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Denver Nuggets season preview: the time is now

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It’s playoffs or bust for Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris, and the rest of the Denver Nuggets

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

After falling just one game short of the playoffs for the second year in a row, the Denver Nuggets 2018-19 season is all centered around one goal: get into the postseason. This young Nuggets team is hungry and ready to take the next step and get over the hump. But will their high-powered offense be enough to carry them where they want to go, or will their defensive shortcomings once again be their undoing?

Team Name: Denver Nuggets
Last Year’s Record: 46-36
Key Losses: Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur
Key Additions: Isaiah Thomas, Michael Porter Jr., Jarred Vanderbilt

1. What Significant moves were made during the offseason?

The offseason was all about continuity for the Denver Nuggets. The team re-signed Will Barton to a four-year, $54 million deal and have cleared the way for him to start at the small forward position. Barton was Denver’s multi-tool last season, starting 40 of his 81 games and playing point guard, shooting guard, and small forward along the way. In the starting lineup, Barton adds another shooter, playmaker, and scorer to an already high-powered offense.

The Nuggets also re-signed Nikola Jokic to a five-year max contact worth $148 million. The Nuggets have viewed Jokic as the centerpiece of their future for a while now, so this signing wasn’t a surprise. However, with a new contract comes new expectations and new pressures as the 23 year old Serbian is now tasked with leading his team to the playoffs for the first time since 2013.

The big surprise of the offseason was Michael Porter Jr. falling to the Nuggets in the NBA draft. Porter Jr. was projected to be a top-3 pick as recently as a year ago, but fell on draft night as word spread throughout the league that he would need a second back surgery. Denver may effectively redshirt Porter Jr., using this season to get him back to full health before letting him step onto the court.

The team also selected two players in the second round, Jarred Vanderbilt from the University of Kentucky and Thomas Welsh from UCLA. Like Porter Jr., Vanderbilt was a highly touted recruit out of high school who was projected to be a top 20 pick before a series of foot injuries derailed his draft stock. Welsh was a four-year player at UCLA and will begin his NBA career on a two-way contract.

Lastly, Isaiah Thomas has been reunited with his former coach, Michael Malone. Thomas signed a one-year, veteran minimum deal with the Nuggets in a bid to bounce back from offseason hip surgery. Originally rumored to be available for training camp, it now appears as though Thomas may not be available for a few weeks (or months) into the start of the NBA season.

2. What are the team’s biggest strengths?

There is a chance that the Nuggets will finish the season with the league’s best offense. Last season, they led the league in offensive rating in the second half of the year and the addition of Thomas off of the bench and Barton into the starting lineup only makes them more dynamic on offense. Through two preseason games, the Nuggets are averaging 118.5 points per game.

The offense is designed around the brilliant passing of Jokic. Everything that the Nuggets do revolves around him. Add sharpshooting from just about every player in the rotation besides Mason Plumlee and you get a unique, fast-paced offense that has a knack for finding open shooters and cutters. Gary Harris, Jamal Murray, and Barton are all excellent outside shooters who can each put the ball on the floor and run the pick and roll. Both Jokic and Paul Millsap have the ability to operate out of the post or step out behind the three-point line to space the court.

The team is also capable of dominating the boards. Last season the Nuggets ranked second in offensive rebounds percentage. While Jokic is an elite rebounder in his own right, the Nuggets have several players capable of punishing opponents on the glass, including guards like Barton and Murray who have a nose for being in the right place at the right time.

3. What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?

It’s no secret that the team struggles on the defensive end of the floor. The team’s biggest star, Nikola Jokic, is often the focal point of opposing teams’ attack, especially late in games when teams zero in on his most glaring weakness: defending in space. For Denver to improve on that end of the floor, Jokic must improve his awareness and speed when stepping out to contain the pick and roll.

The return of a healthy Paul Millsap should help as a back line of defense. He’s capable of helping to disrupt some of the easy buckets teams were getting in his absence, but there is only so much they can rely on Millsap to cover. This is a team that routinely gave up points in the pick and roll.

4. What are the goals for this team?

It’s been five years since the Nuggets were in the playoffs. Last year they became just the 6th team in NBA history to win 46 or more games and not get into the postseason. While a 46-36 record felt like a small victory in and of itself, the Nuggets are entering this season with a playoff or bust mentality and with the upside to surprise some people once they get there.

Head coach Michael Malone is entering the final year of his deal. The implication of the organization electing not to offer him a contract extension seems to be that anything short of a playoff birth would cost him his job. Still, the team has improved every year that he has been at the helm, both in terms of wins and in terms of development. Harris, Murray, and Jokic have all grown into promising players and the team as a whole has grown into a cohesive, focused, and talented group. Now the onus is on them all to take the next step and get into the playoffs.

5. What is the best “realistic” scenario for this team, this season?

The Nuggets won 46 games last year despite losing Millsap to a left wrist injury just 18 games into the season. When he returned to the lineup in late February, he had lost nearly all mobility and strength in that wrist. With him being back to full strength and the rest of the young roster all growing another year more experienced, the team’s ceiling should be fairly high. Vegas set Denver’s over/under at 47.5 wins and if everything breaks right for the team, 50 wins isn’t out of the question.

6. What is the worst “realistic” scenario for this team, this season?

Injuries aside, the Nuggets are really banking on their ability to outscore their opponents on most nights and that their young roster can make strides on the defensive end. The former seems like a given since they’ve demonstrated what they are capable of on the offensive end for large stretches of each of the last two seasons but the latter part of the equation is a huge unknown. If the team remains in the bottom five in the league in terms of defensive efficiency, then the Nuggets might struggle to replicate last year’s win total and once again find themselves on the outside of the playoffs looking in.