Welcome back to the Denver Stiffs mailbag! This biweekly series has gone very strong, and I want to thank the readers for continuing to contribute excellent questions, even during the dog days of summer. We have a dedicated readership here at Denver Stiffs, and it’s evident by the streamline of thought-provoking questions I receive each time I do this.
Keep it up! The content for these mailbags is question driven, so the best way to see great content is to continue asking great questions. So far, I couldn’t be happier.
Let’s dive right in.
I think there’s an argument to be made there, for sure. Prior to the two-way contract system, the Nuggets signed a number of players to 10-day contracts over the years. JaKarr Sampson and Axel Toupane are two that come to mind, and neither was rewarded by Denver with a subsequent contract.
Now, with Craig and Morris on guaranteed deals with the club, it shows that the Nuggets will at least act in good faith for their players. Over the Tim Connelly era, they have made a concerted effort to do right by players, from making good on Mason Plumlee’s contract, to facilitating the Danilo Gallinari signing in Los Angeles for little to no cost, to trading various role players to places where they can succeed and compete: Arron Afflalo in Portland, Randy Foye in Oklahoma City, Wilson Chandler in Philadelphia.
Players and agents are becoming smarter. While how an organization treats its players after their obligations to each other are over isn’t usually the most important factor in a player’s decision to play for certain teams, it’s a contributing factor for some. At this point, Denver has done right by their players, rewarded their players with new contracts (Chandler, Gallinari, Plumlee, Gary Harris, Will Barton) deserved or not. All it takes is for the right player to see how Denver has operated over the last few seasons and for it to sway their decision. Whether thats a two-way contract or a fully guaranteed contract, players will know that they have a high chance of being rewarded for their faith in Denver, as long as they earn it.
This is a fun one, so let’s pull up the 2017-18 averages for every current Nugget:
Right off the bat, the three players that stand out as candidates to hit 50/40/90 are Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris, and Jamal Murray. They are the usual suspects, highly efficient players in a highly efficient offense that are still very young with room to grow. Given that all three are still 23 years old (Harris will turn 24 in a month) and all have been major parts of an offense on verge of making a leap to tops in the NBA, I would bet my money on them.
There are some other candidates though. Michael Porter Jr. hasn’t taken an NBA shot yet, but if he becomes anything like what his ceiling is, he may have a shot at a 50/40/90 year. Isaiah Thomas hit 46.3/37.9/90.9 in his MVP caliber season in 2016-17 with the Boston Celtics. He likely will never return to that threshold, but there’s a small chance he does. Playing with Jokic is a lot like playing with Al Horford, who helped IT become one of the most efficient high volume single season scorers of all-time.
Other role players with a small chance are Trey Lyles and Juancho Hernangomez. Both are solid outside shooters who finish well around the rim. Hernangomez in particular strikes me as a player who could have a “Meyers Leonard” 50/40/90 season, in which the volume is just high enough to qualify.
Two separate questions here that I think are intriguing. I really like Jarred Vanderbilt’s game. He’s one of those player that does everything well but shoot. He’s not quite a Ben Simmons level of ball handler as a point forward, but he’s closer than people realize. The rebounding is otherworldly as well. No one will have to tell him to crash the glass. Like Kenneth Faried, he has potential to be an elite rebounder in the NBA, even as a non-center.
Unlike Faried, he also proved he could defend at a high level, which is why I believe he will far exceed his draft position. The Nuggets need defenders, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Vanderbilt works his way into the rotation quicker than expected, or the Nuggets make a trade to free up time for him. Given that Vanderbilt was the 41st pick, becoming a regular in a rotation would far exceed what’s expected of him. Not only do I believe he could be a regular, I think he has a shot to earn 20 minutes per game as soon as next season.
As for where he would have gone without having an injury, his limited playing time would have likely forced him to at least the late first round anyway. However, I simply think Vanderbilt is a better NBA prospect than every player selected from 21st onward (except perhaps Robert Williams and Chandler Hutchison). I had Vanderbilt 37th on my personal big board, but that factored in the injury concerns. Without them, he would have been closer to 20th, given his versatile skill set.
This was the best part of Wilson Chandler’s game in my opinion. During the past two seasons, he made life difficult for star big wings and forwards, including LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Paul George. Now, 6’6 175 pound Will Barton will likely be tasked with defending many of those players, and it will be a struggle.
Fortunately, there aren’t enough big wings that Denver will have this issue every night, but here’s what I think they do when playing these players: I think Gary Harris gets the assignment against most of them and the Nuggets provide as much help as they can afford to give up. Harris has become a solid post defender against the top scorers, and if he can continuing developing like a Marcus Smart type of defender, he may be able to at least limit the damage these big wings can do.
Denver does have some other options. Will Barton will likely be called into action almost as frequently. He has two inches on Harris, but he’s smaller, so a less physical scorer like Paul George may be a better match for Barton. Paul Millsap will be able to take some of these assignments as well. Millsap defendng LeBron James leaves Barton and Harris to tend to Brandon Ingram. Switching that matchup may have terrible results. Other bench options include Torrey Craig, who proved his mettle last year, and Juancho Hernangomez. Juancho did a nice job against Giannis in their brief stint on the floor matched up with each other. There’s a solid 1-on-1 defender within Juancho in my opinion. He just needs to remain focused and vigilant. Finally, the aforementioned Vanderbilt may be called in to service in some funky lineups if Denver needs a stop badly.
This is the key question, isn’t it?
All-Star appearances are generally the byproduct of three factors: individual performance, team performance, and popularity among fans and coaches. Last year, Jokic’s performance prior to the All-Star break didn’t warrant a spot on the Western Conference roster, as blasphemous as that is. 16.9 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 5.9 assists are remarkable for a 22-year-old, but not for a Western Conference All-Star. The scoring was lower, the defense counted heavily against him, and at that point, Denver wasn’t winning. The Nuggets were 26-25 through January, hardly remarkable.
For Jokic to join the group this year, his individual performance must be better. His second half numbers of 21.7 points, 11.0 rebounds, and 6.5 assists are much more fun for voters to look at. Denver also has to be winning, and if the team is squarely in the playoff picture at the time of voting, it will be harder to say no to the best player.
Overall though, the game is a popularity contest. The Nuggets have to continue promoting their best player both locally and nationally. They are clearly Jokic’s team after signing a near max contract.
I didn’t answer your question though: will Jokic ACTUALLy make it?
Because the NBA voting process divides guards and forwards while lumping centers into the forward category, it’s going to be hard for Jokic. Among the forwards and centers in the West, he will have to compete with LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Paul George, Karl-Anthony Towns, Draymond Green, Rudy Gobert, LaMarcus Aldridge, Clint Capela, and possibly DeMar DeRozan, Tobias Harris, and DeAndre Jordan. Including Jokic, that’s 13 really good players competing for six guaranteed spots. Can Jokic be one of those six? It’s possible.
All-Star squads also have two wildcard slots, but tell me, which of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Chris Paul, James Harden, Jimmy Butler, DeMar DeRozan, Donovan Mitchell, Lou Williams, Jrue Holiday, and Devin Booker are being left off the squad? The West can only put in four guards, six forwards/bigs, and two wildcards, and I believe one or both of the wildcard slots will be used for guards.
If I had to predict it right now:
Guards: Curry (starter), Harden (starter), Westbrook, Lillard
Forwards/bigs: James (starter), Durant (starter), Davis (starter), George, Gobert, and Jokic
Wildcards: Butler and Thompson
Jokic squeaks in as the last forward/big of the group, but it goes to show, the NBA should nominate the best 24 players, regardless of conference.
“Hey Ryan, Question for future mailbag:
Other than injuries and establishing rotations early in season, why did the Nuggets struggle to put together more than 3 game winning streaks last season? The West playoff teams seemed to have a few big win streaks over the course of the season.”
-Andrew, Leeds, UK
Finally, another question via email! Link is in my bio on Stiffs and on Twitter if you’d rather ask privately.
The Nuggets went on four 3-game winning streaks, one 4-game streak, and the six game win streak to end the season. Here are the longest win streaks for each Western Conference playoff team last season:
- Houston: 17-game win streak
- Golden State: 11-game win streak
- Portland: 13-game win streak
- Oklahoma City: 8-game win streak
- Utah: 11-game win streak
- New Orleans: 10-game win streak
- San Antonio: 6-game win streak
- Minnesota: 5-game win streak (three times)
For five of the teams, going on a win streak in the double digits became the difference in playoff seeding. Portland, Utah, and New Orleans all went on their respective streaks in the second half of the season, effectively penciling themselves into the playoff picture. For Denver, their streak came too little too late, so let’s look at each of their streaks and what game ended it.
What’s interesting about Denver’s streaks is that they almost always come against playoff teams. 15 of the 22 games won during these six streaks were against playoff teams last season. Denver really gets up for these contests.
What hurts them is how often they lost to non-playoff teams to kill streaks before they could start. They lost a random game to Kristaps Porzingis and the New York Knicks early last year. They lost multiple games to the Dallas Mavericks, who they couldn’t defend at all. They even lost January contests to Sacramento and Phoenix, who drafted second and first in this year’s NBA Draft for good reason.
In my opinion, Denver must capitalize on their games against inferior opponents next season. There won’t be many playing in the West, but they could certainly rattle off a five game winning streak against three non-playoff teams, a squad missing one of its better players to injury, and earning a win against a tough team.
To rattle off a long win streak though? Things have to really click. Denver must have all of its best players playing their best ball at the same time, which never happened last year. There may need to be a month where all four of Jokic, Harris, Murray, and Barton score 18+ points per game on rock solid efficiency to carry the team. All of them playing that well at the same time would help Denver get through the rough patches.
Thanks to everyone who participated! The NBA news should become interesting over the next few weeks, so tune into the mailbag, ask questions on Twitter or via email, and stay glued to Denver Stiffs for the best source of Nuggets news and analysis on the internet today.