By Ryan Mayer

(CBS4)- The NBA season is just two weeks away from resuming in Orlando, Florida and the Denver Nuggets find themselves sitting in the third spot in the Western Conference and only a game and a half back of the Clippers for the 2nd seed.

With eight seeding games before the playoffs begin, there remains the possibility that the Nuggets could even jump the Clippers for that 2nd spot. But, the Nuggets were in that same position last season and failed to make it out of the second round. Could this year be different? Can they be considered legitimate Finals contenders? CBSSports.com writer James Herbert doesn’t believe so.

“I don’t think so. And I would have said that when their roster was at full strength. Right now, we don’t know what their roster is going to look like. There are several players who are not in Orlando yet. Jokic did just get there,” said Herbert in an interview with CBS Local’s DJ Sixsmith. “I think, at their best, their offense can be awesome. Their defense, it looked great at the beginning of the season but I’m not sure that they weren’t getting a little lucky when the numbers looked that great. I don’t think they fit the profile of a great modern defensive team in terms of how versatile should be, how great your perimeter defense has to be, how switchy you have to be and I don’t think their rim protection is that great. I think they can be a solid to above average defensive team but I’m not sure they can be an elite one.”

An average to above average defense can be overcome with a great offense. And, at times, the Nuggets have looked to be just that. The Nuggets ranked ninth in the league in offensive rating this season (112) and they were third in assists to turnover ratio (1.94). And, while they were one of the league’s slowest paced teams in the regular season, that can actually play to their advantage in the playoffs when things get constricted and are played at a slower pace than the regular season. Still, Herbert points out that while the offense has been very good, there’s a question of how they execute against the elite defenses they’ll face in the postseason.

“Offensively, I think they can be really good, but I don’t know that they can be great against the elite defensive teams in a playoff situation,” said Herbert. “I think they’re a classic team that, if their roster basically looks like this over the next couple of years, they’re going to be a very formidable regular season team. But until they make serious upgrades or until some of their players make giant leaps, I don’t think we should really be talking about them as a contender.”

And, as Herbert mentioned, on the defensive side of the ball there are some questions to answer. The biggest of which comes on the wings. With looming potential matchups against the Lakers and Clippers, how do the Nuggets defend the likes of LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George?

“Even when you look at Barton, Gary Harris and Michael Porter Jr. and the flashes that he’s shown, I think you still have questions about their wing rotation. If they’re going up against a Lakers team with LeBron James as the nominal point guard/small forward,” said Herbert. “Or if they’re playing against the Clippers with a Paul George and Kawhi Leonard on the floor at the same time, the Nuggets just don’t have a good answer on who to stick on those guys.”

A potential answer to that question is forward Torrey Craig who was used in that type of role last season. However, Craig has seen a dip in his minutes and production this year playing 17 minutes a night (compared to 20 last year) and as Herbert notes, he has not shot the ball well. His 33% from three is the best mark of his career, but it’s come on just two attempts per game. In the playoffs, teams will likely sag off of Craig when he’s on the floor, thereby clogging the lane for Jokic to operate.

We’ll see what answers coach Mike Malone will come up with for these questions when the team begins scrimmaging against the Washington Wizards on July 22. The first game of the seeding process for the league’s restart is set for Saturday, August 1 at 11:00 a.m. MDT.

Ryan Mayer

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