We’ve reached the halfway point of the 2019-20 season. How has the first half of the season gone?
Daniel Lewis (@minutemandan): If all you did was look at the win/loss record, this has to be considered a great season so far. The Nuggets are in a great position to contend for home court in the first (and second??) round of the playoffs, avoiding the Lakers. They are 17-6 against the Western Conference, and haven’t lost a divisional game. I wouldn’t say that it’s been easy to get to 29-12 though. They have become a team that relies on “flipping the switch” for defense, and their offense has only looked elite a few times. They shoot a ton of floaters and midrange jumpers for a team that would seem to be much better at scoring then they have been.
Gordon Gross (@gmoneynuggs): Record-wise, Denver is doing great. I agree with Dan, the underlying performance to get to that record has been spotty, including their ability to play down to the level of their opponent. Until a couple of weeks ago I would have been all right with Denver’s injury outlook but that’s going downhill as well right now. But the emergence of Michael Porter Jr. is helping to balance out the injury woes, as is the re-emergence of Malik Beasley as a nuclear scoring threat. If the bench can get more scoring and the starters can get healthy, then maybe the Nuggets can consistently live up to their fairly sparkling record.
Gage Bridgford (@GbridgfordNFL): The fact that Denver is second in the Western Conference is absolutely a win. However, you just can’t overlook the performances that we’ve seen out of this team this season. Against multiple teams that are likely to miss the playoffs or be close to it, they’ve been played off of the court and out of the gym. The offense has been efficient over the last month, but they still don’t look like the team that nearly made the Western Conference Finals last season. Michael Malone looks like he is still trying to master the rotations and struggling to find the right balance of players. If he can figure that out, things could get a lot better for them over the back half of the season.
How are the Nuggets looking right now?
Lewis: They look better than they did to start the season, but it’s all because of Nikola Jokic. Over the last 20 games, Jokic is averaging 22-9-6 while shooting 55/45/80, which is absurd. They’re banged up, with Paul Millsap, Gary Harris, and Jamal Murray having all missed games as of late. They’re a team that has a lot of theoretical shooters, but aren’t actually playing good shooters a lot of minutes. They’ll either break out of their slumps, or the front office will have to find a player that can shoot over 35 percent from distance on the trade market. They need to hope that Michael Porter Jr. continues to be an elite shooter, because he’s one of their most reliable 3-point shooters at this point.
Gross: Banged up. Lower leg injuries will not help their guards shoot better, and Denver needs the guards to shoot better. The Nuggets looks to be in flux, as minutes are moving around and everyone is trying to find and fill a role. Jokic has been the constant over the past month and a half but everyone else is scrambling to fill roles - except Will Barton, who looks as confident on both ends as I can remember seeing him. Last year, Murray and Jokic dragged it home down the stretch. This year it maybe be Barton and Jokic.
Bridgford: In the back end of games, they look fantastic. During the start of games, they’re getting outplayed on most nights. Combined with their injuries, the next few weeks are going to be really interesting to watch. Their depth, which had been praised so much coming into the year, is going to be stressed while Gary Harris, Jamal Murray and Paul Millsap get healthy. If they answer the call, this team looks even more dangerous for the playoffs. If they struggle, it makes them look weak for the end of the year.
What are your expectations for the remainder of the season?
Lewis: They’ve got a lot more games against teams in the Western Conference coming up, but the Nuggets have been good against those teams so far this season (17-6 vs the West). If they can get another contributor at the trade deadline, then get healthy over the All-Star break, I think they can finish with the 2-seed in the conference.
Gross: I expect Denver to finish with home court, now that the Jazz have finally lost a game and won’t run the table with a 40-game winning streak from here out. Where they finish 1-4 will depend largely on health, and on the consistency of its bench shooters. I don’t expect them to add another player at the deadline in a big trade, though - I think the way the season is playing out has them more comfortable keeping their depth instead of getting more top-heavy with their talent (for better or worse).
Bridgford: I’m expecting Denver to host a playoff series, but I also don’t think that they’re going to finish with one of the top two seeds. It’s nothing against the Nuggets. It’s what we’ve seen from other teams at the top of the West. The Utah Jazz, LA Clippers and Houston Rockets have all looked like the second best team in the conference at one point or another. The Nuggets, meanwhile, have mastered the art of winning ugly. They’ve had multiple games where they failed to show up on one end of the floor. I think they’re eventually going to be unable to win all of the close games they’ve had thus far which will result in them finishing as the three or four seed.
What has been the biggest surprise of the season? What has been the biggest disappointment?
Lewis: I think the biggest surprise for me (and a lot of Nuggets fans) is Michael Porter Jr. and how good he has been. This is a kid that hadn’t played in a very, very long time. He had to work to get back healthy after surgery for back injuries. He missed Summer League. He’s looked lost on defense, but he is already an elite scorer. The Nuggets sure got lucky that he fell to them on draft day, but luck has nothing to do with the amount of work he’s put in to get to this point so early in his career. The biggest disappointment for me has been Gary Harris. I understand that his core injury last season impacted his play, but I didn’t think he’d lose the ability to shoot. In the past, he was money on the DHO with Jokic, able to pull up and hit a 3-pointer if the defender went under, or drive to the rim if the defender went over. Now all he does is eventually get near the paint and toss a floater 20 feet in the air. The Nuggets can’t afford to have Avery Bradley 2.0 out there playing starter minutes if they’re serious about contending for a championship.
Gross: Since I expected MPJ to be an offensive force, the biggest surprise of the season for me was honestly Malik Beasley getting fridged for 25 games. I expected far more than garbage minutes for him this year, and for him to get big 6th Man energy. Instead he’s been on the shelf. I expect that to change in the second half, and these guard injuries have opened a window for his minutes to increase drastically - now all he needs to do is take advantage. The biggest disappointment for me has been the ill fit for Jerami Grant so far next to Nikola Jokic. That’s not to say Grant is a bad player - he isn’t. But as a potential replacement for Paul Millsap in future years, I’m just not seeing it. Denver gave up a (late) first round pick for Grant and I’m not sure I see him as more than the 24 mpg bench player he is now. The second half of the year will show a lot more, now that he has a feel for what Jokic ball means.
Bridgford: The best surprise for me this year has been the defense of Will Barton. In addition to increasing his efficiency on offense, he’s massively improved on defense. He’s fifth on the team in defensive rating after largely being a sieve to this point in his career. He still struggles with bigger wings, but he has made great strides on that end. The fact that Jerami Grant hasn’t been just a seamless fit thus far astounds me. After playing so well alongside Russell Westbrook in OKC, it made sense for him to play off of Jokic. It’s a disappointment just like Gordon said. It could be the fact that he’s played largely off of the bench with a guy like Monte Morris initiating the offense, but it’s still unfortunate to see nonetheless.
A Nuggets player is pulling up for a 3-pointer - who do you feel most comfortable with taking that shot?
Lewis: Honestly, at this point, only Nikola Jokic. As good as MPJ has been, he’s still so young, it’s scary to trust him in the fourth quarter.
Gross: Will Barton. He’s back around his career-highs as a three point shooter and he’s not afraid of the moment.
Bridgford: If this is a spot-up, contested or not, I want it to be Porter. If it’s a true pull-up, give me Malik Beasley. He’s shooting nearly 40 percent from 3-point range, and his confidence in pull-up situations is unflappable.
What is your best explanation for the Nuggets being unable to beat really bad teams?
Lewis: They’re a young team that haven’t learned how to be consistent over 48 minutes.
Gross: The Nuggets have gotten comfortable with being good and trusting that to be enough. They’re not focused enough yet to be great and handle their business against those lesser teams.
Bridgford: The Nuggets are the classic version of a team that plays to their competition. They get up for games with good teams, and they relax against lesser teams. That’s how you get pushed to seven games in the first round against a bad team.
What has been your favorite play this season?
Lewis: Oh, it’s easily the MPJ stepback against the Pacers for a 3-pointer. That was just a ridiculous shot, and that was the exact moment I was convinced he was going to be special.
Gross: Jokic banking in the 22 foot game winner while being fouled against the 76ers. He still hadn’t found his pacing for the season, but I never tire of Jokic being willing and able to strap this team to his back and get it done.
Bridgford: Porter’s stepback against the Pacers was great. I can’t go with another play because of what followed in the next game. Malone limited his minutes which further pointed to the minutes battle we’ve seen all year.
Take a couple sentences to gush about your favorite player on the team to finish this out.
Lewis: I’ve really been impressed with Jamal Murray, I don’t care what the stats say. He’s in a weird situation where he’s still really young, trying to figure things out, but he’s got a bit of nasty in his game, and I love that. He’s not afraid to mug after a dunk, cross over his defender, or throw a mean screen to free up a teammate. He tries hard on defense, and you can tell he puts in work to be better. He still has some growing up to do, and he needs to get healthy, but I love the track he is on.
Gross: Jokic is my favorite player, and I’ve sworn I don’t run an MPJ stan account but I’m a huge fan of his too. I’m gonna take Will Barton for this though. Barton has been Denver’s consistent finisher and offensive gunner, but his defense has taken a big leap forward this year. As a two-way force looking for his most impactful year ever, I have to respect Thrill’s game this year coming back from last season’s horrific injuries in the best way possible.
Bridgford: I was going to take Barton until Gordon took that option. As a result, I’m going to gush about Mason Plumlee. I think he gets far too many minutes, and I think Malone needs to give him less run. Despite that, the guy shows up when he’s on the floor. He was arguably the team’s third-best player against the Golden State Warriors. He’s fundamentally sound, and he’s an outstanding rebounder. As long as Malone maintains his minutes at their current rate, there aren’t a ton of centers coming off of the bench that you’d want in his place for this system.