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10 thoughts about Denver before the deep offseason

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Emptying the brain on Nuggets discussion before a nice break in the action.

NBA: Playoffs-San Antonio Spurs at Denver Nuggets Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

I stole this column idea from ESPN’s Zach Lowe. He does a national list titled 10 Things I Like and Don’t Like, and it’s great. So great in fact that I decided to do 10 thoughts on the Nuggets before entering the true offseason.

1. Summer League wrap-up

The Nuggets finished Las Vegas Summer League with a record of 1-3 while answering some questions about players at the event. Michael Porter Jr. didn’t play, but Jarred Vanderbilt suited up in each game and showcased athletically why internally, the team is high on the potential of the power forward prospect. His rebounding tenacity and ability to run the floor compare well to former Nugget Kenneth Faried as Vanderbilt tied for the LVSL lead in rebounding average (11.3), and while his defensive capability remains raw, he proved he could mirror opponents on the perimeter as well as track ball handlers from the weak side to block shots at the rim. In addition, he displayed his passing acumen in both the open floor and half court settings.

Vlatko Cancar wasn’t as good, shooting 36% from the field across the four contests, but he also showcased his diverse skill set as an NBA player. He understands how to play the game, moved without the basketball to create open shots for himself and others, and he’s solid defensively. Cancar will most likely be a sound option in future years as a stretch forward in the mold of Nemanja Bjelica from Serbia.

Thomas Welsh had an efficient showing, shooting 61% from the field (11 of 18 FG) but averaged just 16.3 minutes per game. The defense in the starting group was pretty good, and Welsh was a big part of that. He won’t be an elite defender by any means, but his ability to direct traffic while anchoring the center position could help him crack the rotation. As longs as he plays a smart game offensively as the fifth option on most units, he can positively impact a game within the team construct.

As for the non-roster players, guard Terence Davis earned himself a contract with the Toronto Raptors after playing just one game. The Nuggets rescinded guard Brandon Goodwin’s qualifying offer, even though he averaged the most points on the LVSL squad. This was probably the right move though. The Nuggets need a true wing to develop behind their current group, and at his size, Goodwin just wasn’t going to have a role on this Nuggets roster. Jae’Sean Tate and Tyler Cook made solid impressions at different points as well but likely will be working for international contracts at this stage.

2. Jamal MurrayKobe Bryant comparison

Last week, I compared Jamal Murray to Kobe Bryant. Not necessarily a talent-to-talent comparison (though they are similar as secondary ball handlers one might want next to a superstar big man) but in terms of expectations at a similar age. Whether they like it or not, the Nuggets shot their shot when it comes to Murray’s ceiling. A full year in advance of his next contract, they bet on Murray to be playing at an All-Star level by the first year of Murray’s extension, the 2020-21 season. The 22-year-old guard will be paid an estimated $29.25 million at that point, the same as Ben Simmons and sandwiched between CJ McCollum and Bradley Beal. Murray isn’t quite at the level of any of those players right now, though he’s closer to McCollum.

The Nuggets didn’t bet on him being McCollum though. Murray won’t either. They bet on him topping out at closer to McCollum’s running mate, Damian Lillard, maybe even better. In order to do that, Murray needs to show tangible progress in 2019-20, and if he isn’t operating at an All-Star level by the following season, then there might be some buyer’s remorse from the Nuggets’ side. I would be surprised if Murray didn’t average 20 points per game next season, but the real progress will come with his shooting efficiency, playmaking, and defense. If any or all of those experience a jump, it will show very quickly and help the Nuggets reach a new level as a team.

3. Paul Millsap vs Jerami Grant

This is more of a position battle than people might think. Last season, Grant was excellent as a finisher and defender next to Russell Westbrook and Paul George. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray will operate similarly as creators, and if Grant finishes at a higher rate and defends at a similar level to Millsap, or if Millsap sustains a lengthy injury that forces Grant into the starting lineup, the Nuggets might begin the transition to a younger power forward sooner than later.

Millsap will probably get the initial starting nod though, and there’s little wonder as to why. The Nuggets were excellent with Jokic and Millsap on the floor together, and breaking up that chemistry as soon as it has truly manifested over two years of playing together would be tough. In addition, Grant fits better on the bench than Millsap does as a faster player with slightly more floor spacing tendencies next to a player in Mason Plumlee who can’t space the floor out to the three-point line.

Still, I can’t help but wonder whether the Nuggets go to a lineup of Murray, Gary Harris, Michael Porter Jr., Jerami Grant, and Nikola Jokic at some point this season and just can’t stop using it because of how strong it is. The pieces fit, the youth is there, and Porter is insulated on all sides to make an impact.

4. Michael Porter Jr. dreams

Speaking of Michael Porter Jr., the Nuggets dashed any hopes of watching Porter when it was announced that Porter suffered a knee sprain at the end of the last practice before the team flight to Las Vegas. A truly difficult turn of events for a player just hoping to get back out on the floor and prove doubters wrong. The Nuggets were surely saddened as well, but they remain publicly confident about his potential to make an impact during the 2019-20 season.

I would be floored if Porter wasn’t in the rotation in some capacity next season, but the role he will play depends entirely on how ready he is. There’s a small (very, very small) chance that he could start at small forward on opening night if he’s just ridiculously good out of the gate, but I expect the Nuggets to ease him into the rotation. 10 to 15 minutes a night off the bench to start, playing off the Monte Morris-Mason Plumlee pick and roll and the spacing of Malik Beasley. In addition, he can play next to a defensive oriented Jerami Grant or Torrey Craig. It’s the optimal situation for a young player to be good immediately, and if Porter is in fact good, then the Nuggets have an absolutely stacked rotation with options everywhere.

5. Small Ball vs Big Ball

Depending on how ready each individual piece of the rotation is, the Nuggets have options to play both big and small ball heading into next season. Murray and Morris have experience playing together, and the incoming Grant has some experience playing center. That could be a foundation of a small ball lineup the Nuggets trot out there when they want to speed up the game without sacrificing defense.

On the flip side, center Mason Plumlee has experience at power forward playing next to Nikola Jokic, one of Denver’s most common and successful configurations over the last few years. That option is always available to head coach Michael Malone, though I doubt he uses it as frequently with both Porter and Grant in the fold next year.

6. Gary Harris

This is a massive year for Gary Harris. Going into his sixth year and the second year of a four-year extension he signed in 2017, Harris has spent each of the last three seasons battling injuries and losing effectiveness as a shooter. After topping out at 42.0% from behind the arc in 2016-17, Harris’ three-point percentage has dropped to 39.6% and 33.9% in each of the last two years. He bounced back a little in the playoffs by crossing 35%, but the difference in spacing this season was palpable. In previous years, teams couldn’t leave Harris free for a second or he would hit an open three. Automatic. That changed this year.

I remain confident that Harris will regain his form, and the defense never left. He was excellent defensively against both the San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers in the playoffs, and there’s no reason to expect that to falter any time soon. The question for Denver in future postseasons is who will step up as the third scorer behind Jokic and Murray. Harris is the natural choice given his age, his establishment in the starting backcourt, and the known commodity of his contributions. Unfortunately for Harris, his position is probably the easiest for Denver to offer a significant upgrade if the current core begins to falter. If Harris cannot solidify the shooting guard position with a healthy and effective year next year, the Nuggets may begin to explore alternate options.

7. World Cup thoughts

Paul Millsap (United States), Nikola Jokic (Serbia), Jamal Murray (Canada), and Juancho Hernangomez (Spain) are all in line to participate in FIBA World Cup festivities this summer. The World Cup will take place in China and begin on August 31st, running through September 15th before Denver players report to Media Day in late September roughly 10 days later.

For the Nuggets players, heritage is extremely important, and representing one’s country in a major world basketball event makes sense for the above players. Millsap has never had an opportunity to represent the USA in international competition. Jokic’s ties to Serbia are strong, and he already skipped last year’s events. Murray is extremely vocal about Kitchener, Ontario and his upbringing, and Juancho looks like he’s having fun in Spain. Some of Denver’s most important players will get a head start on basketball prior to the NBA season, and Nuggets fans should root for both success and health for the representing players.

8. NBA Schedule

For the 2017-18 season, the NBA released the full schedule on August 14th, 2017. For 2018-19, the NBA released the schedule on August 10th, 2018. It’s safe to say that the 2019-20 schedule will drop in early to mid August as well, likely around Monday August 12th to Friday August 16th this year.

For the past two seasons, the Nuggets have had an easy start to the season and a difficult closing schedule. If it were up to me, Nuggets fans should root for a tougher schedule at the start of the year. Continuity could help the Nuggets win some tough games over teams trying to build chemistry early in the year. That way, when the Nuggets need to go on a run at the end of the year to solidify playoff seeding, they have an easier stretch of games in front of them than this past year. Denver was fortunate enough to start last season very strong to get them through tough contests at the end of the year. There’s no guarantee of that this season, despite Denver being better on paper.

9. National TV games

Last season, Denver opened the year with 14 nationally televised games on the schedule. That was before Denver had even made a playoff game with the current core. Now, the Nuggets will return following the earning of a 2 seed and a strong performance in the playoffs, usually strong indicators that they will play a number of nationally televised games. I would expect Denver to crack 20 national TV games this year, roughly 1/4 of the season, to match the product on the floor. With so many young and interesting players, a top 10 superstar on the roster, and the beginnings of a winning habit, it’s time for the national audience to see more Nuggets games.

10. Nikola Jokic is one step away

Even though I called him a top 10 player, I still think Nikola Jokic is one step away from becoming a championship caliber superstar at the level of today’s NBA megastars. During the last eight straight seasons, at least two of LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard have appeared in the NBA Finals, and for good reason. No matter how strong the cast of characters around those players were, they found a way to will those teams to championship contention every year. For Kawhi, the scoring happened later, but it happened.

Jokic has to find that final gear as a scorer. He’s already an elite playmaker, but during the playoffs, he turned into another animal, averaging over 25 points, 13 rebounds, and 8 assists per game, numbers only ever averaged by Oscar Robertson across multiple rounds of playoff basketball.

The last step for Jokic is consistently becoming that version of himself in the regular season as well. The Nuggets have bee fortunate enough to fill out a solid bench while Denver’s young players have been on cheaper deals, but as those deals have become expensive, Denver may lose contributors like Mason Plumlee, Malik Beasley, Paul Millsap, and even Monte Morris in future seasons, players that helped reduce Jokic’s minutes during the regular season. That won’t always be the case, and Denver’s tough decisions may put Jokic in a position where he has to play more minutes and shoulder a larger role. If he has to, can he average close to a 25-point triple-double during the regular season? Is he wired to be that level of scorer?

Very few non-guards have ever averaged over 24 points and 7 assists per game. The list is basically LeBron James, Larry Bird, John Havlicek, and Wilt Chamberlain. Jokic could be the next player to join that list, but he must reach a new scoring gear to enter that elite echelon of Hall of Fame talent. I think there’s something extra to be coaxed out of Jokic’s game consistently. If it’s anything close to that level of scoring, then he will officially join the list of players capable of shouldering the championship load.