Is there a wider gap between a team’s actual performance last year and how many wins you’d expect them to get if you looked just at their roster than the Denver Nuggets?
In point of fact, there’s a team like that in the East and they barely made the playoffs last year with a former-Yugoslavia All-Star center and a cast of “meh” players. Why aren’t the Nuggets more like the Orlando Magic?
Well, part of it is that Denver has been a competently-run franchise for longer than Orlando has. Part of it is that Jokic is one of the best players in the world while Nikola Vucevic isn’t quite on that level. And part of it is that Harris, Murray, Paul Millsap et al are better than their pedestrian advanced stats when put into their roles around their superstar, certainly better than the Magic’s similarly “on paper” modest supporting cast.
But 54-28, the 2 seed, a hard-fought second-round series with the Portland Trail Blazers, all in the furiously competitive Western Conference?
Well, their expected record based on point differential was 51-31, their total team Win Shares added up to just 50.6…they just flat-out overachieved.
Vegas seems to agree, as they’ve got functionally the same roster penciled in for just 52 wins, third-highest (behind the Clippers and Jazz) in the West.
Will the Nuggets match last year’s total? Or are they headed for a regression after that overachievement?
2018-19 record: 54-28
2019-20 over/under: 52
Do Not Underestimate the Joker
Only nine players posted .200 WS/48 or better in at least 2000 minutes last season. Jokic was one of them, ranking fifth at .226.
He was sixth in overall Win Shares, third in BPM, and third in VORP at 7.3.
Put simply, he’s the kind of player who by himself can turn a league-average team into a 53 to 56-win team. That’s the kind of talent you expect from guys who get talked about in MVP terms.
So the rest of the team…league average?
Consider the “starter’s Mendoza Line” of .100 WS/48, the level at which a team full of such players should be expected to go 41-41.
Millsap clocked in at .155. Murray hit .100. Harris landed at .076. Between the three of them, about league average.
If you remove Jokic’s 11.8 WS from the Nuggets’ overall total, you get 39.8, a little bit below a league-average team by this math.
But the Nuggets are also so deep on the wing that Harris could just as easily lose minutes to a guy like Monte Morris, with Murray moving over and playing more minutes as the 2-guard.
Plus, Mason Plumlee proved an outstanding backup for Jokic, posting .162 WS/48 and 2.6 VORP in his own right, serving as an elite defender while he was at it—his 3.9 DBPM was 4th in the league.
So…better than league average.
If Morris continues to develop, Millsap stays healthy, and Plumlee continues to excel both off the bench and as a situational defender, yes.
The Nuggets are better than anyone outside of Denver thinks.
The national NBA media is guilty of underestimating the Nuggets because they struggled in the playoffs and because their backcourt doesn’t have the cachet of the Splash Brothers or the guys up in Portland. The tendency is to write them off as Nikola Jokic plus G-League team, and the betting public tends to undervalue them so much that Vegas had to set their line where they did to get equal action on both sides.
This Nuggets team is positioned better than any team other than the Clippers to step into the power vacuum that the end of the Warriors’ dynasty just created.
And I for one think Denver’s good for 57 wins and the over.
Are they good? Emphatically Confirmed. This team is +1600 to win the title at the Westgate Sportsbook in Vegas. Go put a few bucks down on them. After all, the Raptors were +1850 last year.
NEXT: Memphis Grizzlies.
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