Over the next two weeks, the Denver Stiffs staff will preview the 2020-21 Denver Nuggets season in an alternative way. Rather than preview every single player on the roster, Denver Stiffs will ask and answer the 10 most pressing Nuggets questions in the two weeks prior to the season opener on December 23rd.

We hope you enjoy!

The Denver Nuggets are in a bind with their starting lineup.

Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokić have established themselves beyond a shadow of a doubt. They are Denver’s core, the dynamic duo that decimated the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers to the tune of two separate 3-1 series comebacks. Murray averaged 26.5 points and 6.6 assists in 19 playoff games, pushing the envelope on what many thought would be possible for him in his NBA career. Not to be outdone, Jokić averaged 24.4 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 5.7 assists himself. Both proved that they could succeed in the playoffs separately and together, and the Nuggets are hoping they accomplish similar things for the next decade.

Building an elite lineup around the two is Denver’s next step toward a championship. The coaching staff and front office both believe that Michael Porter Jr. could be a third piece of that equation. Gary Harris has been around as the 3&D wing most teams need to be successful in a playoff environment, though he does have his deficiencies. Paul Millsap arrived three seasons ago and immediately made an impact next to Jokić at power forward, and the Nuggets are hoping for one last year of versatile impact. They added JaMychal Green to replace Jerami Grant, and while Grant was seemingly a perfect fit to match up with the best wings in the NBA, Green replaces many of the same traits while even improving on some traditional power forward skills.

Then, there’s Will Barton. A mainstay in Denver’s rotation dating back over five seasons ago to the 2015 NBA trade deadline, Barton has been one of the most impactful Nuggets of the last decade. He began his tenure in Denver as a bench player but quickly turned into a legit sixth man and even a starter. The Nuggets had need of a player to do a little bit of everything on the wing after letting go of Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler in consecutive years, and Barton quickly replaced their production.

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When Chandler first departed, Barton was asked to step into the starting lineup at small forward, completing a lineup featuring Murray, Harris, Millsap, and Jokić that had decimated teams when healthy. Just two games into the season, Barton sustained a major hip injury that held him out for several months. When he returned, it was clear the lift and burst he generally played with just wasn’t there anymore. Head coach Michael Malone was forced to bench Barton in Denver’s first playoff series against the San Antonio Spurs, inserting Torrey Craig into the starting lineup and using Barton exclusively in a bench role after that point.

This past season, 2019-20, felt different from the get-go. Barton had rehabbed the hip injury and was in a better place physically and mentally. He began the year strong, helping get the Nuggets through the first three months of the season. It was undoubtedly the best season of his career accounting for both sides of the ball. Then, Barton’s knee started acting up in February. He was forced to sit out some games, always monitoring the situation. It wasn’t clear how bad the injury might be until things flared back up in the Orlando bubble. Without the opportunity to rehab completely during the pandemic, Barton struggled to get his knee back to 100% and ready to go on short notice. He did his best, as did the training staff, but Barton clearly wasn’t in a good place. He left the bubble during Denver’s first round series with the Utah Jazz and never played a single game.

Now, as the bubble becomes a memory and the NBA ramps up toward what they are hoping to be as normal a season as they can offer, Barton is back at Ball Arena hoping to reclaim his starting spot, something he verbalized to the media on Zoom last week.

So far, Barton has taken part in practice every day of training camp, only being held out of the live sessions for “precautionary reasons.” The Nuggets are going to do everything they can do get Barton ready to play as soon as possible, and it’s encouraging that the veteran wing is taking part of another segments of practice. We’ve even seen film of him dunking, something he couldn’t do back in the bubble. He’s clearly making progress toward getting back on the court. Whether he actually gets there remains to be seen.

A healthy Will Barton certainly helps the Nuggets. He’s a good player, versatility being his best and most important skill. He can handle the ball, be a playmaker for himself and others, shoot off the dribble, shoot off the catch, rebound his position, and even defend. The final step he has taken on the defensive end of the floor has solidified him as a starting caliber player, one that the Nuggets could use at shooting guard and/or small forward.

The questions remain about his status though, and it will be impossible to judge whether he’s healthy enough to play until he officially steps on the court again. The last time Barton suited up for an official game was March 11th, 2020, the night the NBA shut down. It’s unfair to Barton to expect him to pick right up again roughly nine months later.

Good thing for the Nuggets: they can ease him back into consistent playing time if need be. Harris and Millsap are surely ready to reprise their previous roles at shooting guard and power forward respectively. The Nuggets don’t need a strong excuse to start Porter at small forward immediately. On the bench unit, the newly extended Monte Morris and newly signed Facundo Campazzo should combine to anchor the offense, while P.J. Dozier and Bol Bol could each offer some spot minutes at backup small forward in their own special ways. At least out of the gate, the Nuggets won’t be killed if Barton isn’t ready to go.

Down the line though, the Nuggets will need Barton’s jack-of-all-trades style to accompany their star scorers, hyper-focused defenders, and undersized bench creators to survive in a playoff environment. It’s unfortunate that Barton hasn’t been available at full capacity in each of the last two playoff runs as it’s very possible that the versatile wing could be exactly what Denver needs to become a championship contender. Very few players can do what Barton can do.

The biggest question: is Barton ready to prove it once again?

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