Denver Nuggets: Will they be championship or bust next season?

The Denver Nuggets played valiantly through the NBA Playoffs, but they had to work exceedingly hard to find success and went bust just before hitting pay dirt.

The Denver Nuggets are in an interesting position within the hierarchy of the NBA’s Western Conference. In the three seasons preceding this latest one, the Nuggets were the only team in the league to improve their win total by at least six games each year, climbing from outside the playoff picture to the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in consecutive playoffs. Their young core of Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic look poised to be perennial All-Star and All-NBA type players for years to come, already forming a bond while climbing the conference ladder together.

This bright future was fomented by the fact that the Denver Nuggets were able to advance to the Conference Finals, after winning a playoff series the year before. We were all witness to the incredible shot-making and takeover ability that Murray possesses and displayed all bubble long.

His playoff-leading minute total, an hour more than Jokic’s second place, and clutch-time heroics — tied for the most points while shooting 56 percent overall and 73 percent from 3, never missing a free throw in all of the fourth quarter or overtime as well as having the most assists and second-most rebounds — show he can perform when the pressure can affect others.

With how effortlessly he can score the ball, it makes his inconsistency from game to game that much more frustrating. He exploded during a three-game stretch against the Utah Jazz where he scored 142 points, that outburst was sandwiched by two games before and two games after in which he totaled just 55. In the seven playoff games he scored less than 20 points, Denver was only 1-6.

The moral is that while Murray can be utterly fantastic offensively, he can have off nights that the Denver Nuggets can’t afford if they want to win ball games. While he seems like he should be competing for scoring titles, he has only inched up his season scoring average by 1.8 points over the last three years to a career-high of 18.5 this season. He could be looking at a Most Improved Player Award if he plays up to his playoff potential in the next NBA regular season.

Nikola Jokic falls into a lot of the same categories that Murray does. He is widely considered the best offensive center in the NBA and the attention he receives from the opposition opens up the game for his teammates. Neither, however, is as proficient on the other end and therein lies the problem for the Denver Nuggets. The most potent scoring threats in their No. 5-rated offense; Jokic, Murray and Michael Porter Jr., are often looked to be exploited on defense. The Nuggets are a middle-of-the-pack defensive team and aren’t particularly athletic or adept at forcing turnovers.

Even though the Denver Nuggets are efficient offensively, they are slow. They rank 29th in pace of play and with their commitments to Jokic and Murray as max players, this does not seem like it will change. Both are adept at finding opportunities for themselves and others, but their games take time given they counter how defenses are geared to stop them.

The question is how do they build for title contention when the West looks even more stacked next season with the expected rises of New Orleans, Phoenix, Memphis and Dallas as well as the biggest bullies residing in Los Angeles either running it back or looking for redemption. The history of the NBA is littered with teams that looked poised to do big things, only to fall by the wayside of another’s championship glory.

How much will the Denver Nuggets risk to open their championship window?

The Denver Nuggets are already close to $100 million locked up for next season in just seven players so their options aren’t as fluid to make major moves in free agency. The good news is that they get to clear the $44 million they had tied up in Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee, both who would have had bird rights going into next season. While bringing Millsap back on a team-friendly deal would keep the respected veteran with the young Nuggets, Plumlee’s potential cap hit of $21 million next year is too much to justify when Nerlens Noel, Harry Giles and Dwight Howard (Jokic’s new BFF perhaps?) are all unrestricted free agents who made less than $2.5 million this past season, while Aron Baynes (UFA) and JaVale McGee (player option with the Lakers) could be available around $5 million as well.

A few years ago, Gary Harris seemed like he was about to become one of the Denver Nuggets’ best players. He had two seasons in a row where he was shooting 50 percent overall and 40 percent from 3 on five attempts per game while providing the tough on-ball defense that he is still capable of. He upped his 14.9 points per game average to 17.5 and earned a contract extension that sees him earning $20 million per year over the next two seasons.

Since that time, he has steadily gone downhill; shooting 42 percent overall, 33 percent on 3s and dropped to 12.9 and then only 10.4 points per game this past season. He was often on the bench during crunch time as the Denver Nuggets fought for their playoff lives time and time again. If a trade were to happen, he seems a likely candidate although his value may not be what it once was especially with his salary.

Still, he will be only 26 next year and maybe a change would do him good. A guy like Eric Gordon would seem to be a perfect fit and coming off his worst season in Houston, it could be a mutually beneficial situation. The Denver Nuggets need 3-and-D wings. More veteran experience would also be a positive for a young team. Another good fit for them could be Victor Oladipo, who could allow Murray to take a break without serious drop-offs in production. He is also a plus defender and wants to be traded although there’s still a little uncertainty with him coming off injury.

As far as players available in the off-season, Jae Crowder ($7 million) is an UFA, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope ($8.2 million) is on a player option with the Lakers and Markieff Morris ($1.75 million) is also an UFA. All three have shown the ability to hit the 3 even if they aren’t pure knock-down shooters. They could add defense and toughness to a Nuggets team that isn’t known as very physical. Josh Jackson ($6 million) is still only 23 with talent, length and defensive versatility if someone could unlock the potential that made him a No. 4 overall draft selection.

The good news for the Denver Nuggets is that they have some friendly team contracts for a few players who showed out in the bubble. MPJ is still on his rookie contract. Monte Morris played well and took Harris’ spot at the end of games often enough to guarantee his $1.5 million won’t hurt too badly. PJ Dozier is only 23 and showed nice two-way ability. His $1.2 guaranteed is seen in much of the same light as Morris’.

They could also get back Will Barton and his steadying play. He can shoot the 3, score and defend while providing the example of hard work and grit that the younger players need. He may not be the type of player that would have put them over the top against the Lakers, but his effort and even play would certainly have helped and his contract isn’t egregious for he what he provides.

The top priority for the Denver Nuggets should be to re-sign Jerami Grant. He was probably the greatest beneficiary of strong play during the playoffs. He is expected to decline his option for next season, but he is just the type of player that the Nuggets need to keep. He guarded both LeBron James and Anthony Davis and had some of his best offensive outputs as the playoffs went along. Grant is a solid and rising two-way player and one of the most athletic and versatile guys on a team lacking them. As his minutes jumped from only 20 a game for three seasons while bouncing between teams, these last two have seen him average 33 and 27 respectively with OKC and the Denver Nuggets.

More than that, his efficiency has gone up along with his other stats during that period. He does the dirty work of guarding the opposing team’s best player, has averaged 39 percent from 3 on 3.6 attempts a game and double figures these past two seasons as well. He also has experience with running a match-up zone from his time at Syracuse and a defensive switch could help the Denver Nuggets protect and utilize their personnel that does not feature strong individual defenders.

They do have a lot of length though, especially when Barton or Harris is on the floor with Murray. In those instances, no one would be under 6-foot-4 and Monte Morris at 6-foot-2 is the shortest player on the roster. What they lack in sheer athleticism, the Denver Nuggets players generally have good basketball IQs and their stars are particularly good at reading the game on offense. There is no reason to think they couldn’t on defense as well and a zone with MPJ, Jokic and Grant in the back would be difficult to shoot over from the corners or along the baseline. They do have quick guards, if not fast ones, and were 9th in the league in steals.

A 1-2-2 with Grant or MPJ on top could provide disrupting length and close the middle a bit more, but the Denver Nuggets, who run zone among the least in the NBA, might want to consider more defensive strategies to complement their efficient and methodical offense. They may not be able to run out of the zone often, but they don’t anyway and it could hide some of their best players’ lack of lateral quickness and individual defensive shortcomings. It would also protect them somewhat from foul trouble that hurt Jokic at times during the playoffs. They would do well to look at Toronto who use various sets to be one of the best defensive units in the league despite their lack of uber-athletic players as well.

The Denver Nuggets have climbed from obscurity in an always tough Western Conference to playoff success with a roster built on continuity and group evolution. While they seem to still be on the rise, more established stars on teams with higher expectations have crashed and burned under that weight and never met the glory that was so easily envisioned. They are at a crossroads of sorts and how they proceed over the next couple of seasons will tell if they hit the mother lode or go bust with nothing to show for all the work put into what could have been.

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