The Denver Nuggets are drawing closer to defining their identity both on and off the court. By re-signing Will Barton, extending Nikola Jokic and taking a chance on Isaiah Thomas, the front office has filled out the roster with players who have something to prove. But being overlooked is not the only thing this trio has in common. All three of them can help take Denver’s offense to new heights. Not one of them mitigates what projects to be a disastrous defense.
It’s not unreasonable to assume that the front office may just be punting on defense at this point. Though perhaps it’s more accurate to say they’ve simply accepted the clearly defined ceiling on their team’s ability. The defense is not good. There is no single signing that would have altered this reality. There is no viable path to building a competitive one any time soon. For Denver, the shortest road to the playoffs involves going all-in and building the best offense possible. Defense be damned.
There’s a long list of reasonable objections to this path. With the exception of the Cleveland LeBron’s, none of the league’s top teams have reached that status without fielding one of the NBA’s best—or at least a very competitive—defense(s). The way the game is currently played on the biggest stage requires tremendous switch-ability and versatility. Denver has very little to offer in that regard.
There are two things that Nuggets fans must accept as true if they are to embrace this blueprint and fully enjoy the upcoming season: the first is that the Nuggets will not win a title this way—not with this roster at least. The second is that the former is perfectly fine.
Title or bust fits wonderfully into our narratives and our blog posts, but it’s simply not realistic. It’s simply not how each team views themselves. For Cleveland, every move was cast against their inevitable clash with Golden State. For the Cavs, the question of “is it enough?” translated to: “is it enough to win a title?”
The stakes are different for every team. The goal for Denver is much more attainable.
The Nuggets must make the playoffs. The problems and questions that may follow are bridges to be crossed at a later time. For Denver, an appearance is “enough.” At least for now. If that’s the goal, then the Nuggets are taking the right approach.
December 15th, 2016
Any Nuggets fan and avid Stiffs reader should immediately recognize the significance of this date. This is when Nikola Jokic was officially inserted into the starting lineup. This is the date when everything changed in Denver. From that moment to the end of the season—as I’m sure you’ve read a thousand times by now—the Nuggets possessed the most lethal offense in the entire NBA.
The Nuggets would take a slight step back in the 2017-18 campaign. Denver finished with the sixth most points per 100 possessions. That’s obviously a small drop off. For a lot of teams, finishing in the top-six would be considered a tremendously encouraging result. But Denver needs a high-powered offense, perhaps more than any other playoff caliber team.
It might not be fair to write them off before they’ve taken the court, but the defense for this 2018-19 squad could end up being the worst to date in the Malone era—which means they’ll need to return to that 2016-17 form.
The good news is they are well positioned to do so.
Millsap + Jokic
There’s no need to overthink this—the Denver Nuggets are a better team with Paul Millsap on the floor. The brief period of turbulence during Millsap’s reintegration has been overblown. The starters posted a net rating of +9.1 on the season, and Millsap grew more comfortable with each game alongside Nikola Jokic down the final stretch of the regular season.
In Millsaps absence—he missed 44 games after injuring his left wrist and requiring surgery—Michael Malone turned to Mason Plumlee as his replacement. At this point it is well documented what playing two centers does to Denver’s spacing, and more importantly, the way it can relegate Jokic to some kind of glorified spot up center. The ball needs to be in Nikola’s hands as often as possible, with as proper spacing as possible. A healthy Millsap will have a large positive impact on this offense.
Wilson Chandler considers himself to be a small-ball four. Whether that is the optimal position for Chandler is up for debate, but that’s how he sees it. His 2017-18 season featured a few bright spots that punctuated long sedentary and underwhelming stretches of play. He looked uninspired at times, and flat out disinterested at others. Chandler is a good NBA player with plenty to offer Philadelphia, but by his own admission he didn’t quite fit into the offense with the way he was being used.
Things should be much better with Will Barton in his place.
At this point it’s public knowledge that Denver’s most potent lineup was left on a shelf for most of the season. Due to Millsap’s injury and Chandler’s starter role, the Nuggets only rolled out a rotation of Jamal Murray-Gary Harris-Will Barton-Paul Millsap-Nikola Jokic for 65 total minutes. But the results within that small sample size were astounding. That unit produced a net rating of 32.7, with a scorching offensive rating of 124.7.
This can be easily explained. Barton is a superior offensive player to Chandler in just about every way. He is the team’s best playmaker not named Jokic, and he attacks the rim with more aggression and success than his predecessor. Perhaps the biggest factor in a potential offensive improvement though is the discrepancy in their spot up shooting. Chandler expressed some frustration with being left out on the perimeter, almost an afterthought in a Jokic-centric system. But Barton is a far superior spot up shooter and has improved in that regard in each of the last four years.
Barton is a dramatic downgrade defensively from an engaged Chandler. But he should be a game changer offensively for this starting unit. That’s all Denver is looking for.
What makes the ceiling of this offense so intriguing is the addition of former MVP candidate Isaiah Thomas. Thomas has been through a lot since his Boston days, and it’s hard to imagine him returning to that form ever again—though I’m sure he’d love to prove me wrong.
A more realistic expectation is that he provides some offensive spark to a second unit that will need just that with Barton’s relative promotion. (Barton did lead the team in minutes played last year). Thomas is still a gifted scorer and his numbers as a Laker are encouraging. In his final 17 games of the season he put up 15.6 points per game on 38.3 percent from the field and 33 percent from deep. It’s a far cry from ‘The King of the Fourth’ but it’s just the kind of production Denver hopes to find from someone in that second unit.
What’s more is Thomas’ scoring ability has distracted from his skill as a point guard. IT is an underrated playmaker and better at getting the ball to his center than any guard on the roster.
This is important for obvious reasons. Jokic is the best player on the team. But his prowess in the post and his ability to dissect a defense on the short roll have been limited by the lack of passing ability from his guards. Denver saw a dramatic drop off in threes from the corner this past season. Perhaps their inability to get Jokic or Plumlee the ball on the roll in the middle of the floor has contributed to that.
Thomas can’t defend anyone at this point in his career, but much like the starters, that second unit isn’t stopping anyone. This signing wasn’t about shoring up the D. It was the front office shoving all of their chips in the middle and hoping to find more offense on the flop.
The Nuggets are poised to turn the corner and finally end this playoff drought. If that happens, it will be because of more than the talent they’ve amassed. It will be a result of their commitment to a path and an identity.
Denver is ready to live and die by this proverbial sword, and it’s a damn sharp one.