The Denver Nuggets (29-13) enter their matchup with the Golden State Warriors (29-14) on Tuesday with a half-game lead over the defending champion in the Western Conference standings.
Now that we're at the midpoint of the season, do you buy the Nuggets as serious contenders? If not, what do they have to do to make you a believer?
Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): I believe in the Nuggets as one of the four best teams in the West, but I need to see them in a playoff series before I buy them as title contenders for a couple of reasons.
The first is that they're a team built around two young players in Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, and we've seen plenty of times in the past that it can take a couple of trips to the playoffs for those types of players - no matter how talented they are - to adjust to postseason basketball.
The second is the defence. As impressive as they've been on that end of the floor this season, I still think the best offensive teams in the league will be able to exploit some of their weaknesses in a way that could hold them back from being true contenders.
They're unlikely to play either the Rockets and Warriors in the first round of the playoffs this season, but the West is so loaded that even a 1-8 matchup would be a good test for Jokic, Murray and the team's defence.
Gilbert McGregor (@GMcGregor21): While missing the playoffs by just one game last season has fuelled Denver to the top of the Western Conference past the midway point of the season, the shortcoming robbed this young team of five or six games of playoff experience.
While the likes of Will Barton, Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee have been in the playoffs before, there's something to be said for just being there for the rest of the team.
Don't get me wrong, this team is still ahead of schedule - only five players on the roster are over the age of 25. F I V E.
It's almost like a rite of passage - young teams must encounter an obstacle in the postseason before being considered a contender. I fully think this team is equipped to get out of the first round, but it won't be until it faces some adversity in a postseason exit before it's a contender moving forward.
We've already seen how missing the postseason inspired this team, a postseason shortcoming will have even a greater impact on the Nuggets moving forward.
Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13): Nothing in this January game against the Warriors will change my mind, regardless of what happens.
I love the Nuggets. I love how they're built around perhaps the league's most non-traditional superstar in Nikola Jokic (yes, SUPERSTAR). I love that they play hard. I love that they're doing all of this without even their whole team.
That said ... if we're talking contender in the truest sense of "can they win the title this season," I'm not buying just yet. Not only do they need to win a playoff series, I need to see them do it against a team with a true, bonafide, legitimate, A+ kind of guy.
There's going to come a moment in a playoff series where it simply turns into whose best player rises to the occasion. It won't be scheme, it won't be depth, but point blank "is my guy better than your guy?"
If the Nuggets win a playoff series and do it with a LeBron James or Damian Lillard or Russell Westbrook-type going down swinging with 20-point quarters and fourth-quarter flurries, then I'll be convinced.
Can Jokic go shot-for-shot down the stretch of a tight game? Can Murray answer a high octane point guard in a league loaded with them? Can Gary Harris answer the Klay Thompsons of the world in a big spot? It's simply too early to tell.
Carlan Gay (@TheCarlanGay): I think I've seen enough this season from the Nuggets to say that they are contenders. Often times we err on the side of caution for fear of being wrong but I'm comfortable with what I've seen so far this year from Denver to make me a believer.
Mike Malone has done an incredible job of putting everyone on the roster in the best position to succeed. Nikola Jokic is having an MVP calibre season, Torrey Craig has embraced the role of defending the opposing team's best player, Jamal Murray is finding his way as the team's closer down the stretch of games and every member of their bench unit has spent time on the floor in crunch time.
The team has also shown that they can deal with adversity and come out on the other side of it unscathed. Injuries to Paul Millsap, Will Barton, Gary Harris and Trey Lyles hasn't slowed them down one bit - and their two biggest off-season acquisitions Isaiah Thomas and Michael Porter Jr. haven't stepped on the floor at all.
You can point to the lack of playoff experience, especially since their two best players Jokic and Murray haven't played a minute of postseason basketball, but the playoff basketball is about handling pressure and adversity, and the Nuggets have done that and maintained one of the best records in the tough Western Conference at the same time.
It wouldn't shock me to see this team in the conference finals. The evidence is there if you're really watching - don't sleep on Denver.