The unofficial mantra of this era of Denver Nuggets basketball is “we don’t skip steps.” That has held true as the Nuggets have gone from a repeat lottery team to missing the playoffs by one game in 2018 to a second round appearance in 2019 to a wild run to the Western Conference Finals just a few months ago. While it’s rare for teams to follow such a true linear progression, Denver has the chance to continue its upward trend in 2021.
The next step in that trajectory - making and winning the NBA Finals - will be the toughest one yet, especially for a franchise that has never before even made it that far in the postseason. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, though, even with the defending champion Lakers reloading with Dennis Schroder, Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell.
Other teams in the West made moves as well. The Clippers added Serge Ibaka, Utah brought back Derrick Favors, Houston traded Russell Westbrook for John Wall and the Warriors picked up Kelly Oubre Jr. and will have a healthy Steph Curry again. On the surface it seems as if other contending teams got better while Denver got worse. Don’t be fooled by such analysis.
Yes, the Nuggets’ offseason got off to a shaky start when Jerami Grant spurned Denver for a larger offensive role with the Detroit Pistons instead. Thinking that Denver’s title hopes left with Grant is as short sighted as Grant’s thinking was during free agency, though. Tim Connelly recovered by bringing in JaMychal Green from the Clippers, a tenacious and long forward who can also shoot, re-signing veteran Paul Millsap, replacing Mason Plumlee with diamond in the rough Isaiah Hartenstein and plucking the crafty Facundo Campazzo from Real Madrid.
It sure seems like Denver has regressed, especially defensively - after all, without Grant or other perimeter defender Torrey Craig, who will guard elite wing players like Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James or Anthony Davis in the playoffs? The path to the finals goes through the Lakers so it’s a valid question. But it also might not matter.
For one, the Nuggets already had the 5th best offense in the league last season, both in the regular season and the playoffs. The roster they have now might be even better with its continuity and depth. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, both coming off historic playoff performances, will lead the way again in 2021. Jokic can legitimately place himself in the MVP race this year and Murray will have a great shot at earning his first All-Star appearance.
At the forward position the Nuggets have two options: Will Barton and Michael Porter Jr. Denver survived fine without Barton in the first two rounds of the playoffs but sorely missed his 15.1 points per game in the Western Conference Finals. Him being healthy again is an absolutely huge gain for Denver that will go unnoticed. MPJ held his own in Barton’s place but was a liability on defense in the postseason. Still, his talent and unique scoring ability can’t be denied and whether it’s this season or next, he can be a legitimate third star next to Jokic and Murray. Add in Millsap and Gary Harris and the Nuggets are set to have a scary offensive output regardless of who is at the three.
Second, the perception of Denver’s defense with Jerami Grant has largely been overrated. In the 2019-20 regular season, the Nuggets were worse by 10.9 points per 100 possessions with Grant on the floor; in the playoffs, they were worse by 7.4 points, per Cleaning the Glass. Conversely, all of the current Nuggets starters were positive, and in the playoffs only Millsap regressed to a slight negative. (Interestingly, MPJ was -1.5 in the regular season but +13.9 points per 100 possessions better in the postseason, a very good omen for him.)
Grant had some great moments in the postseason and Denver would not have made it out of either of the first two rounds without him, but the Nuggets are capable of being an even better defensive team than last year even in his absence. With 72 games ahead, there is plenty of time to figure out a defensive scheme that will work in the playoffs. The Nuggets already saw positive dividends in the preseason, posting an NBA best net rating of +18.8 in that time. While meaningless, the Nuggets have looked solid and locked in during those three games from all 17 guys on the roster.
Even when it comes to the Lakers the Nuggets shouldn’t be counted out automatically. Yes, Los Angeles got significantly better this offseason as a whole, but also got weaker in the one area Denver can easily exploit.
Without Dwight Howard to bait Jokic into fouls, the Lakers will have a tough time defending the Joker. Howard’s replacement, Montrezl Harrell, was played off the floor for the Clippers in their series loss to the Nuggets; Jokic shot 65% when Harrell guarded him. It’s not like Anthony Davis really shut down Jokic either. Over the course of the series, Jokic put up 27 points when guarded by AD on 11-19 shooting. If these two teams met in the conference finals again it’s not unrealistic to think the series would be a lot closer or a different outcome than that of 2020.
Regardless, the Nuggets are set up to be a juggernaut in the regular season and will be anything but an easy out in the playoffs. Can they take the next step to the NBA Finals and ultimately win the title in 2021?