The Denver Nuggets had a hell of a season. Here’s what we learned, in no particular order:

The Nuggets are legitimate contenders

Internally, expectations for the Nuggets this season were made clear at media day: this was a team that will compete for a championship. Not many people outside of Denver actually believed it. Well, after another top-3 finish in the regular season and a playoff run that saw the Nuggets knock out the title favorite Los Angeles Clippers, it is clear as day. The Denver Nuggets are for real.

It might have taken two 3-1 comebacks to get there, but that doesn’t discredit anything that the Nuggets accomplished. Fraudulent teams don’t come back from down 3-1 at all, let alone twice in one postseason. Plus, it wasn’t like the Lakers destroyed the Nuggets. Los Angeles sweated through the entire series and if Anthony Davis misses that shot in Game 3, you’d likely be reading a preview to Game 7 instead of this.

The Nuggets have a core of two players in Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray that can compete with anyone. They have a solid cast of role players. They have a winning coach in Michael Malone. Anyone not counting them among the NBA’s elite is wrong.

The regular season does not matter

It seems obvious but in the course of an 82-game slog it is sometimes lost how little the regular season serves other than to qualify for the playoffs themselves. No team or player is ever going to be perfect but sometimes we put too much stock into a Tuesday night loss in January or a player’s performance in November.

Denver had some abysmal regular season losses this year to teams like Atlanta, Cleveland and Washington. Jamal Murray only shot 34.6% from three. So what? All that matters is what happens in the playoffs. The Nuggets are a playoff team, not a regular season team. Remember that next year.

Jamal Murray is a superstar

For the first three seasons of his career Jamal Murray has shown flashes of brilliance but his playoff performance this year was the first time we’ve seen him consistently take the leap. It’s also the most important development of the season. In the regular season he averaged 18.5 points, 4.8 assists, 3.2 rebounds and shot 34.6% from three on 5.5 attempts. Those numbers skyrocketed to 26.5 points, 6.6 assists and 4.8 rebounds on 45.3% from three on 7.2 attempts in the playoffs.

Murray’s progression as an elite scorer and playmaker is just a fraction of how he has transformed to a star. He put on 12 lbs. of muscle during the break; as a result, he was not only able to attack the paint more easily but his on-ball defense was impressive of well, especially in the post. There were moments in the Conference Finals when Murray held his own against LeBron James in the post. This is a far cry from last postseason when the Blazers targeted Murray and Rodney Hood scored at will.

Murray has also emerged as the team’s leader, a role that has largely remained vacant for years on this team. His willingness to step up helped propel the Nuggets past the Jazz and Clippers. He took the team on his back when they were down and everyone followed his lead. With Murray in that role, the Nuggets are in a great spot moving forward.

Nikola Jokic remains the best center in the NBA

There was never really any doubt of this, was there? Jokic was already First-Team All NBA going into the year (cough). Like Murray, Jokic elevated his game in the postseason by putting up a ridiculous 24.4/9.8/5.7 stat line. He shot 42.9% from three and when the offense was humming he was once again the catalyst. He looked dominant at times over Rudy Gobert, he played both Ivica Zubac and Montrezl Harrell of the floor in round two and against the Lakers it took sheer goonery from Dwight Howard to slow Jokic down. Even then he managed only 21.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 5 assists.

Jokic is amazing no matter if he’s fat or skinny or whatever. This season proved that beyond a doubt.

Michael Malone has “it” as a coach

We already knew Malone is a leader of men, responsible for the positive locker room culture in Denver. Questions still remained on how good he is as a basketball coach in the playoffs. When the Nuggets fell down 3-1 to the Jazz it seemed that we knew the answer and it didn’t bode well.

Malone, on behalf of Nuggets fans everywhere, I’m sorry for doubting.

His coaching was pretty brilliant this whole postseason. He knows his players well and time and time again he made the right rotation decisions – starting Jerami Grant and giving Paul Millsap a short leash in round one saved the season. He only speaks positive about his guys and he trusts them to make plays. There isn’t a better example of that than when Michael Porter Jr. vented to the media in round two. Instead of making a statement, Porter played crunch time the next game and drilled a dagger three to help seal the win.

Is he perfect? No. But in the past two playoffs he’s outcoached Gregg Popovich, Quin Snyder and Doc Rivers. He’s earned his keep in Denver and there is little doubt in my mind he can get the job done.

Jerami Grant is the perfect complement to this team

One of the shrewdest offseason moves was trading a first rounder to Oklahoma City for Jerami Grant. He was brought in as a big man who can shoot – 39% from deep in the regular season was nice. His value skyrocketed in the playoffs, though, where Grant was easily Denver’s third best player and the complete package on both ends of the floor.

On offense Grant is fantastic at cutting and an outside threat. His best games were the last three against the Lakers when he not only shot well from deep but attacked and drew fouls. The Lakers ended up double-teaming him in the end. In the playoffs Grant only shot 32% from three – but he did spend two rounds guarding Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and LeBron James. He gets a pass.

What became clear to me was that Grant is a perfect fit around Murray, Jokic and Porter. That four-man lineup had net rating of 16.2 in 120 minutes together.

Grant will turn down his $9 million player option and look to cash in. He deserves it. Let’s hope he stays in Denver.

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Gary Harris is an elite defender – but not much else

One of the high points of the entire season was when Gary Harris returned in Game 6 against the Jazz. He had another down year for the most part, and to come out of the four-month hiatus still injured did not bode well. As someone who could actually guard Donovan Mitchell, his impact was immediate. The Nuggets fed off of Harris’s defensive energy and finished off the comeback when Harris poked the ball away from Mitchell in the waning seconds of Game 7. What a moment.

Unfortunately, Harris did little on offense. His three-point shooting remained streaky at best and he’s no longer the cutting threat he once was alongside Jokic. He found somewhat of a rhythm against the Clippers but disappeared completely against the Lakers. It was telling that in Denver’s final game Harris only played 13 minutes.

The Nuggets need to surround Jokic with consistent shooters. Sadly, unless he makes a huge turnaround it looks like Harris no longer fits that bill.

The Nuggets need better outside shooting and rebounding

Both Jokic and Murray were the only two Nuggets to shoot over 40% from deep in the playoffs. That’s not good enough. Their two-man game is a bellwether for the Nuggets, but in the playoffs teams can and did find ways to redirect that traffic. Fortunately for Denver, Murray and Jokic are both really good at finding open guys. Denver won when those guys hit their threes and lost when they didn’t. Sometimes it is that simple. The Nuggets are a great offensive team that becomes elite when Grant, Harris and Millsap also hit those shots.

Same goes for rebounding. Out of the 16 playoff teams, Denver was 14th in rebounding this postseason and 15th in offensive rebounds. The Nuggets actually held their own collectively on the glass against the Lakers but there were so many moments when they gave up offensive boards and second chance points to Dwight Howard or LeBron.

Now, how can the Nuggets fix these issues? If only there was someone on the roster who’s 6’10 that can shoot and rebound well…

Michael Porter Jr. needs to play

This is about as obvious at it gets. MPJ went from a reserve role player with spot minutes in the regular season to a bubble breakout star to a starter in Game 1 of the playoffs. He was targeted on defense and become nearly unplayable, but surprisingly the Nuggets were almost always better when he was on the court. Per Cleaning the Glass, per 100 possesions the Nuggets were better by 13.9 points over their opponents when Porter was on the floor, second only to Jamal Murray. Why? He spaces the floor, can hit shots and rebounds.

Porter was Denver’s third best three-point shooter at 38.2% in the playoffs and he was not shy about it either. His 34 makes were the fifth most made by a Nugget during a playoff run and he had no qualms about shooting jumpers over anyone, LeBron James included. His three-pointer with just over a minute to go in Game 5 against the Clippers was one of the gutsiest shots I’ve ever seen. And he followed it up with a block on Zubac and a huge defensive rebound that game.

Rebounding might be his second best skill. He pulled down 6.7 per game in just 23 minutes per night. According to Cleaning the Glass, he was in the 93rd and 90th percentiles respectively for offensive and defensive rebound percentage during the playoffs. He has no issues getting boards; his issues are more of the not-boxing-out variety. Those things are fixable.

His defense also improved significantly in just 19 playoff games. He has a ways to go for sure, but the more Porter plays the better all around he’s becoming. His ceiling is still unlimited. If he reaches it, the Nuggets will be a force for years.

The Denver Nuggets are resilient

It takes a lot of mental strength to come back from down 3-1. It’s incredible that they did it twice. Denver’s record in elimination games was 6-1, an impressive feat. And it’s not like they blew out the Jazz or Clippers in all of those games. They were down by double-digits in the third quarter on more than one occasion. This team has guts and this experience will set them up nicely in years to come.

My favorite part about the comeback season for the Nuggets was how they approached being in a hole. They always took practice off the day after falling behind 3-1 to reset themselves. They didn’t panic, they just took things one game at a time. The result was a team that played stress-free and with purpose and it worked brilliantly.

2020 has been a tough year for many of us. We could learn a lot from facing our own adversity that same way.

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