This offseason has brought the Denver Nuggets many things, some new and some old. One thing it did not bring them is clarity. Thus far the roster has not been pared down. Denver has all 17 slots filled and not one of them filled with a 6’7 wing defender. The Nuggets have at least four point guards though, not including Jokic who is the actual centerpiece of the offense. Starting with the draft and carrying through the start of the free agent period, Denver’s choices don’t seem to have matched up with the immediate goals of winning a championship.
But there’s always the likelihood that we outside observers are missing something. The rest of the Western Conference is stocking up for this year, adding tall veterans to better match up with the Lakers, who are adding veterans of their own. The West from first seed on down has made strides to get their rosters right for this year, to tweak formulas and continue on one grinding step at a time - except Denver.
The Nuggets, for all their talk about not skipping steps, sure look like they’re trying to climb the mountain a different way. The reference point to win a title with three home grown stars is the San Antonio Spurs, and the Spurs had an incredibly long run despite never winning back-to-back because their stars bought in and everyone was willing to stay in San Antonio (despite Miami coming within a bad plane flight of taking Tim Duncan away). But even the Spurs added a ton of defensive pieces either through the draft or free agency to help their signature stars. The Golden State Warriors were also homegrown (prior to Kevin Durant) but one of those three was a switchable defensive star in Draymond Green, while the Warriors ran their offense through two of the best shooters to ever lace them up in the Association.
Denver just adds immense talent in the draft. They are building this without high picks, and yet they continue to select falling stars, glowing meteors the Nuggets catch before they reach the earth. It’s a frustrating coincidence that the one they missed (OG Anunoby) fits the exact positional need they have, but with Michael Porter Jr., Bol Bol and now R.J. Hampton in the fold, things are looking up. They’re all top prospects who were overlooked on draft day but now don Nuggets jerseys, but they are also offense-first players. So are both members of Denver’s engine, Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic. The Nuggets have a habit of picking the best player, which means that their ability to fit all those players in together on the same team is compromised.
Or is it? The Nuggets have one of the most unique roster constructions in the league. Their offense is hubbed around all-world point center Jokic, while Murray is a fascinatingly talented combo guard and competitor who absolutely straps on some afterburner jets for his playoff performances. Denver has waves of guards to throw at any problem. Gary Harris is a phenomenal guard defender while Will Barton is an explosive slasher and scorer. If both men are healthy that’s an incredible boon, but even if they aren’t Denver has Facundo Campazzo, Monte Morris and P.J. Dozier to continue the offensive attack and direct the bench.
And all that is before we get to the forwards. No other team in the league has a pair of big forwards like the 6’10 MPJ and the 7’2 Bol. The amount of offense that can come from that pair of players, who can rebound and score from all levels is obscene. The Nuggets have a couple of defensive forwards in Paul Millsap and JaMychal Green but they are absolutely loaded as a scoring team that can kill from every spot on the court and create mismatches wherever they like even without including rookies RJ Hampton and Zeke Nnaji in the mix this year.
But will Denver do that? Nuggets fans remember the fast and furious hook employed by coach Michael Malone during Porter’s rookie defensive lapses. They’re well aware that without a rash of injuries he might not have seen the floor in the bubble restart last year, where he made the list of bubble All-Stars and set himself up for regular playing time in the postseason. Porter should be getting 30 minutes a game this year, but will he? It’s impossible to cure the holes in his defensive game in a few offseason weeks. Similarly, Bol Bol will need patience to develop his one-of-a-kind game. Will Denver give them the time they need?
Coach Malone is a fierce competitor in his own right with an intense focus on defense. Tim Connelly got him some defensive patches after Jerami Grant left for Detroit in free agency, but that is nowhere near enough to make Denver a more defensive team. In fact, every year in which Denver has the opportunity to become a more defensive squad, Connelly surveys his options and goes another way. Talent uber alles. With MPJ in line for a huge extension after the season, the Nuggets will have three massive salaries tied to three young cornerstones and none of those players are defensive stalwarts.
Can the Nuggets win with a team so diametrically opposed to its coach’s preferences? The Nuggets made the Western Conference Finals with most of those players last year so I’d like to say yes, absolutely - but once again in the playoffs the offense devolved from a more wide-open Jokic Ball style into a drearily predictable 1-5 pick and roll between Murray and Jokic, with everyone else standing around watching on too many plays. Porter got himself into hot water when he brought it up in a post-game press conference but a predictable Nuggets offense is a beatable Nuggets offense, especially when opposing teams have few stoppers on the other end.
The Nuggets played at the second-slowest pace in the league last year, and if you think that’s because they run the offense through a center then let me remind you they were 7th in pace in Jokic’s second season. The pace has fallen every year since. Malone hates mistakes; he hates them on offense and defense equally, but his approach to offensive mistakes is to limit opportunities and call a bunch of plays from the sidelines. The Nuggets have gone from a read-and-react type of offensive amoeba to “run the pick and roll and see what happens” every time down court.
That can’t be Denver’s primary offensive construction this year. Yes, it works - because everything works with Jokic, and Murray has become terrific at running the P&R with Nikola. But Denver just added a slashing guard to back up (and potentially eventually replace) Will Barton and signed a flashy point guard wizard from Real Madrid in Facundo Campazzo to complement (and potentially eventually replace) the no-mistakes point guard style of Monte Morris.
The roster is screaming to be an offensive juggernaut. Denver may try to trade some of its offensive largesse for defensive help, but failing that - please, for the love of Nuggets basketball, let them play.
Nikola Jokic is a unicorn among unicorns. His offensive game is varied and vast, and his passes can thread the best defenses. Forcing him to just pick and roll 50 times a game is like making Michelangelo paint stop signs. Campazzo is a creative artist with the experience and talent to use the length and breadth of the court to his advantage. Allow him to do that. Let Murray create on and off ball, and MPJ do more than just post up at the corner three and watch the ball never come to him.
What team is going to match up with multiple offensive creators moving the ball to players who can light it up from anywhere on the court? Players that are built to cut and rebound and score, score, score. The Nuggets have the opportunity to create the kind of offense the league has never seen, with unicorns running up and down the court wreaking havoc. It’s scary, I get it - what if it doesn’t work? What if their defense gives back all their offensive gains? “What if” is a scary phrase.
Failure is a scary word. The Jokic era is a blessing for the Nuggets, as the Melo era was. No Nuggets fan wants to see the Jokic era flame out in the same fashion. Denver has crafted a roster this year that allows them - almost forces them - to take risks. To build an offensive titan to rival any in the league. They cannot be a defensive force in the same vein, they simply do not have those players, but they can be defensive in spots. Get some stops and then keep firing on offense. They’re built to rebound as few teams ever can, and grabbing defensive boards counts as defense too.
So my exhortation to the Denver Nuggets is to be brave. Malone will have to put his preferences aside. Defensive effort will have to stand in for defensive brilliance, while on offense he will need to take the fetters off once and for all and let this team breathe deeply. The Nuggets took a look at available options and put a thumb on the scale for offensive versatility and dynamism. They can always scale it back later as the pieces change, keep what works and lose what doesn’t, but this is the sort of trial that most teams can never do, especially most contenders. This is a swing for upside, rather than fear of downside. It’s a fire-breathing dragon waiting to be unchained.
Let it breathe - and win.