Surprises In The NBA West: Denver Nuggets & Utah Jazz

Quick now, who’s the top challenger to Oklahoma City in the NBA’s Western Conference right now? It’s not San Antonio or the LA Lakers, who would be on the road for first-round playoff series if the season ended today. It’s not last year’s champion Dallas. It isn’t even this year’s media teddy bear, the LA Clippers. No, it’s the Denver Nuggets who are riding high with a 14-7 record and sitting at #2 in the West coming into today. Today TheSportsNotebook takes a closer look at the Nuggets, as well as another surprise team in the same part of the country, the Utah Jazz.

Denver (14-7, #2): The Nuggets are the best in the NBA when it comes to offensive efficiency (which basically points scored, tweaked for tempo), and they have a lot of players willing to let fly from three-point range. Forwards Danilio Gallinari and Al Harrington each step out to shoot the trey. But while both are good players overall, solid scorers and respectable rebounders, neither one is over 35 percent from trey-land. What this suggests is to me is that maybe reining them in could make the most efficient offense in the league even efficienter(yeah, I know that’s not a word, I just like the sound of it). At center is Nene Hilario, who does a solid job occupying the low post, although I’m not sure when he added a last name to his repertoire. He’d been just “Nene” for years and then I look him up on and I see Hilario there.

Denver’s deep at point guard, with both Ty Lawson and Andre Miller doing a solid job running the offense. Each is a double-digit scorer and each knows how to distribute. In today’s college feature on the West Coast Conference I joked that Gonzaga should acquire a veteran point guard to help their young backcourt—the 35-year old Miller fits the bill perfectly, and he’s a perfect foil for Lawson on this team. The two-guard spot is a problem where Aran Afflalo has potential, but only averages 11 ppg. Rudy Fernandez is similarly average.

Overall, I like this team, with the exception of the fact that there’s no good three-point shooter and they seem to try and force it. I question if they can maintain their offensive efficiency that way, and with the defense being in the middle of the league, that would mean a drop in the standings is coming. I don’t see Denver is able to mount a serious push to the NBA Finals, but in a tough Western Conference they’re capable of a top four finish and winning a playoff series, which is nothing to sneer at. It’s Denver who can be doing the sneering in the direction of the Big Apple as they’ve come out of the whole Carmelo Anthony deal in a lot better shape than the Knicks right now.

Utah (12-7, 5th): Not much was expected of the Jazz this season and a 1-3 start did little to inspire anyone. But Utah has quietly put together an 11-4 run that’s marked by consistency. If you go through their schedule, there’s a not a lot of standout wins, save a victory over Miami, nor much in the way of unexpected losses. For a  team with no superstars, that’s the way it has to be and that’s the way Utah has done it.

Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson are  as close as there is to a stars,  with Millsap averaging 17 points/9 rebounds per game and Jefferson posting an 18/9 line. Derrick Favors does a decent job spelling both down low, grabbing six boards a night. What Utah doesn’t have is steady work on the perimeter. Point guard Devin Harris is a former Wisconsin star and thus worthy of this writer’s pre-eminent respect, but the numbers don’t lie—the seven-year vet should not be starting for a playoff contending team. Gordon Hayward was the star of the Butler team that captured the imagination of America in the 2010 run to the NCAA final. As a 6’8” guard he’s got the natural build and maybe he’ll get better, but right now he’d be better situated as a role player. Raja Bell at the two-guard and Josh Howard at small forward are similarly mediocre.

The team stats back up Utah’s vanilla flavor. They’re a middling team on offense and below average both defensively in rebounding. Those overall numbers don’t  add up to 12-7, meaning that if you want to prevent things from equaling out, you need individual players you can identify as likely to improve and lift those team numbers. Of the names I put out there, who’s capable of giving more? Right now Utah is ahead of the Lakers and Spurs in the West, and it’s impossible to imagine that’s going to hold out much longer. That would drop them into a four-team race with Memphis, Portland and Houston for one of the last two playoff spots. Not to throw a wet blanket on Salt Lake City, but I just can’t see Utah making it.