This list needs no introduction. Don’t read too much into preseason, but here’s where I’m both excited and concerned about Denver’s season outlook.
1. Jamal Murray will lead the Nuggets in minutes per game
At 22.5 minutes per game across four preseason contests, Murray led all Nuggets by just a tad. At 22 years old with a lot to prove after signing a $168 million maximum contract extension this offseason, it shouldn’t shock anyone if he once again leads the Nuggets in minutes per game. His 32.6 minutes per game during the 2018-19 season led all Nuggets,, and with a Nuggets roster that remains deep and a backup point guard capable of playing off ball in Monte Morris, expect Murray’s minute total to remain constant.
2. Mason Plumlee will lead the Nuggets in field goal percentage
While an astounding mark of 81.3 FG% won’t continue into the regular season, it’s a strong indicator that the spacing with Jerami Grant in the second unit will have a positive effect on Plumlee. Last season, Trey Lyles made just 25.5% of his three-pointers in a Nuggets uniform, and that condensed spacing hurt both Denver’s efficiency. In addition, Plumlee’s effective field goal percentage dropped to below average levels when playing next to Will Barton. If Barton is a starter, then he and Plumlee will rarely share the floor together.
3. Denver still needs three-point shooting help
It’s the preseason, so small sample size alert here (like every other takeaway on this list) but the Nuggets were 27th in three-point percentage among all NBA teams. Their 30.4% accuracy from three ranked ahead of only the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the Los Angeles Clippers. Three teams that were bad shooting the ball last season or didn’t shoot it enough.
The real concern here is the attempts per game. The Nuggets ranked third to last in the NBA in three-point attempts per game ahead of only the Portland Trail Blazers and the San Antonio Spurs. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum each rested two preseason games for the Blazers, and the Spurs run to the beat of their own drum offensively. There are strong indicators that the Nuggets aren’t going to shoot enough threes this year to improve to elite offensive levels, particularly because their efficiency in other locations on the floor just isn’t good enough as a group.
There’s no easy fix here. Murray and Harris project to be goo three-point shooters, while Barton should have a bounce back year. Every player in Denver’s rotation is a capable of being an above average three-point shooter except Plumlee, who’s 50% in preseason on threes, so good for him; however, I have my doubts that the Nuggets will generate enough of these looks due partially to the Nikola Jokic offense and its contributors.
4. Monte Morris and Malik Beasley are the best backup backcourt
They had a claim for it last year, but the Clippers with Lou Williams and the Brooklyn Nets with Spencer Dinwiddie earned enough equity to stay ahead on their own.
Morris and Beasley, assuming there are no contractual distractions and the focus is all about basketball, are going to be legit. Morris this preseason left off where he started last year and showcased some improved strength finishing through contact at the rim. Both players improved their usage rates and should look to be more involved in the bench offense rather than running most actions through their bigs. Morris is a legit starting caliber guard, and Beasley might be a star talent if given more minutes to prove himself.
5. Nikola Jokic is still Nikola Jokic
An elite playmaker on offense and a threat to steal the ball from any guard defensively, Jokic once again showed his skills. He only played in three of the four games and clearly didn’t care about scoring in any game but the last one, but when he wanted to, he did whatever he wanted on the floor. He posted higher than 63.0 FG% and directed traffic with the best of them on that end...
6. ...and Paul Millsap is still Paul Millsap for now
Both Jokic and Millsap played incredibly well, posting identical field goal percentages during the preseason in their three games apiece. What separated Millsap from Jokic was how well the former shot the ball from the perimeter, making 6/9 of his three-pointers during the three games. Millsap’s release isn’t ideal, but it’s noticeably quicker than it was before. If he can continue to shoot efficiently on a quick release, teams will be forced to respect his shot and open up driving lanes for Jokic, Harris, and Murray.
I’m skeptical of how Denver will play with Millsap at the beginning of the season versus how they play at the end, but it may not matter because...
7. Jerami Grant is dope
A universally accepted perfect fit for the Nuggets offense, Grant is going to do more than just be a great fit next to Nikola Jokic. As it turns out, he fits well with Mason Plumlee too. With his three-point shot hitting in the preseason at 58.3%, Grant has spaced the floor well for Denver’s bench units which have been the most successful on the team.
His ability to space the floor offensively has been impressive, both as a shooter and a cutter. He seems to know where he needs to be at any given time, and Malone commended him in practice for it last Sunday as having good enough chemistry and skill level to play with either the starters or the bench,
And that’s what I think he will do: split time with the starters and the bench this year. Paul Millsap will need rest days throughout the year, and Grant is still 25 and won’t turn 26 until late March. He can handle a bunch of minutes and will be relied upon to do so, aiding all three of Millsap, Jokic, and Plumlee with his springy frame, defensive IQ, and shooting stroke.
8. It looks like Will Barton is going to start at small forward opening night
In my other article today, I spoke a bit about how Monte Morris may have let slip that the Nuggets are going with Will Barton as the opening night small forward starter, and it makes sense. He’s the veteran in the room and had the best preseason showing behind Michael Porter Jr. among the small forward candidates. His defense wasn’t great, and him only accumulating one steal and no blocks in 77 preseason minutes isn’t a great sign. It’s not the be-all end-all of him starting, as he should provide more offense than defense on most nights, but if he’s really going to stick as a starter, he has to improve defensively.
9. The starting small forward competition won’t be over after Game 1
Whoever ends up as the starting small forward, Barton or Torrey Craig or whoever, it probably won’t be the only starts the whole season. Last year, the Nuggets started all three of Barton, Craig, and Juancho Hernangomez throughout the year. Craig started many of those games at shooting guard next to Juancho, but the thought still stands.
Malone and co. are working the regular season with the playoffs in mind, and if I were them, I would take a page out of the Nick Nurse handbook of regular season rotations. The Toronto Raptors played Kawhi Leonard in just 60 games as they managed his minute load heading into the playoffs. Nurse also swapped out Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas at center until the team traded for Marc Gasol. The Nuggets may want to adopt a similar strategy, starting players in optimal situations for successful play, as well as suboptimal situations to see how players react to certain situations. As in, starting Torrey Craig in one game against the Los Angeles Lakers and LeBron James and switching to Will Barton in the next Lakers game. That way, Denver will have the full picture of which combinations work and don’t work against other playoff teams.
10. The Michael Porter Jr. hype is real, and the 21-year-old needs to play
It really was strange to see Porter walk onto a court and live up to such high expectations in the preseason. “The next Kevin Durant” and “Generational Player” have been thrown around. There are merits to high expectations, but it’s mostly noise. All that matters is what Porter ACTUALLY does on the court, not what people THINK he can do.
That said, he’s done a lot, and it’s mighty impressive. In total, Porter shot 16/29 from the field in the preseason, a 55.2 FG% for a rookie that takes a lot of long jumpers. The two most intriguing factors in his shooting profile were the contested jumpers and the size around the rim. Porter can clearly get his shot off over anybody he wants, and that makes him a threat with the ball in his hands with the clock winding down. That’s not a sustainable way to be efficient though, which is why Porter’s size around the rim is so intriguing. He often buried opposing guards underneath the rim for easy baskets on rebound put backs and cuts to the front of the rim. Those are skills that pair well in Denver’s offense that leads to a lot of space in front of the rim.
The only way for Porter to truly refine his skill set and role within Denver’s offense is to play him though. It’s a tough catch-22 because Denver will struggle while he’s out there, at least more than usual, because he’s a rookie and that’s just what happens. And yet, Denver’s ceiling rises to new levels with Porter incorporated into the fold. At small forward, he can shoot and jump over everyone. At power forward, he drags bigger players out to the perimeter and can hopefully drive by them in time with consistency. The only way to see those results though?
Playing the rookie 15 minutes per game off the bench as many nights as he can take it will help him get there.