When training camps were just beginning last fall, the Denver Nuggets landed at the top of our preseason projections for the Western Conference. Lost in the kerfuffle was the real story: Five teams in the West had projected win totals less than four games from the top. The Nuggets' projection was only 0.1 wins higher than Oklahoma City's, and the Thunder had the better baseline. It was only after we fed those figures through our schedule simulator that the Nuggets nudged ahead of the Thunder.
In Denver's case, the projection really was pretty good, if its ordinal place in the standings was not. My latest run of simulations predicts that the Nuggets will finish with 53 wins, or about five fewer than forecast. It's the fifth-best total in the league. Unfortunately for Denver, three of the four teams ahead of it are in the West.
Denver's record could be even better if it had done better in close games. The definition of "close" is subjective, but the Nuggets are 1-3 in games decided by two points or less; 6-9 if we raise the bar to four points; and 8-10 if you go up to five points. As a kind of rhetorical shorthand, we often refer to close games as "coin-flip" games, suggesting they can break either way because of simple luck. Fortune plays a large role in close games no matter what league you're talking about, but this much is true: Good teams tend to win more close games than bad ones.
The Heat are 8-4 in games decided by five points or less. Oklahoma City is 4-6. The Kings are 8-3. Given a large enough sample, the relationship between good teams and close wins will emerge, but within one season, there is a lot of randomness to those numbers.
A more telling indicator of team strength is its record in blowouts. Bad teams seldom blow out good ones. The teams with the best record in blowouts (wins by 10 or more points) are the league's best teams: Oklahoma City (30-4), San Antonio (25-4), Miami (25-7) and the L.A. Clippers (28-8). The Nuggets rank sixth at 17-7.
Ah, those Nuggets. That's yet another indicator that puts them on the fringe of the championship discussion, but never really in the center of it. With the three power teams ahead of it in the West, Denver is generally, and understandably, left out of the conversation.