gary Harris have been leading the charge for the Nuggets, so I don’t see the two options as mutually exclusive. I do think it would be nice if Mudiay was given more opportunity, even with a healthy Nelson available, simply because he doesn’t look like a liability anymore and has brought more to the table than Jameer has recently.
As for Juancho Hernangomez, I’m okay with holding him back depending on the matchups at this point. There is already a ton of development of young players going on, and Hernangomez has had a number of big moments this season, so might as well try to hold him out for situations where he’s likely to be successful and hope that confidence carries over into next season.
T.J.: It seems Denver has actually found a middle ground between playing their youth and still competing for a playoff berth. Murray has started three games at point guard for the injured Nelson as of late while Emmanuel Mudiay has had a chance to reinsert himself in the rotation. Both have played well but the two main reasons that Denver is even competing for a playoff berth with three games remaining has been the development of Harris and Jokic.
Denver has been able to develop their youth and still compete. This playoff push, regardless of how it ends, has been a monumental learning experience and will hopefully lead to the continued growth of the Nuggets young core.
How important has the push for the playoffs been for the young Nuggets team in terms of experience and development?
Dan: Hard to say, but I do think playing meaningful games in April is always better for development than the alternative. Last year at this time, the team was planning summer vacation by mid-March. Jokic will be the key to Denver’s fate for the next 2-4 years.
His performance down the stretch represents a critical building block. It’s been nice to see a bit more Mudiay lately and Murray has the makings of a beast. As disappointing as it’s been to (likely) miss out on the postseason, let’s remember a couple things: Denver outperformed expectations this season and in most years wouldn’t have had a shot at the eighth seed with a sub-.500 record.
The fact that they had a chance at the eight this year, rather than finishing 10th or 11th, counts as a positive for the team’s collective psyche. Now let’s focus on some defensive principles in time to truly make a leap in 2017-18.
Joel: If there are any silver linings to the Nuggets presumably missing the playoffs, those would be the re-emergence of a much-improved Mudiay from the shadows of the deep bench, and the increased opportunity for Murray as starting point guard.
Prior to Denver’s April 2 win over the Heat, Mudiay played mostly garbage time in just nine of the previous 33 games, and his future with the Nuggets was enshrouded in doubt. In the last four games since returning to the rotation, however, he’s averaged nearly 24 minutes per game, scoring 11.8 points on a .544 true shooting percentage, with 5.8 assists and 3 rebounds, rekindling hope for him playing a productive and meaningful role going forward.
And, as epitomized by his career night against New Orleans last Friday, Murray appears clearly poised to rise to the occasion and shine in the larger role he will surely play next season.
Johnny: I think this end-of-season race to the playoffs is probably even more valuable than getting into the playoffs as the eighth seed for the players. It would be nice for the city and the fans to steal a couple of games from the Warriors in the first round of the playoffs (which I do think is possible), but the Nuggets having to focus and put in the kind of effort they’re putting in every game down the stretch has to be great experience for this young, talented roster.
Now that Jokic understands what it takes to put in a good effort over an entire season, hopefully, it motivates him to work hard on his conditioning this offseason and come into next season ready to play the full 82 (and more).
T.J.: As I wrote earlier, this playoff push does not hinge on whether or not Denver makes the post season but will actually be defined by the experience that it has given to Denver's young players. The Nuggets injury issues this season has allowed the likes of Murray, Hernangomez, Mudiay, Harris, and Jokic to all get lots of pressure-filled minutes in meaningful games.
Not only does this allow the young core to grow as a unit but it gives the Nuggets front office a unique glance into how their younger generation of players react and perform underneath the pressure of a playoff push and which players will rise to the occasion when needed.