Four members of the Denver Stiffs staff gathered around the proverbial table to wax poetic about the preseason and some key players for the 2018-19 season.
Which of the Denver Nuggets has stood out the most in the preseason thus far?
Ryan Blackburn (@NBABlackburn): For me, it’s Mason Plumlee. On first watch, I thought he didn’t have a great first game against the Los Angeles Lakers last Sunday. On re-watch, he was key as a distributor and did what he was asked to do: make the right play over and over again. In the second game, he operated as more of a finisher, and finish he did, going 11/11 from the field. With Plumlee and Trey Lyles, Denver has two excellent big man backups to Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap—which should help Denver maintain pressure on the opposition for 48 minutes.
Gordon Gross (@GMoneyNuggs): Trey Lyles and Malik Beasley have both had interesting preseasons so far as well, but I’m going with Monte Morris. He put up 12 / 6 / 4 with a couple of steals and a +30 plus / minus (!) against the Lakers while leading the backup unit. He then had to switch to the starting lineup due to a late scratch for Jamal Murray and notched another 12 / 4 / 4, while only posting 3 turnovers in the combined two games. Naturally, he was mad about the turnovers. Having a backup point guard who values the ball but can also sub in for needed emergency minutes with the starters should be a nice addition this year.
Daniel Lewis (@minutemandan): I’ve actually been pretty impressed with Juancho Hernangomez. The Lakers are out here playing Kyle Kuzma and Michael Beasley at center, so I’m tempering my opinion on Jokic. Juancho is knocking down 3-pointers, rebounding, blocking shots, and moving around well. He looks healthy and strong, and if he’s motivated enough to give great effort on defense, he could win that backup small forward spot.
Brendan Vogt (@Bvogt422): Mason Plumlee as been excellent so far in the preseason. He was 11-11 from the field in the second victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday, but I was even more impressed with the six assists he put up on Sunday night in San Diego. Plumlee is far more than a traditional, big-bodied center. His playmaking ability is what had him starting in Portland, and it’s a large part of why Denver signed him. It was nice to see him show it off.
Which player are you most concerned about thus far?
Blackburn: Paul Millsap. With just four combined made baskets and assists in his 44 minutes, Millsap has struggled to be efficient and impactful (just 2/10 from the field thus far). When playing with Murray, Harris, Barton, and Jokic, that may change, but so far, it’s concerning that Millsap’s possessions have rarely went anywhere. Defensively, he looks just fine, accumulated six steals + blocks during his 44 minutes. Because of that, he may remain a positive player, but it’s worth noting that the Lakers have barely played together, meaning that Millsap’s at a decided advantage.
Gross: Will Barton hasn’t found his shot yet, going 1-for-12 in the first game and 3-for-9 in the second. Barton is in a new role this year as the presumptive starter at small forward, and he’ll have to find his flow within the offense rather than just going full Thrill Barton as a gunner and bench spark. How quickly he adjusts to that role may determine Denver’s fate out of the gate this year, and they can’t really afford a long adjustment period—those early games are crucial this year. I’d like to see him find his fit the rest of this preseason.
Lewis: I’m a little concerned about Torrey Craig, who just hasn’t been able to get his shots to fall. I get the feeling he’s going to be a Malone guy, and if he can’t shoot over 30 percent on his 3-point attempts, that’s going to be a source of frustration all season long.
Vogt: Torrey Craig has spent a lot of time working on his three point shot this summer. If you watch him shooting around in camp, or before a game, you’ll see that he looks far more comfortable shooting the deep ball than last season. But he’s struggled to both get his shot off and knock it down so far in the preseason. Plus, he’s looked particularly uncomfortable when putting the ball on the floor.
Nikola Jokic’s scoring has been solid in the first two games against a weak Los Angeles front court. Will he score more or less than 20 points per game this season and why?
Blackburn: I think 20 points per game is a good line, but if asked to pick one or the other, I’d say he will go over. His mentality has changed when receiving the ball in the low post, as his first instinct, instead of passing, is to first assess his own scoring potential. He draws free throws at a nice rate, has made 12/13 in the preseason, and if the three-pointer is still 40 percent caliber, there will be nights where he simply cannot be guarded. After accumulating just 30 games of 20+ points last season, I think he has a chance of increasing that to 40 as a more consistent scoring force.
Gross: I’m picking the over. Jokic finally has some star clout and name recognition, as well as buzz coming into the year. If stars get calls then Jokic is on the verge of being recognized as a star and just a couple more trips to the line every game will make all the difference. Hunting his own shot at crucial times will also help, and he scored nearly 22 a game after the All-Star break—I think he carries that with him into this year.
Lewis: That is a good number to pick, and I’d like to see him go over. I think the referees are going to be calling more fouls on defensive players when they slap around in the post, and that could get Jokic to the line more. That would be huge for Denver, because Jokic is such a good free throw shooter, and then he won’t have to get burned in transition.
Vogt: I’ll take the under, but only because so many guys around him are ready to go off this season. Jamal Murray is in line for a breakout year. Will Barton will be in the starting lineup. Paul Millsap is finally healthy. The bench will, and some lineups with Jokic might, feature Isaiah Thomas. I expect Jokic to rack up even more assists this season, but I’m not sure about clearing 20 points per game.
Jamal Murray and Gary Harris have both missed time this preseason. Which player is more important to Denver’s success this season?
Blackburn: Gary Harris will probably still be the better player, but I will say Jamal Murray. He has the potential to be dynamic as a pick and roll scorer this season, on top of elite off-ball scoring and potential as an isolation threat against mismatches. Mostly though, Denver’s situation behind him right now is less steady than behind Harris. The Nuggets have Barton, a versatile wing, as well as Torrey Craig, Malik Beasley, and Juancho Hernangomez to fill the void off the bench. Behind Murray is Monte Morris (who looks solid) and Isaiah Thomas (who may be out for a long time. If Denver loses Murray, they lose 48 solid minutes at point guard for the time being.
Gross: That depends on whether Murray has that breakout year that the league’s GMs are predicting for him. Right now Harris is a slightly better fit, as Murray by his own admission hunts his own shot as a point guard and hasn’t quite found it with enough regularity. His shooting stroke is so pure and his work ethic is tremendous, though, and I expect him to put it all together soon. If that’s this year, then Murray’s ability to be a deadly shooting force will change court gravity in ways that Harris does not, if only because Harris is perfectly willing to pass up good shots if he feels that’s the right basketball play. Murray going mini-Steph-Curry would create court reactions that someone with Jokic’s passing IQ could exploit to their fullest.
Lewis: Murray, easily. The Nuggets can’t be going through the season without their starting point guard, but they can always move Barton into Harris’s role if Harris is out. Murray’s ability to attack the rim off the dribble, shoot off the dribble, and run plays with Jokic puts him over Harris in terms of importance. The defense that Harris brings isn’t as important as the offense Murray brings.
Vogt: Harris is a more consistent and more complete player than Murray. Harris also complements Jokic better than any player on the roster. Plus, he’s the best perimeter defender among the projected starters. In a vacuum, Harris is more important. But we’re not in a vacuum. Thomas won’t be ready to start the season and Denver doesn’t want to be starting Morris just yet. In that sense, Murray is the correct answer here.
Who is the most important player on the bench right now?
Blackburn: At the moment, it’s Monte Morris. With Thomas on the shelf and Denver’s backups in need of a facilitating guard, Morris fits the bill. He’s the only option behind Jamal Murray at the moment and the key to Denver’s offense keeping above water when Nikola Jokic leaves the floor. Morris’ style is of minimizing mistakes and maximizing impact in a small role could really help Denver win the margins this season, something they generally struggle to maximize.
Gross: It’s Morris. Trey Lyles might have the most important season, as a player who can handle both forward positions and exploit mismatches against either position is extremely valuable off the bench, but Morris has the most important role. Denver’s non-Jokic lineups last year were mostly poor-to-average, and too often blew huge leads as they struggled to find their rhythm without him on the floor. Morris keeping the bench running smoothly and enabling things like a great season from Lyles or Juancho Hernangomez by feeding them at the right times and directing traffic to give shooters better advantages will be key to the bench not coughing up the expected leads provided by the top-5 offense of the starting unit.
Lewis: Yeah, it’s Morris, because Isaiah Thomas isn’t healthy. The Nuggets need that floor general, especially with how few playmakers they have on their team. When they don’t have that player that can break down defenses on the dribble, their offense stagnates. They can try to get that kind of production from Jokic, Millsap, or Plumlee, but it’s just not the same as when the point guard is breaking down the defense.
Vogt: Morris is probably the right answer, but for the sake of parity I will go with Trey Lyles. With Barton in the starting lineup and Isaiah sidelined, Lyles might be the bench’s closest thing to a dynamic offensive player. If they’re going to pack a punch, he’s got to be on his game.