The NBA season is right around the corner.
On Tuesday, for the second straight year, the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers will open the season in primetime against each other. Massive expectations for both franchises turned out to be one-sided, as the Lakers won the 2020 bubble championship while the Clippers were embarrassed by the Denver Nuggets during a 3-1 playoff series comeback and subsequent beatdown in Game 7. At least, that is the story that’s most frequently told.
It’s rare for national outlets to start from the Nuggets’ side of things. Throughout the 2019-20 regular season, it always felt like the Nuggets were lacking on both sides of the ball. They were competent but rarely championship caliber, and it wasn’t until the bubble when the Nuggets found their stride. Jamal Murray was a different player in the bubble, Nikola Jokić found his MVP form again, and various role players (Jerami Grant, Michael Porter Jr., Gary Harris, Monte Morris, etc.) stepped up exactly when they were needed. As clearly as the Clippers fell apart, the bubble was about the Nuggets coming together and joining the upper echelon of elite franchises.
And yet, the NBA world seems to have reverted back to the Lakers-Clippers All-Los Angeles bowl in general season predictions. The vast majority of outlets have projected the two LA teams to do battle once again with the Lakers considered favorites and the talent of the Clippers remaining competitive. Somehow, the Nuggets are glossed over despite having a roster primed to be one of the best in franchise history, if not the best.
Here are 10 bold predictions to set the stage for a Nuggets season unlike any other:
1. Will Barton starts over Michael Porter Jr. on opening night
In the first two preseason games this year, Michael Porter Jr. started at small forward, appearing capable but not necessarily comfortable right out of the gate. He didn’t shoot the ball particularly well and struggled to pick and choose his spots within the flow of the offense. Assimilating into Denver’s system that generally features the Jokić-Murray two-man game was always going to be a challenge that wouldn’t be solved overnight.
The incumbent at small forward, Will Barton, made it vehemently clear that he had no desire to be a sixth man heading into what is basically a contract year for the 6’5” wing. His combination of desire for the starting job, familiarity with Denver’s system, and overall versatility may be tantalizing enough for Michael Malone to begin the year with Barton in the starting five.
There are arguments for and against such a decision, namely Porter’s high level of talent and need to jumpstart the adjustment process of playing next to Murray and Jokic; however, this shortened season isn’t a good time to get off to a bad start in the name of chemistry issues.
2. Michael Porter Jr. starts at least 40 regular season games anyway
Injuries and rest will be an easy way to insert Porter into the starting lineup on a semi-regular basis. All three of Harris, Barton, and Paul Millsap nursed injuries at various points throughout the 2019-20 season. Torrey Craig and Jerami Grant were the de facto starting replacements last season. This year, Porter will step into that role and flourish.
It’s clear to everyone in and around the organization that the Nuggets are in a bind with this starting lineup decision. Porter could justifiably start for any of Harris, Barton, or Millsap, but those decisions have residual effects. Neither Harris nor Millsap fit with the bench unit as currently constructed, and Barton, being in a contract year, has other factors to consider than just team success.
Porter will still have opportunities to win the starting job down the line, and he will close some games with the starters when he has it going in the fourth quarter or if the matchup demands it. With injury and rest absences to begin the season, I will wager that Porter still starts over 40 games even if he comes off the bench initially.
3. Bol Bol averages under 15 minutes per game, collects some DNPs
It pains me to predict this because I really enjoyed his stint with the bench unit, but a clear pecking order has been established in the frontcourt that will be difficult for Bol Bol to crack on a regular basis. The two starting bigs are Jokić and Millsap. The two bench bigs are Isaiah Hartenstein, who has proven his worth in a short amount of time, and JaMychal Green, who the Nuggets just signed in free agency. Porter will also slide to power forward on occasion, leaving very little time for Bol to showcase a wide array of skills.
Right now, it feels like Bol is on “The Michael Porter Jr. plan” by serving as the 11th or 12th man in the regular season and developing in an irregular role with the bench unit. He will consistently showcase starter and even star potential in these stints, but Denver just has too many rotation players at their disposal right now. Right now, it’s best to cherish the minutes he gets and hope that he capitalizes on his opportunities like Porter did.
4. Jamal Murray earns final spot on Western Conference All-Star roster
It’s going to take a lot of winning, a jump in production, and the narrative to be on his side, but Jamal Murray is ready to take the leap this regular season. After two straight years of increasing his production in the playoffs, the bubble appears to be the landmark moment in Murray’s career to date. With the pressure of the bubble playoffs and knowing that only Murray could prevent failure from happening, the Nuggets transformed into a roster that worked simultaneously through Jokić and Murray. While Jokić controlled the offense for the majority of his career, Murray stepped up in the bubble and held an equal share, matching Donovan Mitchell blow for blow in the first round, dropping 40 points in a decisive Game 7 over the Clippers, and going head-to-head with LeBron James.
Heading into this season, there are several guards that will make a push for All-Star status in the Western Conference alone: stalwarts Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard are always a factor, and Luka Doncic has entered the conversation permanently. If James Harden remains in Houston, his numbers alone place him in roster shoo-in status. Chris Paul has made it for years. Russell Westbrook was traded to the East which should free up a spot. Other guards are looking to step in though: Donovan Mitchell made it last year, Devin Booker, Ja Morant, De’Aaron Fox, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and more.
The only remaining spots are wildcard spots anyway, which means Murray would have to compete with frontcourt players as well. Some of the names include: Paul George, Rudy Gobert, Karl-Anthony Towns, Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, and maybe Deandre Ayton.
And yet, I feel confident that Denver will earn two All-Star representatives if they win as many games as I think they will.
5. A midseason trade shuffles the starting lineup
It’s unclear what the trade is, what Denver’s biggest needs will be, and which players they want to commit to long term as the season approaches. Denver was willing to trade several players to acquire Jrue Holiday, but the Milwaukee Bucks cutting the line by offering three first round picks changed their plans. Denver was willing to commit to Jerami Grant to be their starting power forward, but his decision to go to Detroit forced Denver to pivot even further.
Denver finally landed on basically the same playoff roster they had in 2019-20 with JaMychal Green in place of Grant. It appears that Denver will enter the season with a Murray, Harris, Barton, Millsap, Jokić starting lineup for the third straight year, but Porter is knocking on the door, and the incumbent starting lineup has nearly run its course.
The Nuggets will eventually commit to Porter in the starting unit one way or another. As Denver goes through the year and identifies strengths and potential weaknesses of the current group, the right deal will eventually manifest itself to facilitate Porter’s move into the starting five. Right now, it’s difficult to see what that deal is, but if the Nuggets want to maximize their title window without making a blockbuster trade, they must discover what they truly have with Murray, Jokić, and Porter playing together.
6. Denver earns top seed in Western Conference with best offense in the NBA
Probably the second most bold prediction on this list, a top seed in a loaded Western Conference would take a few things happening at the same time:
- All-Star level improvement from Murray
- Solid health from Denver’s starters plus Porter
- MVP caliber performance from Jokić
- Rest/Regression from LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the Lakers
All of those factors could absolutely occur, especially as LA attempts to work in several high profile pieces into their rotation like Dennis Schroder, Montrezl Harrell, and Marc Gasol. All of those players are good, but learning to play the way LeBron plays takes time.
Seven to eight of Denver’s primary rotation players have continuity and chemistry. The other three to four: Facundo Campazzo, JaMychal Green, Isaiah Hartenstein, and Bol Bol, project to be much easier fits off the bench or even outside of the rotation given the presence of Porter and Monte Morris already in house. The offense should be high powered, and the defense will be better than anticipated in the regular season.
As long as two to three of the four checklist items above happen during the season, Denver has a great chance to claim the top spot in the West heading into the playoffs.
7. P.J. Dozier earns permanent rotation spot before the playoffs
Given the presence of several capable rotation players in front of him, this prediction might surprise some people; however, P.J. Dozier checks the box for several of Denver’s needs on the wing this year. Versatility, ball handling and passing vision, length and athleticism, defensive IQ, and a developing shot encapsulate what Dozier does for this team. It’s for that reason that Michael Malone will find a way to add him to the regular rotation at some point throughout the year.
Right now, several ball handling and defensive guards are projected to play in front of Dozier: Murray, Harris, Barton, Morris, and Campazzo all have a claim for regular rotation time; however, it would surprise me if Dozier doesn’t find some consistent time. His versatility allows him to change his approach dynamically for the situation at hand, whether he’s being asked to defend a top perimeter player, be a playmaker for others, or simply operate within the flow of the system. Dozier’s only 24 and should continue to make strides toward being a regular contributor.
8. Nikola Jokić earns Most Valuable Player honors
The boldest take of the article is right here. Could Jokić, a lumbering big man from Sombor, Serbia claim the award handed out to the best players in NBA history? If the Nuggets claim the top seed in the West, he certainly has a chance.
Let’s take a look at the rest of the MVP field:
- Giannis Antetokounmpo is awesome, but he’s sure to draw voter fatigue after winning twice
- LeBron James and Anthony Davis are coming off short rest after playing in the bubble NBA Finals less than three months ago
- Luka Doncic is awesome, but his team may not win enough games
- Kawhi Leonard could do it if he plays enough games
- James Harden is in a state of trade warfare with his own team
- Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo aren’t quite at that level
- Jayson Tatum might, but the Boston offense is concerning
- Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons need to prove it
- Kevin Durant probably won’t play enough games
That leaves Jokić, who is set to lead one of, if not the best offense in the NBA. The Nuggets were on a 54-win pace prior to the bubble regular season games in which they didn’t try. With several improvements across the board, it’s possible that Denver approaches 60-win pace this year.
Beyond that though, Jokić is simply in a great position to dominate. The Nuggets have surrounded him with playmakers and floor spacers. The Serbian big man is in great shape heading into the year. Few teams have a three-level center defender, let alone a defense that can also handle Jokić’s incredible passing vision. This could absolutely be a career year for the Joker, and if it’s paired with Denver getting the top seed in the West for the first time in NBA franchise history, then serious MVP consideration is on the way.
9. Denver returns to the Western Conference Finals
Being the top seed in the Western Conference aids in this prediction. I believe the Nuggets will have troubles with some of the premiere wings at the top of the West like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Luka Doncic in a playoff series after losing Jerami Grant. That being said, if Denver claims the top regular season spot, they might avoid those matchups altogether.
Still, I’m banking on Denver not just advancing to the second round, but also facing one of the Mavericks or Clippers and winning anyway. As pronounced as Denver’s matchup disadvantage is against those teams, Denver has matchup advantages on their side. Nobody in the NBA can guard Jokić, and as we saw in the playoffs, even a team with Patrick Beverley, Paul George, and Kawhi Leonard couldn’t guard Murray when it counted. Add in an optimized Porter into that equation, and the Nuggets will have ways to outscore every opponent.
The Nuggets are talented, and they will find a way.
10. The Lakers go back to the NBA Finals, beating the Nuggets in 6 games
The bold predictions end on a bit of a downer, but it’s important to remain realistic. Could Denver beat Los Angeles if everything went right? Yes. Will LeBron James be on a mission to solidify his legacy as the GOAT by winning a fifth title? Also yes. Right now, the Nuggets don’t have a great LeBron defender on their roster. They don’t have a great Davis defender either. As important as Denver’s mismatches are in other matchups, the Lakers’ mismatches against the Nuggets are just as debilitating.
The Nuggets will fight. They will be even more competitive this time around as Denver’s stars and star talents are one year older and understand what it takes to win. The Lakers just have too much talent, too many players capable of winning a playoff game on the fringes while LeBron and AD set the standard every single game.
Back-to-back Western Conference Finals bouts against the Lakers will surely earn Denver some respect though. Right now, they are seen as a second or even third tier contender by some. That will change drastically going forward.