NIKOLA JOKIC and the Denver Nuggets are poised to make a lot of noise in the NBA play-offs this season.
That’s according to NBA legend Marcus Camby, who said his former team even have the potential to reach the Finals.
At the time of writing, the Nuggets – who face the Boston Celtics at 6pm on Sunday live on Sky Sports – sit fourth in the Western Conference and are riding an impressive seven-game win streak.
Last summer, they shocked the basketball world by reaching the Conference Finals, going toe-to-toe with LeBron James and the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers.
Experts were sceptical about whether Denver could continue their hot play from the Orlando ‘bubble’ – but they have blown those doubts out of the water to become one of the best teams in the league.
Led by the silky smooth skills of Serbian star Jokic, who is playing at an MVP level, and boosted by the trade deadline acquisition of versatile forward Aaron Gordon, the Nuggets look like serious contenders.
Asked whether the team can go all the way to the Finals, Camby tells SunSport: “I definitely think so.
“They gained a lot of success and a lot of confidence from how they played in the bubble last year.
“Those guys expanded their games. A guy like Jamal Murray – who a lot of people may not have seen before because he plays in Denver – he got in the national spotlight in the bubble and you saw the elevation in his game.
“Then they have a guy like Nicola Jokic, who is possibly the best centre in the league, one of the frontrunners for the MVP award this year.
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“He’s having another stellar season, he’s a guy that’s versatile, brings the ball up the court, has tremendous vision, shooting range beyond the three-point line.
“The acquisition of Gordon, the [development] of Michael Porter Jr and their other guys… I think they are poised to have a big run in the play-offs this year as well.”
Gordon’s arrival could be key, with Camby adding that his versatility and ability to match-up defensively with star players like LeBron or Kawhi Leonard gives the Nuggets an added defensive dimension.
In Jokic, they have one of the most exciting players in the league, a generational talent and MVP candidate – who plays with the skills and vision of a point guard in a bruising 6ft 11in body.
Camby adds: “I’ve always said for how big he is he’s the best passer I’ve seen since [Arvydas] Sabonis.
“The guy’s vision… I mean I’ve seen him throwing no-look passes, he’s throwing lobs, he’s leading his team-mates in for layups.
“A guy of his size who can do it all, it says a lot about him.
“His maturity and the way he’s progressing year after year, that started by him getting into better shape, getting his body right, so now we’re getting to see the total package of his game and it’s definitely fun to watch.”
But despite all their strengths on paper Camby, now 47, offered a word of warning: “The West is always tough!
“[You also have] Utah and the Suns at the top, and you can’t count out those LA teams.”
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Bookies currently have the Brooklyn Nets as the favourites to win the NBA title.
The Nets are one of the most talented teams ever assembled, boasting two former MVPs in James Harden and Kevin Durant, as well as perennial All-Star Kyrie Irving.
They also added veterans LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin – both multiple-time All-Stars – in recent weeks and have lost just four games in their last 25.
“The Nets look great on paper,” Camby says, “they have a great team, but that great team has not played a lot of games together this season.
“Hopefully all their guys can come back healthy and they can get that continuity out there and we can really see what the Nets are are about.”
Camby has Harden slightly ahead of Jokic in the race for MVP, “because of what he’s done for the Nets, especially with Durant in and out, Irving in and out.
“People are now seeing the totality of his game. The knock on him before was he doesn’t pass, but now at the Nets you see that on a nightly basis.”
Again, Camby offers a word of warning, seeing the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers and Miami Heat all as legitimate contenders to the Nets for that Eastern Conference crown.
Just down the road from Brooklyn, another one of Camby’s former teams are also enjoying something of a comeback season.
The New York Knicks have not had a winning record or reached the play-offs since 2013, but under new coach Tom Thibodeau they are currently sitting in the final post-season slot and playing their best basketball in years.
Camby had two spells with the Knicks, reaching the Finals in 1999 and was part of that 2012-13 squad that last reached the play-offs.
“I’m a New York guy at heart and I’m dyed orange & blue,” he says.
“I’m happy to see one of our own in Tom Thibeaudea. He was an assistant under Jeff van Gundy when I was on the Knicks team that reached the finals in 1999, I have a lot of respect for Coach Thibs and the style that he coaches.
“Just the way that they battle every night, they’re in a lot of ball games, they are the top defensive team in the league.
“And obviously Julius Randle is the catalyst for that team.
“He’s been playing exceptional basketball, Thibs has been doing a great job of putting the ball in his hands so he can create as well.”
Camby himself is considered one of the best defenders of his generation, a former Defensive Player of the Year, four-time blocks leader and 12th-all time in blocks, and four-time All-Defensive Team selection.
In an era when big men dominated the game, Camby faced the likes of Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan, Pau Gasol and many others on a nightly basis.
He was a standout in high school and then college, leading the unheralded University of Massachusetts to the Final Four on his way to being named the national college Player of the Year.
UMass have since retired his No 21 jersey and confirmed plans they will build a statue outside their home arena.
Apart from the Finals run with the Knicks in 1999, Camby was part of a hugely talented Nuggets team between 2004 and 2008 that featured the likes of Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson.
But the team never made it out of the first round, with three of their exits at the hands of the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs (twice) and Los Angeles Lakers.
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“We had a lot of great talent on paper but we’d always end up being like the 7th or 8th seed,” he says.
“We always had to play the Spurs, the Lakers, all these great franchises who went on to win multiple championships.
“I think that was our downfall, and that goes back to what I was saying about the West always being tough. It’s pretty much never changed.
“I just think, unfortunately, we ran into Duncan, Kobe Bryant and players like that who ousted us from the post-season.
“Definitely bad timing!”
Overall, Camby has absolutely no complaints about his career: “My career has been great.
“I have no complaints about anything, I enjoyed my time, I played with a lot of great, great team-mates, great people who even after basketball I consider lifelong brothers.
“I feel great about my career and definitely consider myself blessed.”
This post first appeared on The Sun