Are the Nuggets championship contenders?

Doug Pensinger

The Nuggets have won 30 of their past 40 games and are now 5-3 against the top three teams in the West. Should we be talking about Denver as a title contender?

These are things about the Denver Nuggets which seem pretty relevant.

1. Denver began the season 11-12 ... and has gone 30-10 since.

2. Over the last 40 games, the Nuggets have the league's No. 5 efficiency differential (7.5).

3. On the full season, Denver has the No. 6 efficiency differential in the league, including the No. 5 offense (which is a fraction of a point for the No. 3 offense).

4. The Nuggets are 5-3 against the top three teams in the West (Thunder, Spurs and Clippers) after Thursday's thumping of Los Angeles. That includes at least one win over each team.

5. Denver is tied with Miami with the best home record in the league at 27-3.

The Nuggets are certainly a team to be reckoned with as we hit the stretch run of the NBA season. The current No. 5 seed in the West, Denver sits one game behind Memphis for No. 4 and 2.5 games behind L.A. for No. 3. Note that the Nuggets now have a tiebreaker advantage on the Clippers by virtue of a 2-1 season series win. The Nuggets are 2-1 against the Grizzlies this season with a game in one week in Colorado to settle that season series. If Memphis wins that game, Denver has a solid lead in the second tiebreaker: conference record.

This playoff seeding issue is mighty important for the Nuggets, because they are so freaking good in Denver. As is the case with most good teams, the Nuggets' defense improves a bunch when playing at home. But the impact is stronger with Denver -- the Nuggets have the No. 17 road defense and No. 10 home defense. And defense is indeed where Denver needs to do better in the playoffs, particularly if they are able to make it to the second round.

Making it to the second round is one challenge. If Denver remains in the No. 5 spot or climbs to No. 4, the likely opponent is Memphis, a defense-first squad with two big men that will challenge the Nuggets' excellent length by pulling it away from the paint. Mike Conley and Tony Allen will combat Ty Lawson's elite penetrating ability on the other end. It'd be a lovely matchup. Surely, the Nuggets would love to avoid it by catching up to the third-seeded Clippers and facing a team like the Warriors, Jazz, Rockets or Lakers in a 3-6 match-up. The Nuggets would be favored -- especially with home court advantage -- in any such match-up.

what will it take to spook the Spurs or Thunder? Better defense. Much better defense.

Should the Nuggets make it to the second round, what will it take to spook the Spurs or Thunder (assuming those teams advance)? Better defense. Much better defense. The West's two best teams feature two of the league's best offenses. Denver's defense is middle of the pack, despite the presence of some really good defenders, including the elite Andre Iguodala. In particular, Lawson will need to slow Tony Parker or Russell Westbrook, which pretty much no one in the NBA can successfully do on a regular basis. The defenses of OKC and S.A. are quite good, too, so Denver can't bet on being terribly efficient on that end.

When you look at it all, Denver's just not quite at the level of OKC or San Antonio -- we can expand the field to the entire league and add Miami to that tier. But the Nuggets are on par with the next level of team -- the Clippers, Grizzlies and Pacers (and maybe Knicks). Advanced stats would indicate that Denver is the No. 5 or No. 6 team in the NBA.

Does that make them a contender? Probably not. The champion will likely come from one of the best three teams this season. But if there's a surprise in the first round in the West or injuries take their toll, Denver is well-positioned to capitalize. And in the meantime, there's a distinct possibility that the Nuggets could enter the postseason ahead of the Clippers and Grizzlies, which would be huge for the team's hopes of advancing past the first round for the first time since 2009.

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