After just missing out on the playoffs last season, the Denver Nuggets have reasons to be optimistic for the 2017-18 season.
Denver's 40-42 record in 2016-17 was its best mark in four years, which was also the last time the franchise made a postseason appearance. The Nuggets finished one game behind the Portland Trail Blazers for the No. 8 seed.
The front office added Paul Millsap as a free agent to boost a roster that also features exciting young talent like Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris and Jamal Murray. It's a group still learning to play and win together, and the schedule they will face next season is going to challenge them to reach those heights.
2017-18 Season Details
Season Opener: Oct. 18 at Utah Jazz (9 p.m. ET)
Championship Odds: 100-1 (via Odds Shark)
Full Schedule: NBA.com
Portland Trail Blazers: Nov. 13 at Portland (10 p.m. ET)
One reason the Nuggets finished one game behind the Trail Blazers in the standings last season was because they lost three of their four head-to-head matchups.
The key game in their regular-season series took place on March 28. Both teams were tied for the final playoff spot with matching 35-38 records. Portland held serve on its home floor with a 122-113 victory to take a one-game lead over the Nuggets.
Adding insult to injury from that late-season defeat, after Jusuf Nurkic was traded to the Trail Blazers by Denver in February, he scored a career-high 33 points in the win.
Jokic said after the season was over that the Nuggets let the pressure of making the playoffs get to them.
"The playoff [chase] was too much pressure for us," he said, per Pat Graham of the Associated Press (via NBA.com). "Every game, it's like, 'Oh, the playoffs—if we lose this, we're not going to make the playoffs.' ... Just play the game as normal."
For a franchise that has been going through a deliberately paced rebuilding process, the next step in that evolution is figuring out how to win crucial late-season games to make the playoffs.
The Trail Blazers aren't the class of the Western Conference, by any stretch, but they were the white whale in Denver's way of getting a taste of the postseason. That has to change in 2017-18 for the Nuggets to get where their talent suggests they can go.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Nov. 9 vs. Oklahoma City (10:30 p.m. ET)
Expanding the scope of things, if the Nuggets want to make any kind of noise in the Northwest Division, the Oklahoma City Thunder will be their measuring stick.
The Utah Jazz won the division last season with a 51-31 record, but the loss of Gordon Hayward in free agency leaves them with a massive hole in the starting lineup that will be impossible for anyone currently on the roster to replace.
The Thunder, on the other hand, made one of the biggest splashes in the offseason when they acquired Paul George in a trade with the Indiana Pacers. Russell Westbrook almost single-handedly carried the Thunder last season, and it was never more apparent in the team's playoff loss against the Houston Rockets.
Per SB Nation's Alex Kirshner, the Rockets outscored the Thunder by an average of 51.3 points per 100 possessions in the 46 minutes Westbrook was on the bench during the five-game series.
Westbrook had his most memorable game of the 2016-17 season against the Nuggets. The reigning NBA MVP passed Oscar Robertson's league record with his 42nd triple-double when he dropped 50 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists in a 106-105 Thunder victory.
The Thunder went 3-1 against the Nuggets last season, with Denver's lone win coming in the regular-season finale when Westbrook sat out to prepare for the playoffs.
With the Thunder looking like one of the top four seeds in the Western Conference—the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets will also be in that mix—there are only going to be four playoff spots available for the remaining 11 teams.
The Nuggets are one of those teams, and they have to start measuring themselves against the best team in their division to know where they stand.
It's a credit to the Nuggets that they have been able to remain patient during this rebuilding process. Mike Malone is entering his third season as head coach.
The front office has remained steady with Arturas Karnisovas taking over as general manager in June after Tim Connelly was named president of basketball operations. That level of continuity suggests everyone in the organization is on the same page with the direction of their roster.
The next step in Denver's evolution will come on the court. Defense, in particular, will determine if the team sinks or swims. The team had the second-worst defensive efficiency in the NBA last season with 112.7 points allowed per 100 possessions, per Basketball Reference.
Malone's system certainly works on the offensive end. A total of 10 Nuggets players averaged at least nine points per game last season, but that doesn't help if the opposition can go right to the basket.
After Millsap signed with the Nuggets, Malone said he expects the veteran forward to provide a huge boost on defense, via NBA.com's Christopher Dempsey:
"From an experience standpoint, and the fact that he's a guy that I think will be able to communicate and help us on the defensive end, kind of be an anchor to our defense, a traffic cop and kind of orchestrate where guys are supposed to be. He's a guy that embraces the challenge. When you want to improve defensively it starts with each individual taking on the responsibility of saying 'I'm going to own my matchup tonight.' I think Paul does that. His IQ and experience alone are going to help us tremendously."
Between Millsap's high level of performance and past playoff experience with the Atlanta Hawks, stability on the coaching staff and front office, and young talent like Harris and Jokic evolving into franchise building blocks, optimism is high in Denver.
The only problem for the Nuggets is there remains such a significant gap between the top of the Western Conference and everyone else that there's little wiggle room for a second-tier team to play with. They are still good enough to end their playoff drought, even if they aren't close to the top of the class yet.