The 2018-2019 NBA season feels just a touch more special, a touch more important to Denver Nuggets fans. After two straight years of missing the playoffs by a single game, this year finally feels like the one that Denver returns to the postseason. Everyone who the Nuggets expected to be healthy is healthy. They survived the five game preseason gauntlet without anything but a couple nicks and bruises. They haven’t made any big free agent additions, at least not ones who are going to play right away with Isaiah Thomas still on the shelf, but the Nuggets are banking on a healthy Paul Millsap and another year under the belt for Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris and Jamal Murray as enough to push them over the top. In their way stands about 10-12 Western Conference teams in what is sure to be the most difficult conference in 10 years but another team stands in their way as well: themselves. With just over 48 hours until the Nuggets regular season tips off, whether or not they have the mental focus for an 82 game season remains to be seen.
How the Nuggets approach to their opponent and whether or not they will take care of business when they need to remains the biggest question about this team’s ability to succeed. Through five games of the preseason we saw an enlightened Monte Morris, a healthy Mason Plumlee, a consistent Malik Beasley and a transformed Trey Lyles. The efforts of the second unit through the exhibition portion of the year should put rest, or at the very least lessen, concerns about Denver’s depth and whether or not some of their less heralded youth was ready to be counted on night in and not out. Morris’ play in particular is encouraging, helping iron out struggles that the Nuggets have had for several years regarding their backup point guard’s ability to maintain a cohesive offense once Jokic steps off the court. Jokic, Murray and Harris displayed serviceable, if not down right stingy, defense against the Chicago Bulls lending to the idea that the Nuggets could potentially be able to perform on that end with their young core despite not adding a dominant wing defender like so many wanted. However, perhaps the biggest issue that plagued last season could still be present: indifference.
The Nuggets worst two game stretch over this preseason was a stretch that ironically involved a pair of wins. The team, in particularly the starting unit, performed its worst over the two game span that involved beating the Los Angeles Lakers at the Staples Center and beating the Perth Wildcats at the Pepsi Center. It was Jokic who would kept the starters from being completely awful in that game against the Lakers with his efficient shooting but with neither Murray or Harris playing it was actually Morris who looked like the second best player on the court rather than regular starters Millsap and Will Barton (Barton had his worst game of the preseason). The Lakers led by nine with a little over four minutes to go in the third quarter when Denver’s starters left the game for good. An upstart bench performance led by Plumlee would end up being enough to bring Denver all the way back but the game felt more like a loss than a win. After being up to the task in game 1 against the Lakers, it felt as though Denver had lost their edge a bit grinding through a second straight game of the “LeBron to L.A.” media circus.
A trip home to the Mile High City was likely welcome but perhaps it got a little too welcome. In terms of the starters there was hands down no worse game all preseason than that home matchup with the Perth Wildcats. That is not a typo, the Denver Nuggets starters looked the worst this preseason when playing the Perth Wildcats...of the NBL in Australia. Perth. Wildcats. It was an absolute nightmare complete with Jokic committing ticky tack foul after ticky tack foul and scoring just three points. Millsap and Murray offered little help as well and though +/- can often be misleading, the fact that every starter was a negative in a game Denver led from the 10:34 mark of the first quarter on is pretty illuminating. It was as if after the starters got a double digit lead in the first they completely lost interest in playing. They certainly lost interest in defending Bryce Cotton who tore the Nuggets up for thirty-three points. The game got as close as one point after Rhys Vague hit a three pointer with just under two minutes to go in the third quarter before the Nuggets bench saved the team from an absolute embarrassment.
To their credit, Denver’s first unit came on strong in the back half of the preseason. The starters didn’t look spectacular against the Los Angeles Clippers in game four (not Boban Marjanovic spectacular at least) but Barton found his shooting stroke and the group as a whole had a better flow. Besides, it was a weird scenario with coach Michael Malone making it his bench game so the starting group played 12 straight minutes and then not again for the rest of the evening. In Denver’s final exhibition game they got the most complete performance from their starters all preseason with outstanding defense and enough offense from all the right guys to get the a victory. Had the game counted the Nuggets starters likely play an extra five minutes which could have meant Jokic in triple double territory and Harris and Murray topping 20 points a piece while potentially still holding Chicago under 100 points. Basically the perfect recipe for a Nuggets victory.
Still, getting worn out with a media circus in L.A., overlooking an NBL team, no one within the Nuggets organization will tell us whether or not those are the reasons for the back to back flat performances from the starting unit but it’s reasonable enough to infer they were at least factors. The Nuggets are right to bank on health and development as what needs to get them to the next step. They’ve set themselves up well for the long term with this roster, making snap decisions that trade away a piece or overpaying for the wrong free agent could derail their momentum but Denver has avoided that. However, heading into opening night against the Clippers the biggest threat to their success still remains: will this team be prepared mentally for the grind of an 82 game regular season?
It’s not crazy to think the Nuggets are going to lose on opening night because frankly, they’ve yet to show the answer to the previous question is yes. The starters know they have something to prove too. Gary Harris said it from the get go.
We know that we can’t drop certain games. We got (sic) to win the games we’re supposed to win. We can’t have those mental lapses like we had at points last year...it ends up haunting you at the last game of the year. - Gary Harris
The Clippers present the exact type of challenge that the Nuggets need as a game one litmus test. On paper, the Nuggets are the more talented team. In that match up Denver certainly has the best two players on the court, if not the best three or four. However, don’t sell L.A. short either. A healthy Danilo Gallinari and Tobias Harris along with Lou Williams and Patrick Beverley plus a bench that is extremely deep make the Clippers a more difficult matchup than meets the eye. With all the commotion of opening night, plus being on the road in Los Angeles, this is the exact type of game that last year’s Nuggets would have one of those mental lapses Gary was talking about.
If the Nuggets go into California on Wednesday with the mindset that it is a business trip and they take care of business then it will be a positive sign that the team is truly ready to take the next step on their development curve. However, if they overlook this sneaky Clippers team and get caught up in the bright lights of Hollywood and the opening night festivities which results in a loss, then if nothing else it should serve as a moment to pause for all Nuggets fans and check their expectations. Game one tips off in just two days and the biggest question about the Nuggets season still looms. We’re going to start getting some answers Wednesday night.
COME JOIN OUR DENVER NUGGETS WATCH PARTY
We are co-hosting a Denver Nuggets watch party with the Denver Nuggets, Budweiser, Rhein Haus, Super Mascot Rocky, and the Denver Nuggets Dancers. The Nuggets will be in Los Angeles to take on the Los Angeles Clippers and we will be at the Rhein Haus, cheering on the team, giving away tickets, Denver Nuggets merchandise, and enjoying some great drink specials.
The party starts at 7:00. The game starts at 8:30. Come meet fellow Nuggets fans and watch the first game of the season in a fun and lively atmosphere.