The Nuggets had a decent season last year, outperforming Vegas' expectation by 4.5 games. Although the team missed the playoffs for the 3rd straight year, the team took a step forward for the first time since 2013. Michael Malone helped change the culture and vibe around Pepsi Center, rookies Nikola Jokic and Emmaneul Mudiay made leaps throughout the season, and the roster continued to take shape around guys like Danilo Gallinari, Gary Harris, and Kenneth Faried.
There were plenty of bumps along the way. The team suffered a few embarrassing losses to bad teams like the Lakers, Suns, and Nets, and even went on an eight-game losing streak in late November. But it was clear to anyone that followed the team in the years before last season that the Nuggets had turned a corner and have begun building something exciting around a mixture of young talents and quality veterans. In the off-season, the Nuggets added a few rookies and lost a few bench players to trades and free agency but for the most part, the team's roster next season will be very similar to what it was last year.
However, don't expect the same 33-win result. The Nuggets are in great position to make a leap next year and continue to climb the standings. Here are five reasons why the team should improve.
They know who they are
Coming into the 2015-16 season, there were a lot of question marks around the team. New coach, new rookie point guard, and an entirely new system. This season, the team has as much continuity as any team in the NBA. The top seven leaders in total minutes played last season are all returning. Unlike last season, when Emmanuel Mudiay was thrown into the starting lineup without any NBA experience, the new additions to the roster will all be bench players who will enter the season with no pressure to perform.
There are still question marks - like how will Jokic handle a more prominent role and heavier minutes? But for the most part, the Nuggets will enter training camp with a fairly good idea of who they are and what the roster's strengths and weaknesses are. Coach Malone and his staff entered the offseason with a good idea of who can do what which will allow them to tailor offensive and defensive schemes to their personnel. There will be healthy competition for minutes in the rotation but the starting five of Mudiay, Harris, Gallo, Faried, and Jokic is probably pretty set in stone.
They can’t shoot much worse
Last season the Nuggets ranked 26th in the NBA in 3FG%. They also ranked 26th in 3FG% on "wide open" shots, according to SportVu, and 26th in 3FG% from the corners. By nearly every metric, the Nuggets were not a very good shooting team last season. Fortunately, there are three reasons to believe that the Nuggets should improve their three-point shooting this season.
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First, they drafted two shooters who should play a fair amount of minutes at shooting guard. As a freshmen in college, Jamal Murray shot a scorching 40.8% from behind the arc, good for 3rd in the SEC. He also made a total of 113 three-pointers, good for 1st in the SEC and 8th in all of NCAA. He’ll likely play the most minutes of any Nuggets rookie this season and when he is in the game, his primary role will be to shoot the ball.
The Nuggets also added Malik Beasley who shot 38% from behind the arc as a freshmen in college, and Juancho Hernangomez who shot 35.8% from behind the arc in his final year with Estudiantes. Both of those two guys will probably get very limited minutes this season but when they are in the game, they will both be threats to shoot and score from deep.
The second reason that the Nuggets should improve from behind the arc is the individual player development from guys like Nikola Jokic, Emmanuel Mudiay, and Gary Harris. Jokic shot 33% from three last season, a respectable mark for a center. But early in the season it looked like Jokic was uncertain of himself from that range and didn’t have the confidence to take that shot on a regular basis. While he’s still more valuable inside the paint than he is outside the perimeter, having the green light to take wide open three-pointers will help extend the defense and make the Nuggets offense much more dynamic.
Mudiay and Harris are also poised to shoot better from behind the arc as they enter their 2nd and 3rd NBA seasons, respectively. Harris improved his 3FG% by 14% between his rookie and sophomore season. Such a huge leap is virtually impossible in year three but it’s likely that he’ll creep up closer to 40% this season.
Lastly, the return of Wilson Chandler gives the Nuggets one more perimeter threat on the roster. More on him below.
A healthy, slim, and motivated Jusuf Nurkic
Last season was a bit of a step back for Nurkic. It began with his slower-than-expected recovery from a knee injury and continued throughout the year as he struggled to break into Malone’s rotation. 19 times last season he was listed as "active" but did not play. Much of that is due to the team being extra cautious with him after injury but some of it was just plain ol’ coaches decision.
This season, Nurkic is looking more slim and mobile than ever before. He’s reportedly lost 30 lbs and should be completely healthy by the start of training camp. The Nuggets traded away Joffrey Lauvergne, opening up more minutes for Nurkic and signaling that they see him as a large part of their future. He’ll be relied upon for 20+ minutes per night and will likely play crunch time minutes somewhat regularly.
Head coach Michael Malone even flew to Europe to watch Nurk play for the Bosnian team, a huge display of support and belief in the 7-footer. These type of gestures are indicative of the team’s belief in Nurkic and will hopefully propel him to make big strides this season as both a rim protector and as an all-around player.
They were much better in March than they were in November
Fun fact: JJ Hickson started eight games for the Denver Nuggets last November.
Despite only winning 33 games last year, the 2015-16 season has to be looked at as something of a success. EVERY SINGLE ONE of the team’s young players looked better in March than they did in November. Jokic broke into the starting lineup and became one of the most coveted young players in the league. Mudiay, who struggled with turnovers and FG% early in the season, had his best full month in both categories in March.
The team also put together a 9-8 record in March, their only month with a winning record last season. For a team last season that didn’t have a realistic chance at making the playoffs, the Nuggets did what was most important for them to do: improve. Last season the team won 33 games. This season, the team should be much closer to 40 wins. With a little bit of luck, playoff basketball might even return to the Mile High City next April.
The return of Wilson Chandler
I’ve been pretty vocal about my thoughts on Wilson Chandler. In short, he’s my favorite type of player. At 6’8" tall, Chandler has the size to guard power forwards and the quickness and footwork to contain point guards without getting embarrassed. He’s equally as versatile on offense, able to stretch the defense with a reliable three-point shot and a high basketball IQ about things like creating spacing on the weakside, even when he is not directly involved on the play. He’s also a terrific off-ball cutter. The thought of Chandler and Harris throwing down vicious dunks off of passes from Jokic at the elbow should get every Nuggets fan excited.
Chandler’s versatile skillset helps him fit on any roster or lineup that values smart playmaking and balance. In a preseason game last year, Chandler grabbed 19 rebounds! He’s had games with 30+ points and games where he’s hit 5+ three-pointers. Chandler isn’t a superstar talent or the type of player that will score 50 points on any given night, but he is the ideal sixth man, able to replace almost anyone in the starting lineup as needed.
Last season, the Nuggets desperately needed someone with height to guard the perimeter. Danilo Gallinari was the only reliable player 6’6" or taller that could guard wings and guards. Gary Harris is a phenomenal on-ball defender but at 6’3" he’s helpless against taller and stronger wings like Andrew Wiggins, Lebron James, and Kobe Bryant. With Chandler back in the lineup, the Nuggets can avoid lineups with undersized players like Will Barton and Randy Foye at SF.
A month back, Malone went on the Lowe Post podcast and said of the Nuggets, "we consider Wilson Chandler a free agent signing." Seeing as how Chandler is likely to play as many minutes per game as just about any non-starter on the roster, that statement isn’t far from the truth.
Chandler has had a star-crossed career to this point, as has his teammate of eight seasons, Danilo Gallinari. It’s rare that two teammates play together for eight seasons like Gallo and Chandler have. Yet sadly, the two have rarely been healthy at the same time. They were both healthy for the 2010-11 season when they helped lead the Knicks to a 28-26 record before the all-star break. And they were both healthy again in 2013 when they helped lead the Nuggets to a franchise record 57 wins.
Both guys should be fully healthy entering training camp for the first time since 2013. It also may be the final season that the two players play together, as Gallo has the option to become a free agent after next season. At just 28 and 29 years old and with fewer than 14,000 minutes on their odometers, both guys are still in the prime of their careers.
The Nuggets will be improved this season. The only question is how much better will they be? With 50 days until the Nuggets open up the season, we’re not too far from finding out.