NW Division Foes: The Denver Nuggets

October 17th, 2018 | by Tyler Crandall

These former teammates are now division rivals. (Melissa Majchrzak via utahjazz.com)

Editor’s Note: Tyler Crandall is ramping up for the 2018-19 season by taking a look at Utah’s divisional opponents. Last season, all five Northwest Division teams won between 46 and 49 games, and four of the five made the playoffs. Tyler will preview what may be the league’s toughest division from top to bottom, including a look at how good they might be on the whole and a preview of the four-game Jazz season series. So far he has examined the Jazz-Thunder and Jazz-Blazers rivalries, and this week he continues by checking in on the Denver Nuggets.

Denver Nuggets, 46-36, 2-2 vs. Utah

The Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets are the two teams most advantaged by the high altitude of their home arenas and as such, both teams often sport strong home court records. The Nuggets had one of the best home records at 31-10, while the Jazz ended at 28-13.

Where the Nuggets fell short was on the road, coming up with a dismal 15-26 record. The trend of home strength held true in their head-to-head battles in each of the past two seasons, where the home team was victorious in all eight games.

The Jazz caught a break by catching Denver early in the season, when the Nuggets had not quite grown together with some new additions to the team and their offense was not yet at its eventual top-six potential. Utah fell behind by double digits, but then rallied behind stifling defense to turn the tide. This proved lucky for the Jazz who ended up winning the game. Had they faced a later version of the Nuggets, I’m not convinced the Jazz could have pulled it off, even with their elite defense.

Though, in Utah’s defense — pun intended — they held the Nuggets to an average offensive rating 103.52 in the four meetings, well below Denver’s elite season mark of 112.5, good for sixth in the league. There was really only one game of the four where Denver’s offense looked dominant, a 122-ORtg performance which happened without Rudy Gobert manning the paint.

Lineups and Match-ups

Despite the common Twitteric (Twitter rhetoric?) that Nikola Jokic’s defense is laughable, it’s actually passable. Among NBA Centers who had worse DBPM than Jokic: Karl-Anthony Towns, DeAndre Jordan, Myles Turner, Javale McGee, Steven Adams, and a few other notable centers who casual observers might label as better at defense than Jokic based solely on the eye test. And while Jokic does shoot the three, his game is more about playmaking and passing than it is about spreading the floor with the three. He did shoot 3.7 of them per game, but his 6 assists per game are the really important stat. The offense goes through him most possessions he’s on the floor, and he’s a passing wizard. Not just for a big man either. He’s one of the best passers in the league, period.

The positive for the Jazz, and the key match-up that will probably determine the series, is that Rudy Gobert is not really outmatched by Jokic. Opponents Rudy tends to struggle with the most are bigs who spread the floor or have a strong core and lower body, where they can get position and push him around. This isn’t exactly the case with Jokic.

Donovan Mitchell has drawn comparisons to Nuggets guard Jamal Murray early on, although it’s safe to say that Donovan may have surpassed Murray in ability and potential by the end of the season. That said, Murray is a future star in his own right. He’s quick, smart and a good off-the-bounce and spot-up shooter from distance.

With former Jazzman Paul Millsap and Gary Harris–who I like to argue is a shooting guard version of Gordon Hayward– rounding out their young core, they will be a tough team to stop offensively. Millsap was supposed to help anchor their defense, but wasn’t much help in that regard during a season that saw him miss 44 games. It’s possible Denver will end up as a top-five offense this season, but they will likely finish a bottom-10 or maybe even a bottom-5 defense. Even with so many offensive weapons, it’s hard to see this team overwhelming the Jazz defense unless all is going right for them.

What to watch

It bears repeating that Jokic and Gobert makes for the key match-up. But it will also be fun watching two young and dynamic scoring guards in Mitchell and Murray going head to head, along with the power forward duel between former teammates Millsap and Derrick Favors.

The Jazz played all four of their games against the Nuggets by early January, when they were struggling through injuries. Several plus defenders for the Jazz — Gobert and wing defenders Dante Exum and Thabo Sefolosha — missed huge chunks of 2017-18. All three are healthy now, which is part of why the Jazz shouldn’t have too much trouble handling the Nuggets’ offense this season. Because of that, this match-up could feel significantly different than the 2017-18 series. The Nuggets also haven’t faced Utah since the trade that brought Jae Crowder to the Jazz. 

This year’s four Jazz-Nuggets battles are more spread out, with the visits to Denver coming in November and February, and the home games in January and April. And the Jazz have plenty of new options to deal with this Denver squad, which projects to be a playoff team in the west, but still below the second-tier teams such as the Thunder, Rockets, and Jazz.

Prediction: 3-1, Utah


Tyler Crandall

Tyler joins Salt City Hoops for the 2018-19 season, having previously written at The J-Notes. Tyler grew up in Utah watching the Stockton-to-Malone Jazz. He now lives in Brooklyn, NY and is an active tweeter at @tjcranman.

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