There are so many opinions about the Nuggets, sometimes it’s hard to get all of them published. Occasionally, when the Denver Stiffs writers get bored with their families over the holidays, they get online and chat with each other about the finer things in life - pre-wrapped cheeses, Hawaiian rolls, the next Deadpool movie, and of course the Denver Nuggets. Here’s a transcript of one of their latest chats.
Daniel Lewis (@minutemandan): Ryan, Evan, it’s the holiday season, and the best way to spread Nuggets cheer is singing loud about Nikola Jokić for all to hear. The Nuggets are having a good season - not great, not bad - but a good season. I want to kick off this conversation with us assigning some grades - first to the players, second to the coaches, and third to the franchise/front office. What grades are you going to give to those folks?
Ryan Blackburn (@NBABlackburn): The holidays! I'm a big fan of the holiday season, seeing as it’s the biggest chunk of time when I come back to Colorado and can catch some games live.
For the players, I give them a B-plus. It’s hard to overcome the injuries that they have overcome so far. With Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic out, different parties have stepped up. Gary Harris is a different player, Jamal Murray has recovered from an extended shooting slump, and Trey Lyles is my new favorite Nugget because of what he does and doesn’t do (i.e. turn the ball over).
For the coaches, a C-plus. Michael Malone and company have done a solid job of development, and every time they take a bad loss, the team has always bounced back. A huge part of this is learning and adjusting on the fly, and Malone’s staff has done well there. Where they lose points is in-game execution, as there are only so many times the players can take the blame for a collapse because the play calls don’t work.
For the front office, a B-minus. Tim Connelly identified Trey Lyles and Torrey Craig as players he had faith in. Those players have done well. He also signed Paul Millsap, which still counts as a positive since Millsap’s injured wrist is the first major injury of his pro career. He missed on some moves, like not being able to trade up for OG Anunoby after trading down, something the Nuggets tried to do. He also let Danilo Gallinari and Jameer Nelson go for nothing, a troubling trend over his tenure.
Evan Fiala (@eefiala): Happy Holidays! The players get a B from me. One of the silver linings of the Millsap/Jokic injuries has been the opportunity for Denver to showcase its depth. As expected, guys like Harris and Murray have stepped up - but we’ve seen Trey Lyles, Mason Plumlee and now Torrey Craig make the most of their extended minutes. At the same time, we’ve seen other players fall out of the rotation. Kenneth Faried comes to mind, as well as Juancho Hernangomez. Emmanuel Mudiay hasn’t improved and Wilson Chandler looks like a shell of his former self. But overall, the Nuggets have played well with what they’ve got.
Coaching has been hot and cold for me. Malone has improved his rotations but many questions still remain. Where is the elite offense of yester-year? The team has improved, but it’s hard to pinpoint if that’s a result of Malone or just of guys getting older (though Malone should get some credit for that). I give coaching a C for now.
Ownership/Front Office gets a C as well, if only because it’s hard to tell what the actual direction is. Letting Chris Finch go was bad. Plumlee’s deal hurts the cap sheet. The team is in dire need of a solid point guard, and Jameer Nelson would have fit the bill. But they did nab Paul Millsap, and Lyles’s improved play has softened the blow of draft night. In my opinion, how they handle the upcoming trade season could make or break this front office’s legacy.
Blackburn: Evan brings up a good point about the front office. This team is playing both sides of the game in developing players and trying to win games. Very rarely do championship teams develop by playing both approaches at the same time. The Golden State Warriors committed to development and then signed a top 5 player in free agency. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Miami Heat had LeBron James. The San Antonio Spurs had veteran-laden rosters plus Kawhi Leonard. The Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers had a ton of veterans plus Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant.
Lewis: Ryan, I agree that the Warriors developed talent, but they had gone to two Finals in a row before they signed Durant. It’s not like they committed to development, were okay, then added Durant. They were pretty dang good and then got way better.
I’ll give the players a B minus as well. Injuries to Jokić and Millsap haven’t helped, but we’ve seen players like Harris, Lyles, Plumlee, and Murray improve since last season. On the other hand, Faried has been a malcontent and still hasn’t improved defensively his entire career, Mudiay has barely improved in any area, and Chandler has been a shell of his former self. Those last three guys have shown they aren’t part of the Nuggets future.
I’ll give the coaches a D. I know it’s harsh, but they’ve done a poor job integrating Millsap into the offense, teaching defensive fundamentals, and recovering from player injuries. The coaching staff is incapable of executing in crunch time, and routinely scheme poor out of timeout plays. Coaches should be putting their players in the best position to succeed, and I don’t see that happen often.
I’m also going to give the franchise/front office a C minus. They’ve done a good job celebrating their 50+ years, retiring jerseys and bringing fans back to the arena. They had wins with Millsap and Harris in free agency. However ...
The losses are monumental. They made a laughably bad trade with Utah, doing the Jazz a favor by taking Trey Lyles, who wasn’t in their rotation, for the No. 13. Then they drafted Tyler Lydon, who will at best be a third power forward on a playoff team, over other players that would actually play in the rotation over the next four years. Missing on a rotation player in the last year before their young core begins receiving extensions is likely going to be the difference between the team being a championship contender and a team that just makes the first round of the playoffs. They sold the farm for Plumlee, compounding the awful contract they gave to Faried that doesn’t expire until the end of the 2018-19 season and makes him worthless on the trade market. They waived Jameer Nelson instead of moving Mudiay while he had value. They were “so close” on multiple trades, and then left without a backup plan when those moves fell through. They will likely have to include another future first round pick to shed Faried’s contract before the All-Star break or free agency so they can avoid the luxury tax when they try to extend Jokić. There’s a path to getting a passing grade but they have a lot of extra credit they’re going to need to do. Evan, what say ye?
Fiala: The front office has a lot of work to do, and depending on the moves made or not made this season it could really set Denver up to succeed in the next few years or hamper the team completely. Again, this comes back to whether they are all in on winning now or trying to develop talent - having one foot in both camps could be costly. Do they try and get anything in return for Wilson Chandler or Will Barton now and risk letting them walk, or worse, having Chandler opt in next year? Can they make the playoffs without those two, and are they willing to risk that? Are they going to be able to shed Faried's and DA's contracts? And will anything get done about the point guard situation? I'm not sold on Murray leading this team on a playoff run as of yet, and I wouldn't touch Mudiay with a 39-and-a-half foot pole at this point... all of this is compounded by the dead weight of some of these contracts and the looming Jokic extension that needs to happen. Ideally they will clear the cap sheet and bring in a backup point guard along with Torrey Craig if he continues to play well - but to get there will not be easy. They really don't have a lot of leverage at this point and Denver's track record of making/not making these kinds of moves isn't the best. How should they go forward, Ryan?
Blackburn: Well, I think they have some options, some more likely than others, to clear up the roster and make the situation optimal. The first part starts with clearing some cap room.
I’m in the camp that doesn’t think Mason Plumlee is entirely useless at his current salary. As we saw when Nikola Jokic went out for seven games, Plumlee stepped up his game and played like a starter, helping Denver stay afloat. He doesn’t help their top end ceiling as a team, but he does raise their floor significantly. He shouldn’t be thrown away for that specific reason.
The other large contracts on the roster - Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur, and Wilson Chandler - will need to be shed at some point in order for the Nuggets to raise the team’s collective ceiling. If the Nuggets want to be a free agent destination next year, then they must find a way to clear contracts. If they want to go the other way, then they must sell assets that aren’t in the long term plan. Eventually, they need to jump on one of these star trades to bring in a player that raises the ceiling of the team. If Jamal Murray can’t be a top 10 point guard, then do your best to acquire a top 10 point guard via trade. If Gary Harris never becomes a top 5 shooting guard, then find somebody who can be.
Above all, the Nuggets must figure out the small forward position though. They have enough power forwards to survive long term. What they don’t have is a long term answer at small forward who can consistently impact the game in a positive way on both ends. Is Wilson Chandler that guy? Not anymore. Is Torrey Craig that guy? Probably not. Will Barton and Malik Beasley are too small. Juancho Hernangomez isn’t as quick and skilled as he would need to be. The answer, in my opinion, isn’t currently on Denver’s roster, so they need to do what they can to find that guy long term.
Go hard after LeBron James. Go hard after Paul George. Maybe save your ammunition for Jimmy Butler in 2019 free agency. Make a trade to move up in the draft and grab the best big wing prospect possible. Those are the only ways I see Denver ever expanding their ceiling. That and Nikola Jokic moving from a top 20 to a top 10 or top 5 player would be nice.
Lewis: One of the most discouraging things about the Nuggets this season has been the production from the small forward position. Wilson Chandler just hasn't been able to get it done, that's for sure. Hard to blame Juancho Hernangomez for struggling as he's been trying to come back from mono so far. Ryan gets more excited about Plumlee minutes than the kid on Christmas that got the Nintendo he'd been wishing for, it's equally adorable and concerning.
I want to shift the conversation a little bit - what record do the Nuggets need to have at the All-Star break for you to feel comfortable that they're going to make the playoffs?
Blackburn: I'm excited when Plumlee does well. He didn't deserve that contract, but it's not his fault the Nuggets mismanaged the situation.
As for the Nuggets’ record, the Nuggets play 29 games until the All-Star break during the middle of February, and while the beginning and end of those stretches is pretty tough, the middle is relatively easy. On initial run-through, I can see the Nuggets going around 16-13 or 17-12 during that stretch.
Unfortunately for them, there are two segments of games that will be difficult after the All-Star break: a seven game stretch in late February/early March, and the last ten games of the season. Combined, those 17 games feature 14 against likely playoff opponents, and if I were Denver, I’d be trying to make as much headway as possible before that.
So, if I were the Nuggets, I would shoot for 16-13 over the next 29 games, putting Denver at 32-27 going into the All-Star break. Last year at the All-Star break, the Oklahoma City Thunder went 32-25 and went on to win 47 games and earn a 6 seed. If Denver is shooting for a 6 seed or higher (to make sure they aren't in a late season fight for their playoff lives again), then they must win at least 32 games before the All-Star break.
Do you guys agree?
Fiala: I agree that 32 wins would put them in a good place to definitely make the playoffs. I think in reality Denver will be closer to .500 though, which scares me given how tight the rest of the Western Conference is shaping up. The Nuggets definitely need to make the most of that stretch of schedule, win the winnable games and maybe steal a game or two at some point as well. Hopefully Paul Millsap will be back around the All-Star break to help bolster the group for the last part of the season and solidify the playoff positioning.
Lewis: I think the game against Minnesota last week was the first game where I really noticed that they missed Paul Millsap. Jokic didn't come back fully healthy in my opinion, and looked really rusty for having missed just a few games. With how much their defense is beginning to struggle as some players deal with the fatigue of the regular reason, I agree more with Evan that they'll likely be a 500 team at the All-Star break. That doesn't make me feel comfortable that they'll make the playoffs, but I also don't think they'll have as much competition as they did last season for one of those final spots. The Jazz will slow down once Donovan Mitchell hits a rookie wall, the Pelicans defense is as porous as the Nuggets defense, and the rest of the Western Conference is a real pile of garbage after that. The Nuggets have been playing well enough at home to make the playoffs, although I don't project them as a 5 or 6-seed like I did before the season began.
My final question for this is going to be a real doozy. We've seen how good the team has looked with Nikola Jokic. Can the Nuggets ever be championship contenders with Jokic as their starting center? What do they need to do to get there? And here's the big question - if it doesn't look like they can get there with Jokic, should they trade him when his value is at it's highest?
Fiala: Do you want coal in your stocking, Dan? (Editor’s note - Dan did not get coal in his stocking) The Nuggets can absolutely be a championship contender with Jokic at center. But getting there depends on two things - Jokic's own development and the players surrounding him. As we've seen this season, Jokic hasn't quite reached the level where he dominates night in and night out. He always does a lot of little things right, but the Nuggets are at their best when he looks to score just as much as he looks to get his teammates involved. Sometimes he is too selfless for his own good (like against Minnesota last Wednesday) but when he couples that selflessness with aggression and looks to score (like against Portland) he can be unstoppable. For the Nuggets to be championship contenders, Jokic has to take his game to the next level and play like that every single night, not just when he wants to.
The other part of the puzzle is to place guys around Jokic who maximize his strengths and make up for his weaknesses. Gary Harris is a good example, because Harris' ability to cut and shoot catch and shoot threes plays perfectly into Jokic's ability to distribute the basketball. Paul Millsap has been a godsend on the defensive end. But where Jokic really needs help is at the point guard. The Nuggets have made it clear they are putting most of their eggs in Jamal Murray's basket, which for now is fine. Murray is a great scorer, but he struggles with some point guard duties like feeding Jokic in the post. Can the Nuggets be championship contenders with a Murray/Harris backcourt? Who will replace Millsap down the road as Denver's defensive stalwart? These are questions that more seriously need to be looked at when considering Denver's hopeful trajectory to a title, not whether Jokic should be traded.
Blackburn: The fact that the Nuggets have shown the capacity to be a top tier offense as well as an average defensive at a different time should at least provide some confidence that both can be accomplished at the same time. Potential for individual players is all about what they have shown so far and if that will carry forward, and I think teams are the same way. Before Millsap went down, the Nuggets were 6th in offensive rating and 17th in defensive rating. I have a feeling that both numbers would trend in an upward direction as Millsap and Jokic grew more comfortable together. Obviously, Denver will have to find a Millsap replacement down the line, but it's nice to see the capacity for success, even if it was short lived. It will take some shrewd moves from the front office and good scheming from the coaching staff to help Jokic excel with some of his deficiencies, but they've gone toe to toe with Golden State and won before, defeated the Cavaliers and Celtics in the same year, finally beat Oklahoma City this year. There are signs that the team is ready to break out, and I don't think we can assume a cap on their ceiling until they get the opportunity to prove themselves. As Evan said, Jamal Murray is the key. He could turn into Stephen Curry or Lou Williams or even J.R. Smith at this point. Depending on how he turns out, the Nuggets will have their ceiling change with Jokic. For now, it's just a waiting game.
Lewis: I do think that the Nuggets can be championship contenders with Jokic at center for them. In order to get there, I think the biggest question is what Jokic is going to be able to do. One of the great things about LeBron James is his consistency, his ability to perform at a high level every game. Jokic will need to continue to improve his conditioning, maximizing what his body can do for him. They'll need their guards, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris, to be playing at a very high level, both offensively and defensively. It doesn't look like they have a single player on their team at the wing that will be able to help improve them to a championship contender level. Will Barton's contract expires at the end of this season, Wilson Chandler looks like his injuries have caught up to him, and Torrey Craig is on a two-way contract.
As for trading Jokic, I think the Nuggets have to say no to every single trade offer that comes their way - barring the Rockets or Bucks calling to exchange their franchise player for Jokic. It would send a bad message to the team if they moved Jokic, and the Nuggets should try to be as good of a team as possible with Jokic while they still have him. I think we'll be able to see Jokic play in Denver for a long, long time.