Injury-Depleted Nuggets Still Favored To Make Playoffs, Thanks To Jokic

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On Nov. 6, in the midst of an abysmal start to his season, Michael Porter Jr. went up for a wide-open layup, bricked the shot, and landed gingerly. Denver’s small forward, who’d just inked a massive extension, injured his already fragile back and hasn’t played since. He, like the team’s star point guard, Jamal Murray, is now out indefinitely.

Conversely, Nikola Jokic, the NBA’s reigning Most Valuable Player, hardly ever misses a game and threatens a triple-double nearly every night. With the Nuggets’ NBA title hopes, both in the short and long term, seemingly resting on the health of Porter’s balky back, Jokic has again put the team on his.

Without Jokic and the aforementioned injured starters, PointsBet Senior Trader Sam Garriock told CO Bets that Denver is “a 25-win team.” With Jokic (but still without Murray and Porter), DraftKings has set the win total for the Nuggets, currently sporting a record of 14-13 heading into Wednesday’s home matchup against the Timberwolves, at 43.5.

Can you think of a player who means more to his team than the 6-foot-11 Serbian center, whose favorite sport is not basketball, but harness racing? Statistically and intrinsically, Jokic is having a better season than his MVP campaign, where he was rewarded for nudging the Nuggets into the playoffs with help from Porter but not Murray. Now that he’s favored to accomplish the same feat without both of them — the Nuggets’ odds to make the playoffs range from -425 at DraftKings to -667 at PointsBet — you’d think he’d be the favorite to repeat as MVP.

50-win minimum for MVP consideration

That’s not the case, however. While Jokic’s odds have shrunk from a preseason consensus of 14/1 to 10/1 at PointsBet, SI, BetMGM, and the SuperBook, he ranks fourth in current MVP handicapping behind Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and Giannis Antetokounmpo — but ahead of preseason favorite Luka Doncic.

“Unfortunately, it’s just winning,” explained Garriock. “Jokic is doing all that he can. Historically, if you’re not winning 50 games, you’re not winning the MVP. The only guy who’s done that is [Russell] Westbrook. He was able to keep the team afloat, whereas Jokic, because he won it last year, it’s not as shocking. With awards, you can’t make odds on who you think is deserving, you make odds on what you perceive voters to do and to look back on history to see how that’s been done.”

“Jokic, obviously, is great,” added Adam Pullen, assistant director of trading for Caesars Sportsbook. “It’s early and a lot of it depends on team performance. The Warriors and the Nets, the players on those teams are gonna maybe get the lower odds than others whose teams aren’t doing as well. There are so many players who can win an MVP award — you could name 10 to 12 people in the league. With all the injuries the Nuggets have and Jokic gets them in the playoffs, of course he should be in the MVP discussion.”

In a recent state-of-the-season assessment, The Ringer agreed with Pullen, writing, “Having Jokic means Denver always has a chance to win. He belongs squarely in the MVP race again, no matter what the Nuggets’ record is. If only they had the assets to make a major move for a stronger titl​​e run this season.”

‘Anything’s possible’ with Jokic on the floor

But thanks to all the money they’ve doled out to their foundational quartet of Jokic, Murray, Porter, and Aaron Gordon, who was acquired last season via trade a few weeks before Murray hurt his knee, Denver is positively hamstrung from a financial standpoint. All they can hope for is, at some point, that core four can stay on the floor for an extended period of time.

“Gordon, he fits like a glove next to Michael Porter,” said Garriock. “Gordon can put pressure on the rim offensively and guard the opposition’s best player defensively. Gordon plus Porter plus Jokic, it’s just a lot of size. He makes up for Jokic’s lack of athleticism. That team’s perfectly built when all four are healthy, but [Gordon] is kind of being plugged into a role he’s not suited for. When you’ve got the team that they do, you kind of have to overpay for the final piece of the puzzle, which is what they did with Gordon. They paid Gordon right at the top of what he would have gotten on the open market, plus a first-round pick and a guy they just got in [R.J.] Hampton.”

Referring to Gordon, Pullen added, “When you give up a lot to get a certain player, a lot is expected — and sometimes it doesn’t pan out. And if you take away Porter and Murray, obviously he’s going to get more focus [defensively].

“Honestly, I’d hope to get Porter back,” Pullen continued. “I don’t know what the prognosis is. Jokic and Murray are a great one-two punch, but they might need a little something extra to get over the hump. But like with Giannis and [Khris] Middleton, sometimes you only need a couple players who are playing at the top of their game. When you have a player as great as Jokic, anything’s possible.” 

Should Jokic manage to carry the Nuggets into the postseason, as expected, Garriock says, “You’ve got to think that they’ve got more upside than a 43- or 44-win team, but it’s going to be tough for them to win from what would likely be the bottom end of the playoff bracket.”

Photo: Kim Klement/USA TODAY

Mike Seely has written about horse racing for The Daily Racing Form and America’s Best Racing, and has contributed pieces on a multitude of topics to The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among other publications. He can be reached on Twitter (@mdseely) or via email at mseely@bettercollective.com.

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