It’s that time of year again when Denver Nuggets fans forget how to sleep normally.
If you’re reading this preview on Wednesday morning, it wouldn’t surprise me if you were up late at night, tossing and turning about the new Nuggets season. That’s what great fans do. They care that much.
If there was ever a season to care about the Nuggets, it’s this one. The roster is absolutely loaded with quality talent. MVP candidate Nikola Jokic with his supreme passing chops and basketball IQ is ready for an encore after a breakout season. Jamal Murray, fresh off a max contract extension, is eager to show the world that he deserved the faith the Nuggets placed in him. Gary Harris and Will Barton are bouncing back from injuries to show their starting spots were never in jeopardy. Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant are the best power forward tandem in the NBA. I haven’t even mentioned Monte Morris or Malik Beasley yet, who were probably the fourth and fifth most important players on last season’s 54-win roster.
This Nuggets team is ready to explode onto the NBA scene again. The talk will be about the Los Angeles teams, about whether Houston’s move for Russell Westbrook puts them over the top, about whether Milwaukee or Philadelphia will claim the title of best team in the East. But it’s time to talk about these Nuggets again. After being one game away from the Western Conference Finals and losing to this very team in the Portland Trail Blazers, the Nuggets are getting ready to prove they deserve the hype. It starts tonight. Game 1.
Who: Denver Nuggets (0-0) at Portland Trail Blazers (0-0)
When: 8:00 PM MDT
Where: Moda Center | Portland, Oregon
How to watch/listen: ESPN, fortunately
Rival Blog: Blazer’s Edge
Key matchup: Jamal Murray and Gary Harris vs Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum
No matter who defends who, this is where the battle will probably be won or lost. The Nuggets are expecting great things from Murray this year and for many years to come, and stepping up against the team and the backcourt that foiled Denver’s season last year would go a long way in terms of his development. Harris is in a similar position, with McCollum having torched him in Game 7 last year defensively. Did Harris learn from that experience? Did he grow from it? What does his offensive game look like when rejoining this rotation as one of the top offensive options?
The Blazers are the gold standard for NBA back courts right now outside of possibly the Houston Rockets. The Nuggets guards are working to reach that point. Playing Portland’s guards to an even matchup makes life easier for Nikola Jokic and the rest of the Nuggets rotation. The closer the Nuggets backcourt is to the Blazers backcourt, the higher Denver’s chances of winning become.
Key thing to watch for: Who starts and plays at small forward tonight?
The general feeling around Pepsi Center among media members reading between the lines is that Will Barton will start on opening night. That may or may not actually happen, but it’s my personal expectation. Barton wasn’t great in the preseason, but he played well in the finale against these Blazers. If he starts, I would expect him to play about 28 to 30 minutes in this game. Denver’s offense will need to be great during those minutes, because Denver doesn’t have a great perimeter defense with Murray, Harris, and Barton out there at the same time.
In addition, the expectation is that Torrey Craig absorbs the backup small forward minutes ahead of both Michael Porter Jr. and Juancho Hernangomez. Craig didn’t shoot the ball well in preseason but played his patented defense, showing an ability to neutralize the player across from him. He did a good job against Devin Booker and the Suns in his lone start of the preseason, and he has the capability to pester Lillard, McCollum, and Rodney Hood.
The big story is Porter though. Michael Malone stated that Porter would have to earn his rotation minutes throughout the year, and my belief is that he will. He’s too talented to let those opportunities pass him by. For Nuggets fans though, they may have to wait just a bit longer than they hoped to see Porter in the first regular season game of his career.
Opening thought: The best is still to come, but here’s the first look
This Nuggets team is so young. It’s very unlikely that this version of the team is the best team they will ever have. That doesn’t mean they can’t be great now though. This team is motivated, driven to prove that last season’s performance wasn’t a fluke, hungry to show the world the team they can be. Last year’s roster that lost to Portland was better than how they performed, and now they added Jerami Grant and Michael Porter Jr. to the equation. The future is bright, but don’t let the national pundits tell you the present can’t be just as bright.
Tonight is the beginning of that long journey. For four straight years, Denver’s trajectory has pointed up. Let’s see if they can make it five. They have the talent, the coaching, the depth, the star power, and the motivation to get it done.
So, get it done.