It’s that time of year again. We’re putting the past behind us, and we’re looking towards a new bright future. The Denver Nuggets will be doing the same thing with us side-by-side.
Since I started writing a little over two years ago, I have had one piece of content that I have done for every site that I’ve written for at this time of the year. It’s the time of year when everyone begins looking to next year and how they plan to improve themselves. Professional sports teams, such as your Denver Nuggets, aren’t any different in this aspect.
As of this writing, the Nuggets find themselves at 21-9 with three games to go before the new year arrives. They’re second in the Western Conference behind the Los Angeles Lakers, and they’ve improved with each month of play thus far. Head coach Michael Malone has been working to fine-tune his lineups more with every game, and we’re seeing certain players get more situational minutes, which is something we should expect a lot later in the year.
However, despite these recent improvements, this team is still far from perfect, and every player down the roster has something they’d like to work on for next year. For some, it’s easier to figure out what they want to improve about themselves, and, for others, we had to look a little bit harder. The bottom line is that no one’s perfect, and they’ll be looking to make 2020 their year.
*For this writing, we only looked at players that have played minutes with Denver so far this season, which is why Bol Bol and P.J. Dozier did not make the cut... yet.
Forward Vlatko Cancar
Alright, Vlatko has played five minutes across three games. The bar is low for him, and it’s simply to always be ready. At only 22 years old, he’s the third-youngest player on the team, and he’s playing at an impossibly deep position on this roster. He offers some scoring touch that he has shown in the G-League along with his time in Europe, where he played three pro seasons. Vlatko has some similarities to former Nugget Danilo Gallinari with his size and offensive acumen.
Forward Jarred Vanderbilt
Similar to Cancar, Vanderbilt hasn’t exactly seen a ton of minutes this season. He’s played nine across three games, which is a step up from Vlatko, but it isn’t much. His resolution for next year is to find a way to find some minutes playing alongside center Nikola Jokic. His athleticism and natural cutting ability make him a load heading towards the basket. We haven’t seen him score at all, but playing alongside a guy like Jokic would give him some of those opportunities. It’s a little difficult to see his path to playing time, but he’s been around for two years and continues to learn the system.
Forward Michael Porter Jr.
We’re going in order of minutes played, and MPJ has somehow played the third-fewest minutes. He’s viewed by the front office as the future of the franchise, but Malone seems less than enthused with Porter’s play on some nights. Malone challenged this team, which had been a largely offensive-minded bunch entering this season, to improve their defense. They’ve answered the call by being the second-best defense in the NBA this year.
However, Porter has been a major weak link in their attempt at that with the third-worst Defensive Box Plus/Minus among the team’s rotation players. He’s at a -3.9, and that’s the area that he needs to work on most. His offense is going to come because he’s that talented, but he needs to put his energy, size and length to good use at the other end to get himself consistent minutes in Malone’s rotations rather than getting the quick hook.
Forward Juan Hernangomez
We could put Hernangomez on the same list with Porter in terms of defense, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do. Porter’s defense has been bad, and Juan has been even worse. He’s a -4.2 in DBPM, but he has all the tools to be a positive on that end of the floor. He’s 6’9” with a 7’ wingspan, and he has plenty of athleticism as we’ve seen during his stints on the floor.
However, like a number of the younger Nuggets, his focus has largely been on the offensive end of the floor, but he’s not exactly lighting it up on that end either. He’s shooting below 40 percent from the floor and just a hair of 30 percent from 3-point range. Those need to come up, but his focus, if he’s to break Malone’s rotation, needs to be on his ability to play within the defensive scheme.
Forward Torrey Craig
Craig needs to regain his postseason shooting, and it needs to happen fast. His shooting, while it is a somewhat small sample size, has been abysmal. He’s below 40 percent from the field, and he’s shooting just 24.1 percent from 3-point range. That’s 6.8 percent below his career average. While his average isn’t great, it’s still better than where he’s at right now.
Torrey has struggled to get minutes alongside Jokic, and there is no guarantee that would help him. However, during the playoffs, he appeared to feed off the defensive stops that he generated by getting out in transition on the other end. While this team has slowed it’s pace down dramatically this season, they still have instances where they get out and run, and that is where Torrey could strike to find his rhythm again.
Guard Malik Beasley
For Beasley, he has to learn how to play within the offense better over the next few months. After not receiving a contract extension, we’ve seen his play become less conducive to playing with others, and he’s been more apt to taking shots that he generates himself rather than within the flow of things around him. You have to look no further than his various shooting splits this season to determine that getting rid of the ball sooner rather than later is the best thing for his scoring.
His shooting percentage goes up in every category in terms of catch-and-shoot vs off the dribble, dribbling less vs more and numerous others. If Beasley doesn’t get traded, which is still a possibility due to his expiring contract combined with being a restricted free agent, he has to learn when to shine out vs when to remain in the flow with everyone around him. If he can do that, he can get back to the efficient scoring that led to his mini-breakout season last year.
Center Mason Plumlee
Improving his free-throw percentage should be at the top of Plumlee’s priority list. He is tied for fifth on the team with 2.2 free throw attempts per game. Per-36 minutes, he’s number one on the team, outside of Vlatko, in free throws, and his minutes are not going to be going down significantly any time soon. He’s averaging 17.2 minutes per game is slightly below last season, but it’s not too bad.
He’s averaging several free throws per game, but he’s struggling to knock down those attempts. His 53.8 free-throw percentage is tied for the worst on the team. This somewhat forces him to fall into the category of hack-a-center that has faded in recent years with teams going smaller. If Jokic were to foul out or become injured, Plumlee cannot be played because he can’t knock down his shots consistently. He’s shown reliability there at times, but he needs to improve the consistency.
Guard Monte Morris
We need to get the entire team to cut back on their floaters and short mid-range shots. Morris has been a major culprit in that area, and it’s costing his shooting percentage dearly. He’s shooting just 42.9 percent from the floor despite shooting 65.8 percent at the rim. A major reason for that struggle has been his shooting from three to 10 feet where he’s shooting just 26.7 percent.
If it were a small sample size, it would be different, but it’s the area that he has taken the most shots outside of directly at the rim. On floaters and driving shots where he doesn’t get to the rim, his numbers head to the garbage. Morris is averaging 47.9 percent from the floor for his career, so he’s proven that he can accomplish this. Now, he just has to turn the clock back to last year.
Forward Jerami Grant
Coming into the year, Jerami Grant was brought in to provide the team with a stretch-four option that could defend a variety of positions. His shooting has started regress back to the mean which is good, but he’s still falling short in a few areas. On Christmas night, he was brought in to close out the game with the starters, which had been Paul Millsap’s job since he arrived in Denver. However, he couldn’t slow down Brandon Ingram, and that’s what he was brought here to do.
Long and athletic wings give every team trouble, but the Nuggets, in particular, have trouble handling those players. Grant’s DBPM of +0.1 is positive, but it’s also the ninth-best mark on the team, which is not what they were hoping to get when they traded for him. It’s possible that he just took some time to get acclimated, and we may see more minutes for him with the starters moving forward. However, that defense of his needs to take another step forward on this team with championship aspirations.
Forward Paul Millsap
Millsap’s age has increased, and, as the intelligent player that he is, we’ve seen him take a major step forward in one area of the floor that must be addressed. His 3-point shooting has been outstanding this year with his 46.2 percent mark that is 5.2 percent better than the next player on the team. His defense remains sound, and he’s not a bad rebounder despite being undersized.
In spite of all of that, we have to pick something for Millsap, and that is his trigger when firing away from deep. His accuracy is great, but he is only shooting 2.3 per game. Per-36 minutes, the picture gets even worse as he’s 10th on the team. While the accuracy may fall a tad, those additional shots will add up to more points for an offense that has looked stagnant at times this year.
Forward Will Barton
Barton has improved his defense hand over foot, and he’s shooting well from the floor. Among the starters, he’s the one that has played the most minutes with the reserves in large part due to the consistency that he brings to the small forward spot where the bench guys have struggled. In those minutes, he’s the primary ball-handler for the majority of possessions, but he does have something to work on.
Barton has never been an other-worldly distributor of the basketball, and he’s above his career average of 2.4. However, his assist percentage is only 15.3 percent which is the only the third-best mark of his career, and it’s below his career average. He takes a lot of shots, and the offense is often flowing through him. Rather than making his teammates stand and watch, he needs to do more to get him involved.
Center Nikola Jokic
The main thing that we need Jokic to do is to push the ball more. It’s pretty simple. When he’s on the floor and making the lead pass, the team is getting easy shots at the rim, or they’re getting fouled en route to it. During his first two seasons as the lead dog of this offense, they were one of the fastest teams in terms of pace, but they’ve been far from it in the past two years.
They’re 29th in the NBA in pace, and that’s a major reason why they aren’t putting up the points that we’re used to seeing out of them. Fewer possessions mean less scoring opportunities and fewer points. Jokic is calculated and lethal as a passer in the half-court, but his ability to make passes in transition is something even fewer players can make. With his ability to rebound, currently averaging 10.0 per game, he needs to get them and go.
Guard Jamal Murray
Murray, fresh off of his recent contract extension, needed to have a big year to make that look like a great decision for Denver. Two months into the season, it looks like a slam dunk for both sides. He’s maintained his averages across the board for the most part, but there is one area that could use a little bit of work.
Murray has never been an elite 3-point shooter with a career-mark of just 35.8, but he’s shooting just 32.5 percent this season. He’s also doing that while leading the team in attempts per game at 5.1. Over the past two seasons, he’s shot over 36 percent from distance, so his average should normalize. With the new year starting, he should start the year right by getting his arrows to land.
Guard Gary Harris
Harris has been a great two-way player for Denver this season, and he’s been the leader of their defense with his ability to defend three positions effectively. His calling card in practice has been “First Team.” While the box score never tells the full story, you would still like to see him doing better on the backboard. The phrase goes that the possession doesn’t end until you get the rebound.
Harris is seventh on the team with 2.8 rebounds per game. 2.3 of those have been defensive rebounds, but that’s not enough for a team that needs more rebounding from its guards. The bigs carry the majority of the load, and it isn’t particularly close. Centers and forwards are supposed to get rebounds, but it’s those long rebounds by guards that end or extend possessions that can break a team’s back. Gary can be that guy for Denver.
If you have a New Year’s Resolution, mine happens to be to improve my consistency with my writing, let me know on Twitter @GbridgfordNFL.