Team Name: Denver Nuggets
Last Year's Record: 33-49
Key Losses: DJ Augustine, Joffrey Lauvergne
Key Additions: Jamal Murray, Wilson Chandler (from injury)
What Significant Moves were made during the off-season?
The Denver Nuggets had a quiet summer in terms of free agent acquisitions. Darrell Arthur and Mike Miller were re-signed while D.J. Augustin and Joffrey Lauvergne were let go via free agency and trade. The team had 12 returning players report for training camp, tied with the Boston Celtics for most in the league.
The only big off-season splash that the Nuggets made was selecting three players in the first round of the NBA draft. Jamal Murray is the biggest name of the group. As a freshmen at the University of Kentucky, Murray made more three-pointers than any other freshmen in NCAA history other than Steph Curry. Murray put up three 20+ point games at summer league showing off his range and his savvy as a pick-and-roll ball handler. He’ll likely be a part of the rotation all season despite some competition from players like Gary Harris and Will Barton.
In addition to Murray, the Nuggets also picked Spanish forward Juancho Hernangomez with the 15th pick and shooting guard Malik Beasley with the 19th pick. Juancho really stood out at summer league and has been praised effusively by the coaching staff and front office throughout the summer. Beasley is a high-flying shooter with a lot of upside.
Unfortunately, both Juancho and Beasley will likely be third or fourth on the depth chart to start the season. Beasley is buried behind Gary Harris, who led the Nuggets in starts, minutes, and steals last season as a sophomore, and Jamal Murray who is a better prospect than Beasley at this stage. Harris sustained an injury in the team’s first preseason game but may only miss a week or two of regular season action.
Juancho will look for minutes behind Kenneth Faried and Darrell Arthur, two guys who are a big part of the rotation and probably won’t lose minutes to a rookie. Head coach Michael Malone has also hinted at playing more small lineups with Danilo Gallinari at power forward, which would eat into potential minutes for Juancho.
2. What are the team's biggest strengths?
NBA.com’s John Schuhmann has the Nuggets ranked 4th in his continuity rankings based on returning players, weighted by minutes played. The team has 12 returning players, many of whom are 25 years old or younger. The camaraderie on this team is extremely high, much more so than I’ve seen in my three years as a credentialed writer. That continuity may help the Nuggets get off to a fast start and grow as the season goes on.
This year's continuity rankings, w/ Smith & Motiejunas still unsigned & the Northwest division in the top 4 spots... pic.twitter.com/Jd0NsV6Okd— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) September 28, 2016
Rebounding is another strength. The Nuggets were in the top 10 in both offensive rebounding and defensive rebounding. That number should improve even more with the return of Wilson Chandler who is an excellent rebounded for the small forward position. Faried, Jokic, and Nurkic are all great interior rebounders but the back court is what makes Denver such a solid rebounding team. At 6’5” Mudiay is tall for a point guard. Will Barton and Danilo Gallinari are tall for wing players as well.
The Nuggets are one of the youngest teams in the NBA and with that youth comes a lot of speed, especially in transition. Kenneth Faried is one of the best open court finishers in the NBA and his front court running mate, Nikola Jokic, is well above average at rim running in transition. The back court features Harris, Mudiay, Danilo Gallinari, and Will Barton, all of whom are young and quick in the open court and are able to push the ball in transition after securing the rebound.
3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?
The Nuggets still lack star power. Nikola Jokic has shown signs that he might develop into a go-to playmaker down the road but at the moment, Gallo is the team’s best scorer but he’s a below average number one option. He’s great at getting to the foul line and is a decent isolation playmaker but he’s much more suited to being the 2nd or 3rd best player on a roster. Emmanuel Mudiay still has star potential because of his ability to create a shot whenever he needs to and for his promising vision but his rookie season showed that he has a long way to go before he is relied upon to carry a team night-in and night-out.
The Nuggets also struggled to defend the three-point line last year. They allowed the 4th highest opponent three-point attempt rate and the 3rd most opponent assisted three-point attempts. In short, the Nuggets allowed a lot of open three-pointers last season and it was the biggest factor in their having one of the worst DRTGs in the league. Head coach Michael Malone has dropped a lot of hints about the team changing defensive principles and even mentioned three-point defense as a major point of emphasis this season.
In addition to the team’s tendency to over-help the paint last season, the Nuggets were also forced to play short wings at small forward for stretches. The return of Wilson Chandler should inject some height to that position. Individual defensive improvement from the young backcourt might also help contain dribble penetration and therefore diminishing the amount of times the defense is forced to collapse. Still, the Nuggets are starting from near the bottom in three-point defense so even a moderate improvement will mean the Nuggets are still in the back half of the league in preventing three-point shots.
4. What are the goals for this team?
The playoffs would be nice and will probably be within reach if everything breaks right. However, the over-arching goal of the season will be to continue to see improvement from all of the team’s young core. Mudiay, Harris, Jokic, and Barton all made huge strides last season and the team as a whole looked a lot better in March than they did in November. With the addition of three rookies to the roster including sharpshooter Jamal Murray, the Nuggets will be as focused on continued player development as they will the win/loss column.
5. Which under-the-radar player(s) should fans keep an eye on?
Gary Harris and Jusuf Nurkic.
Harris made a huge leap last year in almost every statistical category and was one of the Nuggets most consistent performers. Just compare his 2015-16 stats to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Pope receives a lot more attention as a three-and-D player but Harris has him beat in almost every category, especially three-point shooting.
Harris’s advanced defensive metrics rate him as a below average defender but there might not be a player in the league with a bigger gap between the defensive numbers and the eye test than Gary Harris. He has some of the quickest hands in the league and gets a hand on the ball whenever anyone tries to attack him off of the dribble. He’s very disciplined on the defensive end and has great awareness and anticipation on help side for rotations. My guess is that the advanced stats were tough on him in large part because he was playing alongside a lot of bad defenders and defensive lineups. If he can maintain or even build upon his 35.4 3FG% from last season, he’ll be talked about as one of the best three-and-D guys in the league. And he's only 22 years old!
Jusuf Nurkic had a bit of a down year last year. He was slow to return from offseason knee surgery and when he finally did return, he was out of shape and out of rhythm. By January he had lost his spot as Denver’s up-and-coming young center to Nikola Jokic and since then he’s been a bit of an afterthought when talking about the team’s young talent.
But Nurkic is really talented, especially on the defensive end. He’s an enormous and intimidating presence who is also among the best at deterring shots at the rim. He has incredible mobility for his size and quick, active hands that help him block shots and strip the ball when players try to take him off of the dribble. He gets in trouble with fouls far too often but a close look at his foul tendencies show that his issues are disproportionately in transition and on offense.
He’s reportedly in the best shape of his short career and certainly looks much slimmer than he has in year’s past. If he can cut out the silly fouls and become a bit more disciplined on defense, hell become one of the best backup centers in the league and a defensive force along the lines of a Rudy Gobert or DeAndre Jordan.
6. Which players, if any, are on trade watch?
Kenneth Faried has been a staple of the Nuggets roster since his rookie season in 2011. However, despite having three years left on his current deal, he might not be a great fit for the rest of the current roster. There have been rumors that he might be asked to take on a 6th man role with the team, a role that would be very exciting, especially alongside other great open court players like Will Barton and Wilson Chandler. But if Faried isn’t interested in coming off of the bench or if the team decides that they’d be better off giving minutes to guys like rookie forward, Juancho Hernangomez, then Faried might be dealt at the trade deadline.
The issue with trading Faried is that few teams seem to want him on his current deal. Fried would likely be paired with one of Denver’s many draft picks (they will likely have two first rounders and a handful of second rounders in next year’s NBA draft) or with one of Denver’s many young prospects. Will Barton or Malik Beasley are probably the most likely to be paired with Faried if the Nuggets are looking to make a deadline trade to bring back a player of value. However, it should be noted that the Nuggets front office has been extremely tight-lipped about their thinking over the last 18 months or so so any trade rumors should be taken with a grain of salt.