The Denver Nuggets project to be a winning team for the first time in five seasons. After losing Andre Iguodala and Danilo Gallinari before the start of the 2013-14 season, the Nuggets lost one of their big advantages over teams from the previous year: versatile wings and forwards (Wilson Chandler included). Having a distinct advantage is usually what makes a team special from year to year. The Golden State Warriors have the best shooting in the NBA. The San Antonio Spurs have the best coach in the NBA. The Houston Rockets have the best duo of best pick and roll ball handlers in the NBA.
The Nuggets can add themselves to that group: they have the best collection of front court talent in the entire NBA.
Sounds hyperbolic, right? Let me explain.
The Nuggets just added Paul Millsap, one of the best power forwards in the entire NBA. They also employ Nikola Jokic, one of the best centers in the NBA, and Wilson Chandler, an average starter at small forward today. With these three guys, along with a strong bench group, the Nuggets’ front court stacks up well in overall talent against every team.
Here are some potential competitors for the title:
Small Forwards: E’Twaun Moore, Tony Allen, Jalen Jones
Power Forwards: Anthony Davis, Cheick Diallo, Perry Jones
Centers: DeMarcus Cousins, Alexis Ajinca, Omer Asik
The Pelicans are carried by two star players: Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. Both guys are special players, with Davis being the more valuable of the two. Unfortunately, there is nobody else around the duo. Solomon Hill was just lost for the year to injury, and the depth at small forward is putrid. Tony Allen was signed to mitigate some of the loss, but him and E’Twaun Moore aren’t in the top 30 among small forwards in today’s NBA.
Compounding that, the Pelicans have nobody behind Davis or Cousins. Dante Cunningham remains unsigned and may not return, and the aforementioned Hill isn’t available to play a small ball power forward role. That means Cheick Diallo and Alexis Ajinca are the likely backups behind the star duo, and while each guy has his strengths, there’s nothing to write home about. The lack of depth in New Orleans hurts the case for the Pelicans in this debate.
*Edit: Pelicans re-sign Dante Cunningham to a one-year deal.
Cunningham has agreed to a one-year, $2.3M deal with New Orleans, league sources tell The Vertical. https://t.co/C9BF6n6hBE— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) September 19, 2017
Small Forwards: LeBron James, Jae Crowder, Richard Jefferson, Iman Shumpert, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman
Power Forwards: Kevin Love, Channing Frye
Centers: Tristan Thompson, Edy Taveres, Ante Zizic
This group has a surprising amount of depth now that the “Isaiah Thomas trade” has gone through. With the best player on the planet in LeBron James and an all-star in Kevin Love, the Cavs have excellent star power. The difference is they also have depth. Jae Crowder and Tristan Thompson are excellent tertiary options in any front court, while Channing Frye is a reasonable depth option.
This is probably the toughest sell. The top five in James, Love, Thompson, Crowder, and Frye are all great at their respective spots, while the potential is solid with Cedi Osman and Ante Zizic. The biggest problem here is the need for small ball, and the only above average defenders among this group are LeBron and Crowder. In order to play good defense, Love either needs to play center (which may mitigate defensive improvement anyway) or be taken off the floor. That hurts their standing ever so slightly.
Small Forwards: Danilo Gallinari, Sam Dekker, Wesley Johnson
Power Forwards: Blake Griffin, Montrezl Harrell, Brice Johnson
Centers: DeAndre Jordan, Willie Reed
The Clippers also have an excellent group. Danilo Gallinari, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan might be one of the best trios from a talent standpoint, as each guy can have a large impact on the game. Griffin may post some triple doubles this year, while Gallo can go for 30 at any time and Jordan is still the defensive-minded rebounding savant. The depth, while good, is reasonably unproven. Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell both came from Houston in the Chris Paul trade, and both were effective in their limited playing time. Willie Reed is a reasonable backup as well.
The problems will be health related. Griffin has averaged 54.3 games played over the last three seasons, while Gallinari has averaged 58.3 games played. That doesn’t include an entire missed season for Gallo four years ago. If both of those two guys stay healthy, this is a formidable front court based on talent alone; however, it just doesn’t look likely based on recent history that they will do that. Dekker looks like a reasonable replacement in the starting lineup for both guys, but he remains unproven.
San Antonio Spurs
Small Forwards: Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Anderson, Davis Bertans
Power Forwards: LaMarcus Aldridge, Rudy Gay
Centers: Pau Gasol, Joffrey Lauvergne
When talking about the Spurs, the conversation always starts with Kawhi Leonard. The man is a machine, putting up heavy scoring numbers this year while adding to his already not-of-this-world defense. He’s a top 5 player, guaranteed. LaMarcus Aldridge used to hold high standing, but he wasn’t as efficient last season or as effective defensively. Still, he’s a top 10 power forward. Pau Gasol remains an average starting center, despite his age.
The problem: we have no idea what their bench is going to look like. Rudy Gay was brought in to add some scoring, but he’s coming off of an achilles tear. Kyle Anderson and Davis Bertans are advanced stats positives, but neither has been asked to shoulder a major bench role before. Joffrey Lauvergne is not good at basketball either. There’s more uncertainty here than in years past, and it prevents the Spurs from being a top front court anymore.
Golden State Warriors
Small Forwards: Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, Omri Casspi
Power Forwards: Draymond Green, Jordan Bell, Kevon Looney
Centers: Zaza Pachulia, David West, JaVale McGee, Damian Jones
The Warriors are just unfair. On top of having two of the best, most versatile players in the entire NBA Kevin Durant and Draymond Green), they have Andre Iguodala coming off the bench. Those three are likely to play the most minutes this year, and given Draymond’s ability to slide to center, there should be no issues. The centers each have their own strengths: Zaza is a nice passer, West is a good pick and pop player, and JaVale is an excellent rim runner. None of the three are great overall, but they don’t need to be. Oh, and they just signed Omri Casspi (one of my favorite wings) and drafted Jordan Bell (one of my favorite prospects).
The biggest hole here is obviously the talent at center. When going against teams with great offensive centers, the Warriors struggle to contain those guys. That could be the only thing that pushes them down.
Obviously, all five of those front courts are excellent in their own ways. Star power, depth, and versatility are usually the keys to success. Here’s why the Nuggets might be the best of all of them:
Small Forwards: Wilson Chandler, Will Barton, Juancho Hernangomez
Power Forwards: Paul Millsap, Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur, Trey Lyles, Tyler Lydon
Centers: Nikola Jokic, Mason Plumlee
This group has star power, depth, and versatility. Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap are Denver’s star tandem, practically a perfect fit with each other. Other star tandems may have more star power/talent collectively, but none are as likely to mesh as well together, except possibly Durant/Draymond.
The depth and versatility separate them though. They can play straight up with their starters. They can play small with Will Barton at the 3. They can play big with Juancho Hernangomez at the 3. They can match up at the big man positions with Kenneth Faried or Mason Plumlee, or they could play smaller with one of their small forwards at power forward. They can move Millsap to the 5 for a faster paced center, or they can move Mason Plumlee to the 4 to deal with bigger power forwards on occasion.
Can these other front courts come in over the top of the Nuggets? Sure. Both the Warriors and the Cavaliers have excellent groups, and that helps to make them championship contenders. They each have flaws though, just like the Nuggets do. The small forward position for Denver isn’t a strength; it’s merely passable. Still, the center position for each of the above teams is merely passable as well. Denver has the best center rotation in the NBA, and they paid a premium for it by signing Plumlee to an above-market contract. They have one of the strongest power forward rotations as well.
Is that enough to make Denver the top front court? Time will tell this season.
Where does the Nuggets front court rank in today’s NBA?
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