Today, November 30th, is just over three weeks away from the first NBA game of the season.
Between the rapid fire nature of the NBA bubble, United States Election cycle, and offseason moves of the NBA Draft and free agency, time has genuinely flew from last season to this one. The Los Angeles Lakers were crowned champions in mid October, and they will have an opportunity to defend their title a little over two months after winning it.
NBA teams across the country (no longer the world as the Toronto Raptors have temporarily moved to Tampa Bay) are gearing up for the 2020-21 season. It’s going to be weird. It’s going to be abrupt. It’s going to be marred by Covid-19 until a cure is developed and thoroughly distributed throughout the world. Everything begins with training camp tomorrow. Individual workouts will begin to follow safety protocols, and as more time passes, the team will be able to gather together for group workouts and full team workouts later in the week.
Here are questions I have heading into that process:
Are players healthy and ready to go or potentially still recovering?
The Nuggets will be coming together for the second time under Covid-19 restrictions. The first time was this summer, when over half of the roster tested positive for coronavirus and were forced to quarantine before showing up extremely late for the bubble. Clearly, that didn’t affect the Nuggets as much as it could have as Denver went to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2009.
The hope this time around is that players are ready to go after having stayed safe throughout the fall.
One larger point hangs over the beginning of this season though: the status of Will Barton. It has been widely speculated that Barton may not be ready for the beginning of this season after the knee injury he sustained in the bubble listed as knee soreness. Barton left the bubble and never returned midway through the first round of the playoffs, and there was never any confirmation shared as to his status during those playoffs or during the offseason.
When the Nuggets return to training camp and prepare for a 72-game season that starts a little over three weeks from now, I will be monitoring Barton’s status. When he’s healthy, he’s a starting caliber player who was most likely Denver’s third best player last year. If he returned to that level of production and impact, the Nuggets could brace themselves for the losses of Jerami Grant and Torrey Craig.
If not, the Nuggets will almost certainly change their starting lineup to begin this season.
Will Michael Porter Jr. be in the starting lineup immediately?
Beyond the health and safety of the roster, the biggest question facing the Nuggets right now is whether to throw Michael Porter Jr. into the deep end immediately or hand him a life preserver first.
With the departure of Jerami Grant, the Nuggets lost their third leading scorer in the 2019-20 playoffs, a distant third behind Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokić but still third at 11.6 points per game. Porter ranked fourth with 11.4 points, scoring his baskets with surgical efficiency (60.2 TS%) in only 23.7 minutes per contest. Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar could match Porter’s combination of points per game and true shooting as a playoff rookie. Porter had success as a scorer in the playoffs in what was more than just a limited sample, and the Nuggets have to be gearing up to include him in their plans going forward. Very few young players can match his combination of size and scoring talent.
The only question is whether he will step into a starting role immediately. With Gary Harris, Will Barton, and Paul Millsap all returning, the Nuggets could realistically return to their faithful opening night starting units of 2018-19 and 2019-20. In a season where continuity may be of utmost importance, that would be the ultimate safe move to revert to what has worked the last two seasons. However, Porter may be so good scoring and rebounding already that the Nuggets may be forced to make a change. In Porter’s eight career regular season games as a starter, he averaged 21.6 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 1.5 assists, shooting well above 50/40/90 as well. He is the one player the Nuggets have outside of Jokić and Murray with legitimate star potential.
The defensive issues are real, though the Nuggets will continue to have defensive issues as long as they remain small on the perimeter. The combination of Murray, Harris, and Barton, while much improved over past seasons, has a height problem against perimeter scorers that are 6’7” or taller and a weight problem against the best players in the league. Porter’s individual defensive abilities are lacking, but at a legitimate 6’10” it’s possible that he gives the Nuggets another dimension defensively in the playoffs given a year of seasoning in the regular season.
The Nuggets would be wise to explore this possibility to the fullest extent they can.
Who starts at power forward?
The Nuggets don’t just have Porter as a Jerami Grant replacement. They also brought in JaMychal Green, former Los Angeles Clippers big man, to replace his minutes at power forward. Green averaged 20.7 minutes per game in a bench role for the Clippers during the regular season, and though that role reduced to 17.1 minutes in the playoffs, it was clear that Green’s skill set was important for the Clippers. While Ivica Zubac was the rim-rolling and rim-protecting starting center and Montrezl Harrell was the scoring and energizing backup big, Green was the complementary piece who held the group together. He shot 43.5% from three-point range in the playoffs, played connected defense, and was a major positive for a Clippers team that desperately needed stability outside of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
How the Nuggets handle the addition of Green will be very telling. Denver also re-signed veteran big man Paul Millsap, and the assumption is that the two of them will combine for most of the power forward minutes from game to game. The question of who starts and who closes games is probably a secondary question. Both players possess similar skill sets with Millsap as a more confident individual scorer and Green as the more mobile player from end to end.
It wouldn’t surprise me if the Nuggets started either player. Denver could maintain statud quo and start Millsap next to Jokić if they want. Green is more of a mobile power forward than Millsap is though, and it would make a degree of sense to start the mobile power forward next to Jokić. The Serbian big man needs a player like Green to space the floor, play solid defense, and mostly stay out of the way offensively. With the bench unit in flux after the departure of Mason Plumlee, having Millsap come off the bench as both power forward and small ball center also makes sense. He could play next to a center like Isaiah Hartenstein if the Nuggets want to go big or a wing/forward hybrid like Bol Bol if the Nuggets want to go small.
What’s going on at backup point guard?
So, the Nuggets added Facundo Campazzo to the roster in November. Campazzo, an elite international player who suits up Real Madrid and the national team for Argentina, is about as great as 5’11” point guards can be. He’s an elite passer, good shooter off the dribble, and runs offense with the creativity of Jokić and the audaciousness of a Ja Morant poster dunk attempt.
He is 5’11” though, and that almost certainly puts a limit at what he can be at the NBA level. Offense will probably never be an issue, but teams will pick on Campazzo defensively, regardless of his competitive instincts on that end of the floor. He profiles as a backup point guard, a good one at that, and could certainly be helpful in offering the Nuggets a spark off the bench.
Of course, the Nuggets already have a backup point guard though: Monte Morris has been Denver’s primary backup for the last two seasons, playing in quite literally every single game. He is perhaps the most dependable Nugget, and as he has improved, he has become more integral as a piece off the bench. The point guard is 6’2” and only 183 pounds, but he consistently flourishes next to Jamal Murray in dual point guard lineups.
Morris is eligible for a contract extension until December 21st, and it’s unclear if there’s mutual interest to agree to a deal or not. After signing Campazzo, Denver’s actions suggest that extending Morris isn’t in the cards. It might still happen, but paying significant money to two backup point guards on a roster that has Murray locked into a max contract would be a questionable decision.
Both Campazzo and Morris deserve to play, and the Nuggets have made it be known that they believe the two point guards can play together; however, as the Nuggets attempt to become a more resilient playoff team against the best in the NBA, adding more undersized guards and losing two-way wings was not what many had in mind. A backcourt featuring Campazzo and Morris off the bench will score in the playoffs but will also be scored upon frequently. That means that one will likely play over the other at some point in the season. Who plays over who is the real question.
Is Bol Bol legit?
Finally, a fun question the Nuggets and NBA fans alike are hoping to find an answer to: is Bol Bol really going to be part of Denver’s ongoing plans?
Denver’s offseason moves would certainly signal that Bol will receive ample opportunity to prove himself. On top of being converted from a two-way deal to a full-time contract, the Nuggets lost Jerami Grant and willingly gave up Torrey Craig and Keita Bates-Diop in the offseason. Both would have been options at the forward spots this year, but now, the only players standing in the way of Bol getting legitimate playing time are Porter, Barton, Millsap, Green, Vlatko Čančar, and Greg Whittington, a two-way player.
The Nuggets saw talent they liked from Bol during his run in the bubble, and given some injury questions to Barton and Covid-19 hanging over everyone’s head, it would be surprising if Bol DIDN’T play at some point during the 2020-21 season. Is he about to carve out a starting role in between Porter and Jokic? Probably not, but much like Porter during the 2019-20 season, the Nuggets are hoping to see flashes of talent at opportune moments throughout the year.
I will be rooting for Bol. He’s fun, intelligent, and extremely talented. If he can stay healthy and become impactful, the Nuggets may have a unique player on their hands who could help them going forward.