Amid clutter and chaos in the Western Conference, high above unexpectedly slow starts from a few presumed powers, there stands an unlikely source of stable dominance: the Denver Nuggets.
Oh, the Golden State Warriors are there, too. They're always there. Their reign over the West is neither new nor news. The race to catch them, to apply any sort of pressure whatsoever to them, is an entirely different matter.
Pressed about which teams would give Golden State its greatest challenge this time around, experts and amateurs alike preempted 2018-19 with common refrains:
It would be the Houston Rockets, obviously. Or maybe it would be the Utah Jazz. It could definitely, maybe be the Oklahoma City Thunder. Doesn't LeBron James play for the Los Angeles Lakers now? It might be—yeah, actually, it won't be them. The Rockets for sure then, weakened wing rotation and all. Probably.
Smatterings of smart people entertained the Nuggets. Suggesting they have come out of nowhere does a disservice to last season's telltale, if unspectacular, 46-win campaign and a surging sector of NBA Twitter's belief that Nikola Jokic is religion.
This, though? Almost no one could have predicted this. Of the few open-minded enough to think it, not many dared voice it. Fifty-plus wins? Sure. Home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs? Definitely. A dark-horse, no-stakes, stab-in-the-dark, having-fun-on-this-podcast, four-craft-beers-deep pick to chase the No. 2 seed? Why not.
The Nuggets have the fifth-best point differential per 100 possessions against an almost-average schedule. They have clawed past the Warriors, dismantled the Jazz and outlasted the Boston Celtics. They have more wins after entering crunch time than any other team.
Most impressively, Denver's defense is allowing 101.6 points per 100 possessions—the second-best mark in the league.