There is a fair amount of uncertainty around this upcoming Nuggets season and that is part of what makes this particular season such an exciting one. There's a new coach, a new young franchise player, a handful of young players who are all poised to take big steps forward, and some familiar faces that will step into new leadership roles. There is a lot of reason for excitement and if you are anything like me, you've probably taken turns talking yourself into the best and worst case scenarios for the Nuggets.
Of course, that unbridled optimism is always balanced with the fear that the team will under perform, face devastating injuries, or completely come unhinged like they did last season. For every ceiling there is also a floor and in a season with so much uncertainty, the worst outcomes can be just as likely as the best ones. Therefore, I've written a realistic prediction for each player's ceiling and floor. Today will focus on the team's top 5 players. In an upcoming article, I'll examine the bench guys.
A few quick notes - I am attempting to be completely realistic about ceilings and floors. Obviously any player can suffer a season ending injury so everyone's floor could include an injury. However, for some players, that risk is a bit more noteworthy. Additionally, it is always possible that a player like Will Barton breaks into the all-star conversation after averaging 30 ppg through January but the odds are so heavily against it that it's probably not even worth noting. So while there is technically a ceiling and floor that is above or below what I've listed, I think they show realistic projections for a best and worst case scenario.
Ceiling – 20 ppg, 75 GP, .610. TS
The first major variable is health. Gallo has missed a lot of games in his seven year NBA career so playing 82 games seems highly unlikely at this point. As for production, Gallo's prime years were spent either injured or under the direction of Brian Shaw. At 27 years old, Gallo is still in the prime of his career and has showed under Melvin Hunt that he is capable of being one of the league's most dynamic scorers and an incredible 1-on-1 defender. Gallo also demonstrated his big game potential by scoring 40 points on two separate occasions in the final month of last season.
Floor - <20 games or 12 ppg, TS% .570, AST% >9%
The obvious floor with Gallo is injury. If he misses significant time, not only will his career be in doubt but the Nuggets near-term future will be in doubt since he was given a hefty three year extension and is expected to be the main offensive weapon for the Nuggets in the next couple of years. Barring injury, there is also chance that he won’t mesh well with Malone. Malone may prefer an offense with more structure than what Gallo wants and some of his creative offensive talents will be wasted.
Adam’s prediction – 65 GP, 19 ppg, .400 Ftr
Call me an optimist but I think this season will be Gallo's best one yet. I’m not sure he and Malone are a match made in heaven but I do think that Malone is smart enough to know that he must do everything he can to help Gallo succeed. Gallo is very good at drawing fouls and the more often the ball is in his hands, the more chances he will get to draw contact and go to the line. Gallo’s role will be enormous this season, on both ends of the court, and if he stays healthy he’ll have a chance to put up some eye popping numbers.
Ceiling – 16 ppg, 10 rpg, defensive improvement
My last article on Faried outlined what I think is his ceiling. To paraphrase, he has the chance to become a very versatile defender and to get back to playing more off-ball and on pick and rolls where he really is a manimal. There was an interesting anecdote in Zach Lowe's piece yesterday on the Spurs in which RC Buford lamented the fact that the team no longer has a great "roll" guy in pick and rolls now that Thiago Splitter is on the Hawks, aka "Spurs East." Splitter isn't thought of as an offensive juggernaut but his rolls to the rim opened up a lot for the Spurs offense. Faried can have a similar role on offense and I think he'd be even more effective at collapsing the defense in the paint.
Floor – Last year, basically
Last season went poorly for Faried and I’m more hopeful than ever that it was just a bad coaching fit. There is no question that Faried lost interest at some point in the season but he did play with renewed effort and enthusiasm once Hunt took over. Nonetheless, Faried took a massive step back and his floor probably involves lots of failed post ups and getting lost on defense.
Adam’s prediction – 15 ppg, 10 rpg, signs of improvement but mixed results
One of my biggest concerns with Mike Malone is that he is a bit too in love with post-ups. It’s really unfair to paint Malone as a post-up guy since he’s only been the head coach of a team that was perfectly justified in posting up frequently, but my fear is that Faried will be given the ball on the block and in the mid post far too frequently for his own good. Nonetheless, I think his rebounding will be back to elite levels and he will show some major improvements on defense.
Ceiling – 16 ppg, 40% 3FG, strong defensive presence
Chandler has been remarkably consistent for his career and I’m not sure we’ll see a major bump or slide in his per game totals. The one area he can really stand out is his 3-point percentage which has always been just below what you’d expect from a go-to 3-point shooter. He’s incredibly versatile as a defender and under Malone he will likely become a key piece of their defense. He can pair with Gallo and Jusuf Nurkic to make an impressive 3-4-5 combo, or he can even slide to the 2 and guard shooting guards.
Floor – 12 ppg, 30% 3FG, unreliable scorer, frequently unremarkable
The one criticism I hear about Chandler the most is that he can be very unremarkable. Sometimes he’ll play 20 minutes and you wont even notice he’s there. Under Shaw, Chandler was a also a bit of a streaky shooter. If he gets into a prolonged slump or if he is uncomfortable in the offense, his stock can fall quickly.
Adam’s prediction – 15 ppg, 40% 3FG, best year to date
This might be my boldest prediction of the group and yet I feel weirdly confident about it. I think Chandler will have a great year and will thrive under Malone. Chandler is an incredibly valuable piece to this team since the roster lacks both experience and floor spacers. Chandler is also a great on-ball defender and I think a healthy Nurkic and Gallo will allow him to play more of a shut down role.
Ceiling – 27 MPG, elite rim protection, <4 fouls per 36 min
The jump from rookie to sophomore is usually a fairly substantial one and Nurkic will have a chance to show signs of moving toward his very evident potential. The first thing is the obvious one, he needs to cut down on his fouling. Nurkic tends to overestimate his own ability on defense by reaching for steals. With no other true centers on the roster, the Nuggets will need Nurkic to stay on the court. His offense can also improve dramatically and it will be interesting to see what spots on the court Malone likes to put him in.
Floor – Injured, 17 mpg, 6.8 fouls per 36 min, .45 FG%
Last season was impressive for a rookie but that "for a rookie" caveat no longer applies. If Nurkic comes back with more or less the same stat line, including and especially the low mpg, it will be a bit of a disappointment. There is also the fear that the knee injury that he sustained last season becomes a recurring problem with the giant 20-year old.
Adam’s prediction – 23 mpg, flashes of elite rim protection, 5 fouls per 36
I think Nurkic will be somewhere in the middle in terms of production and foul rate. I actually think we’ll see major improvements toward the end of the season but that he’ll come along fairly slowly as he recovers from injury. His size, mobility, and strength will make him a perfect fit in Malone's defensive scheme and I fully expect him to be among the league's top rim protectors. He was already an elite rim protector in limited minutes last season under Shaw but I think he can jump into the national spotlight if he can become a consistent rim protector at 20+ minutes per game.
Ceiling – ROY, 16 ppg, 8 apg, 3 TO
Only 3 rookies have ever averaged 16 and 8: Oscar Robertson, Damon Stoudamire, and John Wall. So 16 and 8 is certainly an optimistic ceiling for Mudiay. But he wont lack for chances. The ball will be in his hands from day one and he has the skill and vision to put up some impressive stats. The rookie of the year race will probably be as competitive as any we've seen in recent years as there are a lot of high profile rookies on teams that will provide them with ample opportunity to shine, but Mudiay will be right in the conversation. You might even say that it is his for the taking.
Floor – 10 ppg, 4apg, 4 TO
The only way Mudiay reaches this floor is if his minutes are cut. And the only way his minutes are cut is if he is really hurting the Nuggets when he’s out there. The Nuggets are going into the season with the expectation that Mudiay will have an up and down year and are prepared for him to struggle here and there. However, it’s always possible that it gets to a point where throwing him into the fire is too detrimental to the team and to his own confidence. If that is the case, I could see some low numbers.
Adam’s prediction – 12 ppg, 6.5 apg, 4 TO
I expect a bit of a mixed bag from Mudiay. In part because, as a 19 year old, he has holes in his game and there are a dozen point guards in the western conference alone that will present bigger challenges that anything he has faced in high school or in China. Nonetheless I think he’ll play well enough to earn enough minutes to put up impressive numbers and compete for rookie of the year. I’m not ready to predict that he’ll win it, but I think he'll definitely be in the conversation.