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Five questions the Denver Nuggets hope to answer by the end of the pre-season

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From defensive woes to a nine-man rotation

NBA: Denver Nuggets-Media Day Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

How well do Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap fit together?

Denver Nuggets President of Basketball Operations, Tim Connelly has said that he thinks Paul Millsap is the perfect compliment to Nikola Jokic and has been one-of-if-not-thee best players on the Denver Nuggets’ radar for the last couple of seasons. It’s not hard to see why. Having two extremely unselfish, talented, and high-IQ players in the front court opens up a world of possibilities for a roster. The 2001-02 Sacramento Kings, who won 60 games and were one of the most entertaining teams in NBA history, were anchored by two skilled front court play-makers in the 7-foot Serbian, Vlade Divac, and the 6’ 9” Chris Webber. Both players were unicorns of their day and their incredible passing ability made them an offensive juggernaut.

The Denver Nuggets appear to have two players cut from the same cloth. Millsap’s game isn’t as flashy as Webber’s but he’s got such a well-rounded game that you can play through him from nearly any spot on the floor. Jokic is flashier than Divac and even more capable of running the show on the offensive end. Together, the Nuggets appear to enter the 2017-18 NBA season as favorites in the most unique and entertaining style of play competition.

But what if the two don’t mesh? What if it takes weeks or even months for them to get on the same page? It isn’t a likely concern and I doubt Michael Malone and the coaching staff are losing sleep worrying about it but the extent to which those two mesh right out of the gate is likely going to be the biggest and most important storyline of the month ahead. If they mesh perfectly, the Nuggets will probably get off to a very hot start. If it takes time, the Nugges could have a pressure-filled month of November.

Is the defense new and improved?

It’s sort of impressive that the Nuggets were the second worst defensive team in the league last season when you look at the teams that ranked ahead of them. The Phoenix Suns had paired hobbled veterans with incredibly raw rookies while trying to race to the bottom of the league’s standings and still managed to outperform Denver on the defensive end. The same is true of the Sacramento Kings, New York Knicks, and Brooklyn Nets.

The argument for Denver improving defensively is pretty straight-forward. They added an all-defensive talent in Millsap and many of their core players should see individual improvement by sheer age and experience. The arguments against the team improving on defense are much more numerous.

Denver Nuggets defensive statistics, per Synergy
Synergy

A quick look at their defensive rankings on Synergy and you can see that they weren’t just bad in any one area, they were bad all around. So it’s difficult to point to any one thing that has to improve and I don’t think that a simple change to their pick-and-roll scheme is going to cover all of their mistakes. Much has been made about Jokic’s poor rim protection but elite individual rim protection is the second line of defense and Denver broke down defensively from every spot on the floor. Guys like Rudy Gobert and Joel Embiid can turn a bad defensive team into a good one. Few other individuals can. Even Jusuf Nurkic saw his rim protection metrics go through the roof after being traded away from Denver while Mason Plumlee saw his defensive metrics plummet once he arrived.

However, there are two things that stood out last season on the defensive end and both are highlighted quite nicely in this one clip against the Dallas Mavericks: containing dribble penetration, and crisp rotations. The first part is where so many defensive possessions begin. The Nuggets just didn’t have many perimeter players that could closeout on shooters and/or keep drivers in front of them. Gary Harris has the reputation as Denver’s defensive ace but he was especially bad last season at closing out and containing the drive.

Every team struggles with this to some degree. NBA players are incredibly talented and perfect offense beats perfect defense in a one-on-one match-up. But Denver failed to contain the ball nearly every time down the court. That lack of containment led directly to confused and sluggish helpside rotations. Just watch how slow Mason Plumlee is to rotate out of the paint to stop the drive after Harris gets blown by on the closeout. He should meet the ball to the outside of the lower block but instead allows the ball-handler to side step him deep into the paint. Juancho Hernangomez rotates over to “sink” on Plumlee’s man but he is late to anticipate both the sink and the ensuing kick-out for the wide open three.

There are many other times where the defense gets confused about who is supposed to closeout on the shooter and either two defenders will get caught running at the same guy or worse, both get caught expecting the other guy to. Often times, as is the case with the video below, the team would make the same mistakes in the same game against the same action in the same half!

Denver doesn’t have to be a top 10 defense this year. They finished one game shy of the playoffs last year with the 2nd worst defense so even a marginal upgrade will probably get them into the playoffs. But the big question will be how much can a team improve in one offseason when they have so far to go?

Did anyone make a leap this offseason?

It’s nearly impossible to project the offseason improvement of an NBA player. More often than not analysts assume standard-level improvement for every player under the age of 25 that says if they were X good last season, they will be X+1 good this season. In reality, player improvement isn’t always so linear. Some guys spend two or three years making tiny, incremental progress until one day everything clicks and they make a huge leap forward. Other guys make giant leaps one season and then tail off. Everybody is different and for a team like the Nuggets who are relying very heavily on the growth and development of their youth, their entire season may very well depend on guys showing huge improvements right out of the gate.

Murray is the heavy favorite for young-player-to-have-a-breakout-season for the Nuggets this year. As a rookie, his raw stats and efficiency improved every month after November. He missed a ton of wide open shots last season as many great shooters do their first year adjusting to the NBA’s three-point line. He also played through a sports hernia that has fully healed. Early reports out of pre-camp were that Murray was the biggest surprise in team pick-up games. A healthy, more experienced, and more comfortable Murray is almost certain to look like a completely different player in year two.

Jamal Murray stats month-by-month
basketball-reference.com

Juancho merely got his feet wet in the NBA last season but when he played, he looked great. He looked especially great in the few minutes he played alongside Jokic albeit on a sample size way too small to draw any meaningful conclusions. The small forward spot is a question mark for the team this season since only Wilson Chandler has lots of NBA experience playing that spot. Juancho making a leap is almost as important this season as Murray making a leap but I think he’s likely more in line for incrimental improvement, not a true leap.

Harris is the poster child for offseason improvement. He followed up a fairly disappointing rookie season with a very promising sophomore season in which he went from an end of bench player to the starting shooting guard. In year three, after it appeared his major leap had already occurred, Harris took his game to whole new heights, raising nearly every part of his game on the offensive end. For two straight year’s I’ve doubted his ability to keep improving and two straight years he’s proven me wrong. Once again, I doubt that there is much further for him to go before he reaches his ceiling but if he can add some play-making off of the dribble and become the on-ball stopper the team needs him to be, he’ll prove me wrong once again.

Trey Lyles will be competing with Juancho for playing time as a combo forward. It’s possible that Denver will elect to play those two together, especially if Kenneth Faried is traded or out of the rotation but the more likely outcome is that both guys are fighting for the same job. Juancho gets the upper hand thanks to his style meshing so well with players like Jokic and (likely) Millsap who are great at finding guys who know how to move off ball. Lyles is still young enough that we don’t actually know what he can and can’t become but in Utah he was a bit more comfortable with the ball in his hands than Juancho is and a bit less comfortable being useful off-ball. But Lyles also looks as thin as he has in his career thus far and a change of scenery might be exactly what he needed to make a leap.

Barton isn’t included in the “young guys” conversation too often since he’ll turn 27 in January but he’s young enough that a leap isn’t out of the question, especially considering that he’s only been a rotation piece in the NBA for two and a half season. Last season his three-point shot improved from 34.5% to 37% and his assists went up from 2.5 per game to 3.4 per game. Another leap is unlikely but isn’t out of the question.

Mudiay is the biggest mystery on the roster. There are three point guards on the roster and room for only two. After investing the better part of the last two seasons in Mudiay’s development and not seeing promising results, Mudiay will have his work cut out for him if he wants to earn back the trust of the Nuggets coaching staff. He has the raw talent to make as big a leap as anyone on the team. But at this point, his ceiling appears to be much more theoretical than practical.

We still don’t know a lot about Malik Beasley since we haven’t seen him play very much but with the back court fairly crowded, it’s hard to see where he fits in. He may have a breakout season, but it will require a really impressive camp to climb ahead of Barton, Harris, or Juancho in the rotation.

Lastly there is Jokic who had a historic statistical season last year. Joker’s big leap almost certainly came between his first and second season but it’s at least worth asking if he’s in line for marginal improvements or if he has one big leap left in him. To that point, what would a big leap for Jokic even look like? He already had one of the most efficient scoring seasons in the league last year while being one of the most creative passers. Maybe he turns into a top defender? Maybe he scores 25 points per game? It’s hard to imagine either of those scenarios playing out after one offseason but he is only 22 years old. Maybe it’s crazier to think he won’t improve dramatically.

Who is the starting point guard?

This was alluded to above but the starting point guard spot is up for grabs and it isn’t crazy to think that any of the three candidates could earn the job. It’s also worth wondering how coach Malone will handle the starting job in the preseason. If he feels that Murray has outperformed the competition in training camp, will he start every preseason game? Will he give all three guys a chance to play with the starting unit and all three a chance to play with the reserves? Is his decision based more off of fit or more off of who he thinks is the better player? It’s a tough questions but this decision could shape the Nuggets for years to come.

What will the rotation be?

In addition to the point guard battle and the Lyles/Juancho battle, there are question marks with the general rotation and flow of Malone’s substitution patterns. Jokic played 32 or more minutes just 25 times last season. I imagine he’ll play that many or more in every game he avoids foul trouble. Same goes for Millsap. At media day, Malone said that he wants a 9-man rotation and mentioned Barton and Plumlee as two of the guys he wants coming off of the bench. So after Malone decides on which nine guys are his core guys, he has to figure out how they all piece together.

He also has to decide how much he wants to play small. The Nuggets have a plethora of power forwards but some of their best lineups will likely feature some combination of Chandler, Juancho, and Lyles at the three and the four. It’s going to be another tough balancing act for Malone but he appears more resolute in his decision to tighten up the rotation. Last year at this time there was a lot of “tinkering,” as he put it. This year, he seems to be less interested in that. I think we’ll all have a better idea of what this team will look like by opening night, much more than we did last season where the first six weeks were all about experimentation.