Can the Nuggets take the next step?

It’s late December and in the NBA that means we start to get a glimpse of what the playoffs will look like come spring.  No, nothing is set in stone as we still have several months of basketball left but the top teams like Houston, Golden State, San Antonio, Boston and Cleveland have pretty much made their post season plans. Teams like Denver, however, still have a lot of work to do before they can snap their 4 year playoff drought.  At 16-14 we can certainly see improvement from last year as they didn’t win 15 games until December 26th but with Paul Millsap sidelined until at least mid February and Jokic coming off of an ankle injury the Nuggets continue to hover just north of mediocrity.  However, after 30 games, I do see some  good things from this team that give me hope;  Garry Harris is not only a candidate for defensive player of year (so far)  he is also becoming a reliable scorer .  Jamal Murray seems to be taking his starting PG role in stride, although more consistent scoring is needed from the Blue Arrow.  Will Barton is doing Will Barton things which is good until it’s not……when he’s off he’s a liability when he’s on he’s a one man comeback machine.  Before the ankle injury, Jokic was playing well but I’d still like to see him approach the mid 20’s in points and over 10 boards on a regular basis.  Match that with some nice surprises like an overall better defensive effort, Emanuel Mudiay’s shooting improvement and a quick sample of the emerging Torrey Craig and you have a Nuggets team that’s just OK.  Great at home, bad on the road = about a .500 record.

The other night against a reeling Thunder team in OKC, the Nuggets found themselves up late with several opportunities to come out with the win. Unfortunately a nasty combo of Westbrook and an empty tank on offense cost them and they lost by 1.   Whether it was the environment in OKC, failure to slow down Westbrook or simply failing to be on the same page offensively, the Nuggets showed us why they just aren’t there yet.  I’ve said from the beginning that Murray and Jokic have to take the next step:  Jokic from star to superstar and Murray needs to enter the star conversation.  If pressed, I’d say Murray has improved but nowhere close to being a star  while Jokic looks about the same as last year; clearly not lifting his play to top tier level.  Harris, through 30 games, to me, is the best player on the roster.  Great for Sparty but in order for this team to take that next step, the stars need to align.  The Joker needs to get serious about leading this team.  Failure to elevate his play might mean five years in a row of no playoffs.  No Millsap?  yikes….but if Jokic can grow with Murray, they can maintain or improve while their biggest free agent pickup EVER heals for a playoff push.