When Nikola Jokic exploded onto the scene in 2017, we knew it was only a matter of time until Denver would establish itself as one of the best teams in the league. After the 2018-2019 season concluded, we now know that the Nuggets’ time has arrived.
Last season, they won 54 games, the most wins they’ve had since 2013. They also won their first Northwest Division Title since 2010. It wasn’t all for nothing either, as they managed to go all the way to Game 7 of the Western Conference Semis, the furthest they’ve gone in the playoffs since 2009.
The difference between that Nuggets and their predecessors- It should only get better from here. Their best players are just scratching the surface of their potential. At just 24 years old, Nikola Jokic is already an MVP candidate. At 22 years old, Jamal Murray is one of the most promising scoring guards in the league. At 25 years old, Gary Harris is one of the better young two-way wings.
The Nuggets have built a great foundation that could lead to the most glorious era of basketball than they’ve ever had as a franchise. Time should be on their side for the next several years, but with as good as they are now, they have to ask how high their ceiling is. Seriously, if everything goes their way, this Nuggets team is a sleeper to win it all.
But how did they get this far this quickly? Basketball Insiders takes a look.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
Among the rest of the contenders, the Nuggets had the quietest offseason – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There weren’t many holes to fill on the second-best team in the Western Conference. Sometimes, doing nothing is doing the most. They did add Jerami Grant to the mix, which could be one of the most underrated moves of the summer. Yet, MVP candidate Nikola Jokic, two-way wing Gary Harris, dynamic guard Jamal Murray, energetic presence Will Barton and more just have another year under their belt. Paul Millsap’s going to be Paul Millsap until he calls it a career. Monte Morris isn’t going to be turning the ball over off the bench. They’re hoping Michael Porter Jr. can shake the injury bug at some point, which would only strengthen their roster. If Mike Malone finds time for him, Vlatko Cancar is another international rookie to watch out for. The tussle at the top of the Northwest (and the West in general) is going to be fun to see unfold.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– Spencer Davies
The Nuggets surprised many last season by finishing with the second-best record in the Western Conference. There’s no reason to think they won’t build on that success this upcoming season. They have one of the best young cores in the league. They have one of the NBA’s best coaches in Mike Malone. And they have one of the most intriguing wild cards in Michael Porter Jr. Porter was held out of summer league as a precaution following a minor knee sprain. There was a time he was considered the overwhelming favorite for the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft. His addition and potential skill level can really vault this team to the next level. But expectations should be tempered, and even without him the Nuggets are a formidable threat. They’ve brought back every core player from last season with the great addition of Jerami Grant. Based on the other teams in the West, it’s a stretch to picture the Nuggets in the Finals, but they’ll continue to be a playoff threat and are good enough to give a few other teams a little scare.
3rd Place – Northwest Division
– David Yapkowitz
The Nuggets had a strong offseason by default. They didn’t add much talent, but they were so good and young in 2018-19 that keeping their core together is a major success in-and-of-itself.
The Nuggets should be even better in 2019-20 considering their two best players – Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray – are 24 and 22 years old, respectively – and will only continue to improve. They were fortunate that Paul Millsap picked up his player option for 2019-20, although what they do with him beyond this year is up for debate. They also added Jerami Grant and return Michael Porter Jr., who missed his entire rookie season due to a back injury. They must shoot more three-pointers this season and do so more accurately – they were 16th in three-point attempts and 17th in three-point percentage. But accuracy and better shot attempts will come with experience.
The Nuggets will have fierce competition in the Northwest Division, but winning the division isn’t the end goal – winning a championship is. If the Nuggets are healthy come playoff time, the entire Western Conference will have another incredibly talented team to contend with.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– Drew Maresca
The Denver Nuggets are L-O-A-D-E-D with talent, and they have another promising young star coming online in Michael Porter Jr, but if the Boston Celtics taught us anything last year it’s that banking on youth to sacrifice their own star status for the greater good is easier said than done, especially with expectations now coming down on the franchise. Last year the Nuggets were not the hunted, they were the hunters. This year they will have to do better than their 54 wins to call the season an improvement, and that will be a tough task even for a team with some much talent.
3rd Place – Northwest Division
– Steve Kyler
The Denver Nuggets didn’t make any splashy moves to bolster the roster, but I do like the addition of Jerami Grant, who could have a bigger impact this upcoming season than most people expect. This team is already loaded and another year of collective development should serve Denver well. The X-factor may be Michael Porter Jr, an extremely talented young player who has been hampered with injuries early in his career. Porter Jr has the talent to be a star but it all comes down to health with him. This roster is just well balanced and anchored by Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, who are both still incredibly young and always improving. I do question why the Nuggets felt compelled to offer Murray a max-extension this offseason, which reduces some future cap flexibility they could have utilized. This isn’t a major issue and there is value in showing a franchise cornerstone how much you value him, but it didn’t seem like the most pragmatic move considering the possible benefits of waiting. The sky is the limit for this Nuggets team, but they have plenty of other legitimate title contenders to deal with in the West this upcoming season.
1st Place – Northwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Nuggets are all-in on the duo of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, paying Jokic the max last summer and giving Murray a five-year extension through 2024-25 in July. Denver is very close to the NBA’s $132.6 million luxury tax threshold which may limit their willingness to dip further into their Mid-Level ($8.4 million remaining) or Bi-Annual ($3.6 million) Exceptions. Using either (at least $2.6 million of the Mid-Level) will trigger a hard cap at $138.9 million.
Before November, the Nuggets need to decide on Michael Porter Jr.’s rookie-scale option. Juancho Hernangomez is eligible for an extension before the start of the season.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Nikola Jokic
When you lead your team in points, assists, rebounds aka the three most essential elements to a team’s offense, you earn the title of top dog in that department. In all honesty, were you really expecting someone else? There may not be a big in the league that has the all-around game offensively that the Joker has.
That’s not even a shot at the other players on the Nuggets’ roster. They’ve got some weapons next to their young phenom. His repertoire despite his doughy frame outshines them all badly. That’s what makes him so entertaining to watch. The guy does so much on the basketball court despite being arguably the least athletic one out there.
An even scarier thought is that the guy finished fifth in MVP voting last season, and his campaign for Most Valuable Player revolved around his dominance offensively despite only shooting a tick under 31 percent from distance. We’ve seen Nikola shoot consistently well from deep before, so if that comes back, then we’re all in trouble.
Top Defensive Player: Gary Harris
The NBA values players who are labeled as 3&D swingmen. Now that he’s entering the sixth season of his career at just 25 years old, Harris has made a name for himself as one of the better 3&D wings in the NBA.
The Nuggets won’t be messing around with anyone this season. They’re expected to be among the best of the best in their conference and the NBA. In their way will be the likes of Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, James Harden, and Damian Lillard. Expect their primary stopper to be Gary Harris.
In the playoffs, the Nuggets assigned Harris to their opponent’s top offensive players such as DeMar DeRozan, Damian Lillard, and CJ McCollum, and did a solid job of preventing them from getting into a good groove. His defensive assignments are going to be a lot harder this season with the new-look Clippers, Lakers, and Jazz to name a few. So far, he’s been up to the task. If Denver is for real, Harris’ efforts defense should be a vital reason why.
Top Playmaker: Nikola Jokic
Leading your team in assists (7.3) by a pretty fair margin when you’re the center is an impressive enough feat by itself. Leading all centers in that department – again, by a pretty fair margin – makes you look all the better. Averaging the ninth-highest assists per game when the only other bigs who come close to that average are the likes of Draymond Green and Giannis Antetokounmpo automatically vaults you to elite status.
If someone who didn’t watch the NBA asked you why Nikola Jokic is so much fun to watch, your answer would quickly refer to his passing ability without hesitation. There are plenty of bigs in the league who are terrific passers. Jokic though puts almost all of them to shame. He doesn’t just make passes that will make you get you out of your chair. He’ll make passes that make you think, “How did he even see that guy?”
Now that the NBA has more footage of the Serbian, he doesn’t make as many flashy passes as he did when he came into his own in 2017, but his vision is still something we’ve rarely been able to see from any center in the history of the NBA.
This early in his career, Jokic has already made his case as the best passing big of all time. If he’s going nowhere but up from here on out, then there may not be a debate when he hangs up his sneakers.
Top Clutch Player: Jamal Murray
Fun fact: Denver was excellent in games that were considered clutch last season. They went 31-15 in games that were considered to be in clutch situations, which gave them the best winning percentage in the entire league in that specific statistic.
Some of Denver’s best players had very positive net ratings in the clutch. Jokic, Murray, Monte Morris, Paul Millsap. Murray gets the nod here because now that he’s entering his prime, he should be relied on to the go-to guy on this roster. Better yet, we’ve seen that he can be unstoppable when the game is on the line. He wasn’t consistent in the postseason, but he did put the entire team on his back on multiple occasions.
If you were watching Denver’s playoff run, you probably knew about the time Murray exploded for 21 points in the fourth quarter when the Nuggets toppled the Spurs to tie the series at one a piece in the first round, or when he had back-to-back 34-point outings, the latter of which included clutch free throws that tied the Western Conference Semis with the Blazers. For a first playoff outing, Murray’s performance could have been a lot worse.
Coming off a nice payday from Denver this summer, and with the prime of his career approaching, expect Murray to put up more of the same this season. If not better.
The Unheralded Player: Paul Millsap
It sounds weird because Millsap’s had a fantastic reputation in the league for what seems like an eternity now. It sounds even weirder since Denver chose to pick up his $30 million team option hence demonstrating how much the Nuggets value what he does on the floor.
So what makes him unheralded? Because of both his expected decline and the expected improvement from the Nuggets’ young guys. Paul’s numbers have gradually decreased since he came to Denver, which should surprise no one since he will be 35 by mid-season in 2020. As he ages for the worse much like anyone else would at that age, everyone around him should age for the better.
He’s still going to be a valuable piece to this Denver squad. Millsap may not be what he was during his Jazz/Hawks days, but he’s always reliable to play within the offense, keep it all together on defense, and be a good teammate. It’s not that he’s an unheralded player. It’s that he’s going to be.
Best New Addition: Jerami Grant
Denver didn’t really revamp its roster this summer for good reason. There’s no need to mess with what’s working unless you see that there are obvious limits to what your roster can do. However, that shouldn’t stop you from adding players who can improve certain areas if the price is right. Acquiring Jerami Grant for what will probably be a late first-round pick fits the profile.
After being nothing but a rotation player on a team that didn’t bother to try, Grant broke out as a premier 3&D ¾ tweener in Oklahoma City. Last season, he averaged 13.6 points on 50/39/71 splits while also proving himself to be one of the most versatile defenders on one of the league’s best defensive squads.
In Denver, he should add more versatility and depth to a team that already had plenty of it but was clearly more than open to having more. If Grant’s skillset wasn’t enough, take note that he has a player option after this season. If he really wants good money in what looks like a pretty barren offseason next summer, expect him to give the Nuggets his all.
WHO WE LIKE
1. Michael Porter Jr.’s potential
It’s a shame that we don’t have a lot of data to support Porter. All we have are his high school/McDonalds’s/AAU highlights and the few college games he played at Missouri to judge where he stands as an NBA player. With all that he’s gone through, all we can say about MPJ as a player is that he has potential.
Denver wisely kept him on the shelf after taking him with the last pick in the 2018 lottery. Both the talent and the injury rap sheet plus the team’s timeline afforded Denver the privilege of preserving him until they knew he had a clean bill of health. The Kings did the same thing with Harry Giles, and so far, it’s working out quite well for them.
Porter is expected to be ready for training camp. If healthy, the possibilities are endless for what he could do for the Nuggets. He gives them another scorer to put next to Jokic and Murray, and could give so many more lineup possibilities. But that’s all banking on that he’ll avoid the injury bug. This isn’t just high-risk/high-reward. This is a monumental risk/legendary-level reward.
No pressure though kid!
2. The other young guys
So much praise has been heaped on the likes of Jokic, Murray, and Harris that the other young talent on Denver’s roster definitely deserves a shoutout. They don’t have the same ceilings as the aforementioned players, but they played a role in Denver’s uprise last season
-Malik Beasley: When Denver traded the long-tenured Wilson Chandler, Will Barton was the starting small forward meaning the backup wing was up for grabs. Beasley took that role and ran with it, averaging 11.3 points on 47/40/84 splits. Establishing himself a rim-running three-point specialist, Beasley gave Denver an unexpected jolt.
-Monte Morris: Morris was another surprise contributor in Denver’s success. Isaiah Thomas was the designated back-up point guard for the Nuggets, but while he never found his groove, Morris established as the leader of the second unit. In 24 minutes a game, he averaged 10.4 points on 49/41/80 splits. Those stats didn’t continue in the postseason, but Morris proved he could be Denver’s Sixth Man of the future.
-Juancho Hernangomez: The 23-year-old did an excellent job filling in for the injured Will Barton as the starting small forward. He started 25 games for the Nuggets in that time where he averaged 11.2 points and 6.3 rebounds while shooting 42.5 percent from three. He didn’t exactly have an easy transition back to the bench when Barton returned, but there is a reason to be optimistic about him for the future.
3. Torrey Craig
This writer’s a sucker for underdog stories, and Torrey Craig’s story is no exception. He came into Denver as an NBL stand out, then a 27-year-old rookie on a two-way contract, then got a nice extension last summer.
In response to his newfound job security, Craig did not disappoint in his second season as a Nugget. His offensive stats aren’t great, but Craig’s specialty is more of doing the little things aka bringing energy and playing tough-as-nails defense. When other Nuggets like Morris didn’t keep up their play for the postseason, they spent more time on the bench. Such was not the case with Craig. His defense came in handy for Denver when they needed it to be.
The acquisition of Jerami Grant may or may not eat into his time when the season approaches, but adversity is nothing new to Craig. Perhaps the new competition at the wing will further motivate him to improve his game more than it already has.
4. Mason Plumlee
When your name is in the running for the best backup center in the league, you deserve a shout out. On one hand, Mason Plumlee could be seen as the guy who Denver acquired for Jusuf Nurkic and a first-rounder. On the other, Plumlee can be seen as the guy who was a much better fit as the backup center for Denver.
Plumlee may very well be the most overqualified back-up big in the league. At first glance, his 7.8 rebounds, 6.4 rebounds, and three assists a game are merely acceptable. When you consider that his rebound percentage of 16.4 percent is 22nd among centers and second-highest among backups – behind only Domantas Sabonis – you can’t ask for much more than that. Even better, his assist percentage of 19.5 is fifth among centers. He’s been so good for Denver that they’ve actually played him and the Joker together.
We don’t see a lot of teams playing lineups with two pure centers at the same time for extended minutes anymore. Seeing Denver keep it alive with Jokic and Plumlee is as effective as it is nostalgic.
Can you say “League Pass frontrunner”? Because that’s what this Denver Nuggets team is. They are always a joy to watch. They play basketball in some of the most fun ways it can be played. It’s unselfish. It’s active. It’s pure basketball. At least on the offensive end, the Nuggets are a total viewing pleasure.
At the center of it is Nikola Jokic. Enough praise has been heaped at Nikola so there’s no need to repeat what he can do. Let’s put it like this. The man is the engine for one of the finest offenses in the league, and he’s still got plenty of career left.
That actually shouldn’t take away from their defense. Denver had the league’s tenth-best defensive rating, allowing 108.9 points per 100 possessions. That’s not as boastable of a strength, but it isn’t a weakness. A little added bonus is the versatility that they should have in their arsenal with Jerami Grant and Michael Porter Jr. could give them a lot more firepower than they already have.
The source of Denver’s sudden uprise last season may very well be what may hold them back when the postseason comes around – their youth. As talented as the Nuggets are, they haven’t been in this position in years. Keep in mind that they lost to Portland – who lost Jusuf Nurkic and replaced him with Enes Kanter on one functional shoulder – even though they were the second seed.
Now Portland barely won that series, but it shouldn’t have been that close. Denver was at full strength and had homecourt advantage. Portland’s victory can be attributed to both the roster continuity and experience. They’ had been in that atmosphere with most of those guys before. Only Millsap had that experience on Denver’s side, and we’ve already dived into why Denver won’t rely on him as much.
Not to fret though. This is just part of the growing process for a young and upcoming team. The Nuggets already impressed everyone with their success last season. They should see more coming their way. It just might not be as fast.
THE BURNING QUESTION
Are the Nuggets one piece away?
Denver should be one of the best teams in the league this season. Most of their best players are 25 years old or younger, so their chances of them individually improving on last season and in turn, the team itself, are pretty high.
They’ve still got their work cut out for them since they play in the brutal Western Conference. The core that they currently have right now will be good enough to put in a good fight against anyone. But, the phrase, “Putting in a good fight” is not synonymous with “The favorite to win”. With the team they have right now, reaching the NBA finals is possible, which is great all things considered, but they may sleep easier at night if they knew they had one more guy.
The real question is who would be that one piece? Is it an upgrade over one of their best players now or is it a player that adds another dimension to the team? Or both? Again, Denver should remain patient because time is on their side. If they want to show the NBA that they mean business, they may need to take care of this as soon as they can.
It’s sad because, had they just kept Donovan Mitchell’s draft rights in 2017, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.