By Norm Elrod
(CBS Denver / CBS Local) – Do not look now, but the Denver Nuggets remain half a game away from the Western Conference lead, and the Milwaukee Bucks are half a game away from the Toronto Raptors for the main role of the conference. 'Is. It will last? Perhaps. Well, who the hell knows? But in the middle of the season, the Nuggets and Bucks, who have both had strong 2017-18 campaigns, seem to have taken another step.
The Nuggets, one of the youngest teams in the NBA, finished last season with a 46-36 record and one playoff game. The difference this season has been the health of Paul Millsap (although the team has suffered injuries from other players) and the defense of Nikola Jokic. Millsap has already almost matched his last season's game total, which had been worth him miss months because of a wrist injury. This alone has borne fruit at both ends of the field. Jokic, an elite scorer who is not the most athletic player, is looking to use his high IQ at basketball to better defend himself as well.
The Bucks have Giannis Antetokounmpo, which elevates them alone to the status of contenders in the East without LeBron. The Greek Freak scores 26.4 points and 12.5 rebounds per night, placing it in the most useful player's conversation and making Milwaukee hard to beat, especially at home, where they have 20-4. Without him, the Bucks would leave winning games to the underprivileged like the Washington Wizards. Nevertheless, this major offense of the NBA is more than Giannis. Khris Middleton, who has an average of 17.5 points, and Eric Bledsoe, who has an average of 15.3 points, have both doubled the return of Giannis against the Atlanta Hawks. New coach Mike Budenholzer deserves an excellent attack by effectively positioning all the shooters around Giannis. Budenholzer has also turned a mediocre defense into one of the best in the NBA.
Brooklyn's nets have climbed to .500 and are currently the seventh seed in the playoff race. That would mean a lot more so it was now early April rather than mid-January. But let the Nets be so high in the mid-season standings, that's certainly saying something. This team has already exceeded its total of victories for two of the last three seasons. What explains the return to respectability? Their reconstruction project is beginning to bear fruit. D'Angelo Russell is averaging 18.5 points in his second year with the team; Spencer Dinwiddie offers 17 more in his third. Jarrett Allen, the choice of last year's first round, is developing well and Caris LeVert looks set to return from his foot injury. The Nets play basketball as a disinterested team, and this appears in the column of victories.
The kings of Sacramento also have relevance to play more than half of the season. The last appearance of the Kings in the playoffs occurred after the 2005-2006 season, where they finished 44-38 to earn the eighth seed in the West and their first round exit. They have not had a winning season since. They have not even been good enough to raise expectations and then disappoint. They have just been bad … until now. The Kings hold a game over .500 and a half of the top eight in a tough West Conference. They eliminated the Portland Trail Blazers earlier this week and have faced the Golden State Warriors twice in the past two weeks. Inconsistencies remain a big problem, but their core of De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Marvin Bagley III is actually pretty good.