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Nuggets Chat: Jamal Murray is a breakout candidate, Denver’s playoff future, and more

Denver Stiffs writers have a Friday chat about a variety of Nuggets topics.

NBA: New York Knicks at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Denver Stiffs staff writers Ryan Blackburn and Daniel Lewis had a conversation about the Denver Nuggets and the 2018-19 NBA season. This is ‘Nuggets Chat.’

Ryan Blackburn (@NBABlackburn): Hey Dan. Thanks for taking the time to talk about the Nuggets today. First things first, what has been the most exciting factor in Nuggets training camp and preseason thus far?

Daniel Lewis (@minutemandan): For me, the most exciting thing is that it looks like we finally know that we have a good team. Last season, there were questions about who the starting point guard was going to be, what the rotation was going to be, if they could keep up the Jokic-ball offense, if their defense was going to improve. Now, we kind of have an idea what the team is. There aren’t too many big questions. Sure, we don’t know about Isaiah Thomas or Michael Porter Jr. or Jarred Vanderbilt, but outside of Thomas, it isn’t a big enough question to cast doubt on the overall success of the team. This is a playoff team, and I expect them to win or be very competitive in a lot of games this season.

What has been the most exciting factor for you?

Blackburn: To echo that, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris continuing to grow has been a major point for me. Scott Hastings had a great quote in a game against Golden State last year, saying “Joker’s there, but the rest of the team has to join him.” In my opinion, this is the season the rest of the team joins him, starting with Murray and Harris. Both bring an excellent scoring mentality in different ways, Murray as the potential flamethrower and Harris as Mr. Consistency. Murray, Harris, and Jokic are the key to Denver joining the likes of Golden State and Houston as a legitimate top 3 offense this year, and I think they make that a reality.

How worried are you about Isaiah Thomas right now?

Lewis: I’m not too worried about Thomas. The Nuggets have struggled without a backup point guard, but I think the development of Monte Morris allows them to take their time with Thomas. Morris should be a better defender at least, and should take care of the ball. If it’s January and Thomas still hasn’t been able to return to the court, then I’d be worried. At some point he’ll need to be able to go, otherwise he’s just taking advantage of the Nuggets to get to full health for his next contract.

The NBA GM survey mentioned Jamal Murray as a ‘breakout player.’ What would breaking outmean to you?

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Blackburn: A breakout player is someone who completely redefines the narrative around them. Where potential was, production remains. Where star ceiling is thrown around, star realization begins to happen.

This is Jamal Murray in a nutshell. Last season, he turned into what I’d describe as an average to above average starter, looking like he could be much more on some nights and struggling to perform on others. A breakout for Murray entails going from a scoring threat to a scoring problem for opposing defenses. Last year, he averaged 16.7 points per game and made 2.0 threes per game. This season, I’d expect those numbers to reach 20.0 and 3.0 respectively. That would redefine his narrative into becoming a borderline All-Star in the difficult Western Conference.

What about you? Is there a breakout player in Denver we aren’t noticing, or is it all about Murray?

Lewis: I do think that Murray has Eastern Conference All-Star potential for this season, but he’d have to be an incredible three-point shooter to appear on the Western Conference team.

The breakout player for me is Juancho Hernangomez. There is a lot we don’t know about why he didn’t play more frequently last season, but there’s no question in my mind that he can play small forward for the Nuggets. He’s been active on the defensive end in the preseason, blocking shots and rebounding the ball. He’s a natural offensive rebounder and he moves really well off ball. His shot has looked just as good as it always has, and we know that he puts in a ton of work to be great at that aspect of his game. If he’s playing against backup forwards, defense isn’t as much of an issue, especially because they’ll have to guard him on the other end of the floor. I’m not saying he’s going to replace Will Barton in the starting lineup, but I do think that he’s quite capable of being in the rotation and being a positive contributor.

Blackburn: 100 percent. I’ve always had a soft spot for Juancho. He seems like the perfect player to throw in as a fifth starter in times when Denver needs an additional floor spacer. For example, when the Nuggets need to have Torrey Craig on the floor for defensive reasons next to Murray, Harris, and Jokic, why not use Juancho as the power forward during those minutes to make sure the offense is still lethal? There’s a role for Juancho, especially when he’s hitting shots, to win games for the Nuggets this year. Michael Malone just has to find it.

Switching gears a bit, news about Andre Roberson’s injury setback is tough to hear, but for the Nuggets, it seems like the door is opening a little wider to get out to a strong start as one of the top four seeds in the conference, correct?

Lewis: Here’s why getting home court would be incredible for the Nuggets -- in order to get there, they’d have to be a really good team at home. We know that playing at Pepsi Center is a huge advantage for the Nuggets, with the altitude and how far away from every other team Denver is. That travel disadvantage is neutered a bit during the playoffs, but to have the potential for four home playoff games after going years without any playoff games would be great for the city.

While the Roberson news is good for OKC, it does sound like the Timberwolves are going to get some decent players in return for Jimmy Butler. Obviously, they can’t replace him with an equal player, but perhaps Thibodeau will be able to keep them really competitive with the new batch of players.

Blackburn: Home court advantage in the Mile High city following up the Colorado Rockies capturing #Rocktober again? It’s almost like there could be a Denver Broncos offseason and things would be fine.

MLB: Washington Nationals at Colorado Rockies Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

For the Timberwolves, I’m just not sure what to make of that team anymore. If the rumors are true that they’re asking for at least Josh Richardson in return for moving Butler, then they will at least acquire a capable wing defender with an expanding skill set offensively. Still, it’s hard to see that making up for the loss of a top ten player. For Denver, it’s about leapfrogging Minnesota, and I can’t see Denver finishing behind Minnesota again given everything that’s happened.

Let’s say the Nuggets make the playoffs this year, which seems to be becoming a likelihood rather than a possibility. How many playoff games do they win?

Lewis: It’s unrealistic to say 16, right? I’m going to be bold and say four playoff wins. That’s enough for them to advance out of the first round, but that’s how far they would get before being done in by a squad that has more experience. I think that even if they don’t get home court in round one, they’ll still be in that 4-5 or 3-6 matchup, and those are usually really exciting series.

Which team would you like to see the Nuggets play in round one?

Blackburn: For the record, I would go with three wins. Whether they’re playing LeBron James and LA, Russell Westbrook and OKC, or Donovan Mitchell/Rudy Gobert and Utah, I don’t see Denver winning a playoff series the first time around. I hope they surprise me.

Of all of the teams Denver could play though, it would have to be Utah. There are some wrongs that need to be righted between these two franchises, and despite there being no evidence that Denver “gave up Rudy Gobert” or “gave up Donovan Mitchell,” those are the narratives. Defeating the Jazz in the first round would be the best possible outcome, as it goes a long way in proving that Denver’s longterm future is indeed brighter.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Denver Nuggets
Young Denver Nuggets stars pointing at their bright future together.
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Lewis: No evidence? I have photos that show the Nuggets drafting both those players. Sounds like some fake news!

But you’re right, that would be an incredible matchup for the first round. Defense vs offense, length vs ... uh, whatever Jokic is, shooting vs driving. Neither team would have to travel far either, meaning that exhaustion wouldn’t be as much of an issue. Do you think that series would just be on NBATV?

Blackburn: The phrase ‘whatever Jokic is’ made me chuckle and could describe his body, his game, his personality, and basically everything about Jokic.

Usually, the 3v6 and 4v5 playoff series games spend some time on that network. Unfortunately, it’s just the nature of the beast, despite it probably being the most even series of the first round.

One last question. I’m putting you on the spot here: how many regular season games do the Nuggets win in the 2018-19 season?

Lewis: Good thing I’m prepared to answer that question thanks to our over/under series (I’m a company man) so I can confidently say I have them at 47 wins. The road to 50 is going to be tough in the Western Conference, but over 41 is achievable. The Nuggets offense is going to be legit this season, and that’s even with a good chunk of their games coming against Oklahoma City, Minnesota, Portland, and Utah. They’ll be better than both Los Angeles teams, San Antonio, Minnesota and Portland, about on par with New Orleans, but not quite as good as Houston, Utah, Golden State, and Oklahoma City.

How about you?

NBA: Preseason-Denver Nuggets at Los Angeles Lakers Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Blackburn: I’m just going to come out and say it: I have them at 50! It’s a biased, maybe even homerific take, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable at all, and here’s why:

Almost every other team is dealing with major transitions except Utah. Golden State will be Golden State, but Houston basically exchanged Trevor Ariza for Carmelo Anthony, which, as we saw last season with OKC, may cause some shot distribution issues. OKC may be without Roberson for over half the year now. The Lakers got LeBron, but it cost them their big man depth and possibly their best player last year in Julius Randle to do it. The Spurs traded Kawhi for DeMar DeRozan and lost Danny Green, Kyle Anderson, and Manu Ginobili in the process. The T’Wolves are about to lose Butler. Denver’s biggest transition is figuring out how to balance more scoring power in their starting lineup.

I think seeds 5 through 9 will all sit between 43 and 46 wins this year, but I expect Utah and Denver to separate themselves from the pack and cross the 50-win threshold.

Lewis: Wow, that’s a summer in South Carolina level hot take!

Blackburn: It sure is, but I’m throwing it out there proudly!

Thanks for taking the time to talk with me, Dan. It’s going to be a really fun season.

Lewis: No problem! I have to go get some engagement photos taken. Do good in school!