This was my first media day. Ever.
For entire time I have been associated with Denver Stiffs up until yesterday, I had only ever covered media day from afar, listening to the Twitter videos in noisy gyms and hoping to pick up the general vibe of the Denver Nuggets players, coaches, and team personnel. Two years ago before the 2017-18 season, the general sentiment was “keep building the foundation.” Last season, there was urgency to make the playoffs as sort of a proving ground for a young team.
Entering the auxiliary gym for the first time in my life, I didn’t know what to expect in terms of the general mood and atmosphere. I had suspicions though, and they proved to be correct. Let me explain as part of the 10 takeaways from media day:
1. The word of the day is: comfortable
The Nuggets appeared comfortable as individuals in their own skin and as a team. After entering the playoffs last season with something to prove, the Nuggets validated very public concerns about their viability in a playoff atmosphere. Centered around a playmaking big man with a unique skill set that few individuals truly understand, it was easy to pick apart the weaknesses of the team without acknowledging that the Nuggets had a top 10 player on the roster.
Denver proved they had what it takes and more last year, and the sense around the team was that the “and more” part is a given reality rather than headline news. No longer are the Nuggets an organization on edge to validate the critics and naysayers. They are comfortable in their own skin.
2. Championship Expectations
“We want to have expectations,” said Gary Harris when asked about the progression over his career from no playoff aspirations to championship intentions. “We want to expect to go far, we want people to expect us to be a good team. We’re not trying to shy away from it.”
The Nuggets made no mistake about their intentions this season. Harris said championship. Malik Beasley said championship. Jamal Murray said the Nuggets were thinking about the championship last year.
It’s no surprise that the Nuggets are talking a big game this year, but what’s surprising is the vibe surrounding those statements. Generally, players make rousing declarations about the playoffs or an NBA Finals victory, but the Nuggets were very calm and collected during their interviews today, extremely comfortable with the notion that this group could win a championship and they should carry themselves that way. Perhaps they are taking after Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray in that regard, who both possessed an extreme sense of calm when discussing those expectations, while maintaining their personality quirks of course.
3. Michael Porter Jr. passes first test with flying colors
In his first time talking to the Denver media in an official capacity since the early summer, Porter was perhaps the most interesting Nuggets player heading into the morning. The conversation around Porter suggested the Nuggets organization was really excited to see the 2018 first round pick showcase his skill set, but hearing from Porter himself eased a lot of concerns about his own personal expectations and beliefs.
“I’ve always been the guy with the ball in my hands,” Porter said when asked about the biggest adjustment he needs to make this year. “On this team, we have so many talented players like Jokic, Jamal, Gary, Paul, Will. So many guys that can put the ball in the hoop, but we play through Jok. Last year I got to watch the game to see how I could fit in with the team, find my niche and my role will be different.”
This was a highly mature take from Porter, who seems to understand that his role on this team will likely see him start off as a complementary piece rather than the focal point of the offense. As he said, there are many talented scorers and playmakers on this team, and while Porter certainly as the talent to be one of those guys during his career, the quickest way to the court for Porter will come primarily from his ability to space the floor and defend his position.
“[The coaching staff] keeps telling me that I can be an elite defender,” Porter responded to former Stiffs warlock Adam Mares. “On this team, I won’t have the ball in my hands all the time, so I can exert energy in other areas of my game, going to the boards every time...and defense. I’ve really got to buy into those two aspects of the game.”
4. Open Competition at Small Forward
It was speculated that head coach Michael Malone would set the narrative at small forward either around incumbent starter Will Barton or prescribe the spot for an open competition. He went with the latter, listing Barton, Torrey Craig, Porter Jr., and Juancho Hernangomez as the candidates to win the job. Notably absent from the list were Malik Beasley, assumably the backup shooting guard behind Harris, and newcomer Jerami Grant, assumably the backup power forward behind Paul Millsap.
Either way, the above four players will be fighting for the opportunity to stay permanently within the rotation. Every other spot in the rotation is spoken for at this point, leaving Barton, Craig, Porter, and Hernangomez to compete for two rotation spots. Each player offers their own merits and concerns, but how the respective units fit together will likely determine who claims the starting and rotation spots.
At the outset, my completely speculative prediction is that Barton will start and Porter will be his primary backup.
5. Michael Malone hoping Nuggets will improve three-point shooting
To open his press conference, head coach Michael Malone was asked if there was a new point of improvement on the minds of the organization this season. Defensively, he cited paint defense. Offensively, he cited creating more quality three-point shot opportunities.
Michael Malone: “I want to take 36-37 threes a game this year. Quality threes, paint threes.”#Nuggets— Ryan Blackburn (@NBABlackburn) September 30, 2019
Last year, the Nuggets averaged 31.4 three-point attempts per game, 16th in the NBA sandwiched between the Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Lakers. Teams both past and present have proven that taking the most three-pointers doesn’t necessary lead to the most efficient offense, but for a Nuggets team with perimeter shooting talent at every position, it certainly wouldn’t hurt.
According to PBP Stats last season, the Nuggets attempted three-pointers most frequently when the following rotation players were on the floor: Monte Morris, Juancho Hernangomez, and Malik Beasley. On the other end of the spectrum, the Nuggets attempted threes least frequently when Barton was on the floor. If the goal is to increase perimeter shooting frequency, then it’s possible that both Juancho and Beasley see similar or increased roles this season.
6. Business as usual for Nikola Jokic
“We don’t think about other teams. We just think about ourselves. That is how you have to think. Just how you can get better and win more games or whatever.”
Jokic isn’t shying away from the competition that other Western Conference teams will offer this season, but he also knows that the Nuggets can only control themselves. So much of Denver’s development thus far has revolved around how they can best maximize a team with Jokic as their best player. They plugged in shooters, sprinkled in some defenders, added some veteran savvy, and topped it off with length and athleticism this offseason with the addition of Jerami Grant and the return of Porter.
This is what Jokic knows best: the process of going from bad to good to great. The Nuggets will have time to game plan for opponents in the future as the playoffs edge closer. Forcing opposing teams to adjust to what the Nuggets do rather than the other way around offers Denver a competitive advantage, and the Nuggets are building something special and sustainable for several years.
For Jokic, it’s simply business as usual: clock in, control what you can control, and clock out.
7. Bol Bol remains out following foot surgery with no timetable to return
This news was discovered during the first media conference of the day, with Bol Bol saying he will need a little longer to recover and there’s no set date for him to begin playing 5 on 5 again.
Bol remains an enigma after sustaining this injury just nine games into his freshman season at the University of Oregon, but like Porter, if he realizes his immense potential, the Nuggets may have found a diamond in the rough. Without knowing the details of his injury or the time at which he can return, I fully expect the Nuggets to be just as cautious with him as they were with Porter and Jarred Vanderbilt last season. Those guys didn’t suit up until they were fully ready, and it’s possible that Bol won’t be ready at any point during the upcoming year.
If he is though, expect him to play mostly G League minutes as he gets accustomed to NBA speed and athleticism.
8. Paul Millsap open to load management
“I mean, load management, if they want to manage my load, by all means go for it. I’m not going to turn it down,” Millsap stated in the media scrum.
Last year, Millsap suited up and played in 70 regular season games, averaging 27.1 minutes per game and being a hall mark for stability. Even though he enjoyed one of the better years of his career, he struggled to maintain that level of impact in a playoff setting, perhaps tiring out at the end of a long year.
Millsap will be entering the 14th year of his NBA career after playing three seasons of college ball at Louisiana Tech. He has a lot of mileage on him and could stand to be on the receiving end of some load management this year. With the addition of Jerami Grant, who started 77 regular season games for the Oklahoma City Thunder last year, the Nuggets have the personnel to allow Millsap some days off.
Don’t be surprised if Millsap plays around 60 to 65 games this season at around 25 minutes per game.
9. No update on Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez rookie extensions
While both players have a deserving case to be locked into a contract extension, president of basketball operations Tim Connelly refrained from offering any new information on the discussions surrounding those contracts.
Given the Jamal Murray max contract extension, it was always going to be difficult to commit more money up front to players that may or may become bigger factors in Denver’s rotation. Beasley, who recently changed agency representation to Klutch Sports, figures to demand starter money for his services in extension negotiations after a strong third season. Hernangomez, who just earned a gold medal in the FIBA World Cup this summer, has played off and on but showcased potential as a floor spacing forward.
No new updates on extension talks lead me to believe that extensions won’t happen, but teams and players often work right up to the deadline on rookie extensions and the pressure of a deadline can often instigate compromise. We will see.
10. Muscle Watch 2019
It wouldn’t be the beginning of the NBA season without hearing about the 20 pounds of muscle players gained or the 15 pounds of body fat players cut, but the Nuggets had some interesting tidbits in the #MuscleWatch department. Gary Harris was the most notable, saying he will enter the season this year at 210 pounds, which was his listed player weight last year, but he looks leaner and to be carrying less muscle weight in general. After having bulked up last offseason, Harris looks to have slimmed down to play faster and with more agility. He has sustained several lower body injuries the last few seasons and hopes to have his body ready to play as many regular season games as he can.
Other players of note: Jokic looks like an absolute truck and seems to have carried the good weight he built to play for Team Serbia into the NBA season. He will be able to move almost every opposing big in the post this year. Vanderbilt looks cut as well and told me he was right around 218 pounds, which is where he likes to play to maintain his speed/agility advantage. Murray looks to have slimmed a bit as well, which could have a positive effect on his shiftiness in the open floor but potentially a negative effect on his defensive physicality.