By Norm Elrod
(CBS Denver/CBS Local) -- Don't look now, but the Denver Nuggets sit half a game out of the Western Conference lead, and the Milwaukee Bucks are half a game up on the Toronto Raptors for the lead in the Eastern Conference. Will it last? Possibly, maybe. Alright, who the heck knows? But halfway through the season, the Nuggets and the Bucks, who both had solid 2017-18 campaigns, seem to have taken the next step.
The Nuggets, one of the NBA's youngest teams, finished last season 46-36 and just one game out of the playoffs. The difference this season has been Paul Millsap's health (though the team has endured injuries to other players) and Nikola Jokic's defense. Millsap has already almost equaled his game total from last season, which saw him miss months with a wrist injury. That alone has paid dividends at both ends of the court. Jokic, an elite scorer who isn't the most athletic of players, is figuring out how to use his high basketball IQ to better defend as well.
The Bucks have Giannis Antetokounmpo, which alone elevates them to contender status in the LeBron-less East. The Greek Freak puts up 26.4 points and 12.5 rebounds per night, putting him in the MVP conversation and making Milwaukee tough to beat, especially at home, where they're 20-4. Without him, the Bucks drop winnable games to bottom-dwellers like the Washington Wizards. Still, there's more to this top NBA offense than Giannis. Khris Middleton, who's averaging 17.5 points, and Eric Bledsoe, who's averaging 15.3 points, both put up double-doubles in Giannis's return against the Atlanta Hawks. New coach Mike Budenholzer deserves credit for improving an already good offense by efficiently positioning all the shooters around Giannis. Budenholzer also turned a middling defense into one of the NBA's best.
The Brooklyn Nets have climbed to .500, and are currently the seventh seed in the playoff race. This would mean a whole lot more if it were now early April rather than mid-January. But for the Nets to be this high in the standings halfway through the season is certainly saying something. This team has already topped its win totals for two of the last three seasons. What explains the return to respectability? Their rebuilding project is starting to pay dividends. D'Angelo Russell is averaging 18.5 points in his second year with the team; Spencer Dinwiddie is putting up another 17 in his third. Last year's first-round pick, Jarrett Allen, is developing nicely, and Caris LeVert looks poised to return from his foot injury. The Nets are playing unselfish team basketball, and it's showing up in the win column.
The Sacramento Kings also find themselves toying with relevance more than halfway through the season. The Kings last playoff appearance happened after the 2005-2006 season, when they finished 44-38 to earn the eighth seed in the West and first-round exit. They haven't had a winning season since. They haven't even been good enough to raise expectations and then disappoint. They've just been bad... until now. The Kings are sitting a game above .500 and a game and a half out of the eight seed in a difficult Western Conference. They knocked off the Portland Trail Blazers earlier this week and have played the Golden State Warriors tough twice in recent weeks. Inconsistency remains a big issue, but their core of De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Marvin Bagley III is actually pretty good.
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