There is an expectation around the NBA that official news on the NBA playoffs could be coming this week. Various dates have been thrown out there while proposals have been bandied about by owners, general managers, and the players. Whether the NBA decides to go forward with one proposal or another, it certainly feels like basketball will be back in our lives at some point this summer.
For the Denver Nuggets, that will be a breath of fresh air after a regular season layered with higher expectations and some minor disappointments.
Throughout the regular season, the message from the Nuggets players after a tough loss was one of patience and a level of self-awareness. Losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Golden State Warriors or an equivalent awful team this year mattered a lot less than it did in previous years. With Denver advancing to the Western Conference semi-finals and gaining an appreciation for load managing before a deep playoff run, there was a residual effect on this year’s regular season. The Nuggets fully reached their potential at any given point. There was never a moment where every player was playing well at the same time, moving in the same way that helps a team become greater than the sum of its parts.
The occasional missteps helped temper the expectations, and ultimately when the pandemic shut everything down, the Nuggets sat in third place in the Western Conference, below the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers, it became easier to lump the Nuggets in with the rest of the Western Conference teams looking up at LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard.
But will that same pecking order be around when teams return from a long hiatus? Will the Nuggets be closer to the Lakers and Clippers or to the Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, Utah Jazz, and Oklahoma City Thunder? Part of that answer will be determined by the playoff format, but most of it will be determined by the players themselves.
With the season being as abnormal as it is, some players may have the opportunity to take advantage of a unique situation. Nikola Jokic already appears like he has dropped some extra weight during the off time, making a return to NBA level conditioning less difficult for him, a player used to playing at a higher weight. Other players will have opportunities for growth as well, from Michael Porter Jr. and fully recovering from an ankle injury to Paul Millsap getting an extended rest at 35 years old.
Here’s what each Nuggets rotation player has to gain when the season restarts, in reverse order of minutes per game:
Michael Porter Jr. - Becoming an invaluable contributor
Much of the 2019-20 season for the Nuggets has been a tug-of-war between how much Michael Porter Jr. needs to play. On one night, Porter looks like a rookie, missing reads on both ends of the court, slowing down the game, and making too many mistakes to be a factor in a playoff series. On the next night, Porter looks like the next scoring superstar, taking and making some ambitious shots while contributing in tangible ways all over the floor. The defense looks better on these nights, and Porter’s ability to punish mismatches offensively and/or hit open shots with regularity help the Nuggets win games they should lose.
Fast forward to June 1st, and the picture on Porter remains unclear. The inconsistency left him out of the lineup on too many occasions to guarantee him a spot in the playoff rotation. Despite the pretty picture one may see in three or four seasons, the Nuggets are trying to win a championship right now, and there’s an argument that Porter’s time on the floor works against that agenda.
When the playoffs kick off, where will Porter be in his development curve? Will he get an opportunity to prove his worth? Will he be stuck on the bench behind the steady hand of veteran contributors? If Porter does end up getting an opportunity and capitalizes on it, there may be no way back for the Nuggets organization after that. The scoring talent is too inflammatory, and scorers at Porter’s size and skill level generally find a way. Don’t be surprised if it’s as soon as two months from now.
Mason Plumlee - Auditioning for a larger role
With Nikola Jokic developing into a superstar and the addition of other veteran forwards, Mason Plumlee’s role in Denver has diminished since the Nuggets acquired him in February of 2017. With both Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant in Denver’s rotation, Plumlee became the de facto fourth big man, as his minutes per game dropped from 21.1 to 17.0 from 2018-19 to 2019-20.
With centers seeing a reduction in value across the board, Plumlee could be playing for the last major contract of his NBA career. Currently on an expiring contract and at 30 years old, there is a certain amount of pressure on the seven year veteran to perform in a playoff setting. With a unique skill set for a big man that includes both handles and playmaking of a smaller player and the above-the-rim leaping ability of a seven foot pick and roll big, there’s no question that Plumlee could be of service to all 30 NBA teams for the next few seasons. The question becomes the size of the role, and implicitly, the size of the contract that comes with it.
Now, that role is unlikely to come in Denver given the presence of Jokic, but if Plumlee plays well in the playoffs and shows he can do what the Nuggets ask of him, they would be hard-pressed to let him go with Millsap and Grant also in line for new deals.
Torrey Craig - The playoff performer
Last season, Torrey Craig was one of the most important players for the Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs. With Will Barton struggling to bounce back from a lengthy injury and the Nuggets needing an additional perimeter defender, the Nuggets turned to Craig as the starting small forward, who immediately responded with one of the best games of his career. 18 points on 6-of-9 shooting, hitting 5-of-7 from three-point range, and contributing eight rebounds, two steals, and a block while spending most of his time guarding DeMar DeRozan. Denver went on to win that series in seven games, and Craig’s defense against DeRozan helped Denver seal it.
The Nuggets might need a similar performance in the playoffs this year. Craig is one of the NBA’s better perimeter defenders and combined it with elite three-point shooting in the most important moments (47.2% in the 2018-19 playoffs). In the playoffs especially, those skills together are needed for a Nuggets team that needs both proper spacing around Jokic and Jamal Murray and a good mix of versatile defenders.
The biggest question for Craig: was the perimeter shooting in the 2018-19 playoffs real? Will he get the opportunity to prove so? If he shoots well, Craig is in line for a sizable raise during 2020 free agency as one of the best defensive wings on the market.
Monte Morris - Is he a quality backup or potential starter?
I’ve written about Monte Morris in the past and the problems he experienced in the 2018-19 playoffs. He averaged 5.4 points and 2.6 assists on 38.4% from the field and missed every three-pointer he attempted. He wasn’t the only negative factor in Denver’s playoff bench woes, but the lead ball handler struggling that much makes it nearly impossible for the team to be productive in those minutes.
This year, Morris has mostly bounced back and should be ready heading into the playoffs. While it’s very possible that Morris ran out of gas last year after playing all 82 games as a de facto rookie, the break in the action this year could be just what Morris needed. With Murray and Will Barton playing well as ball handling guards for most of the season, Morris’ reduced regular season role could give him an opportunity to shine with more minutes going forward.
With Morris ultimately due a new contract after the 2020-21 season, he has a limited number of reps to prove he deserves starting caliber point guard money and a starting caliber role. It’s debatable whether he has the athleticism and physicality to reach those goals, but the playoffs are one way to at least earn the opportunity. So far, the career splits with him as a starter are very encouraging: 12.6 points and 4.7 assists in 33.3 minutes per game, shooting 50% from the field and 36% from three-point range in 14 games. If he continues to play like that in high pressure situations, teams may consider whether he deserves a legitimate opportunity to prove himself as a starting point guard.
Paul Millsap - First NBA Finals appearance
While some players on the Nuggets roster will be playing for a larger role and a new contract when the season resumes, Paul Millsap may be looking to add to his legacy. Millsap previously stated that he could go to a no questions championship contender to win a ring like other veterans chasing a championship for their own personal legacy. For Millsap, that wasn’t how he wanted his story to be written. He has been an impactful veteran in Denver for the past three seasons, helping guide the Nuggets from a young, heavily flawed roster to a group on the precipice of true contention.
When the season returns, Millsap, who should be as fresh as possible during a late season playoff run, will have an opportunity to add to his legacy on his own terms. The Nuggets limited his minutes and total games played this season, but when it comes down to winning time, they may need Millsap to play over 30 high level minutes a night consistently. This year, Millsap crossed the 30-minute threshold in just six of the 44 contests he suited up for. Can Millsap prove he can still be a high level contributor and add to his legacy as one of the most underrated players to ever do it?
A Finals appearance, even a ring, would go a long way in accomplishing just that.
Jerami Grant - Power Forward of the future?
Before the abrupt end of the regular season, Jerami Grant had started to find a legitimate foothold in the Nuggets rotation. Boasting a unique skill set of elite athleticism, three-point range, and switch-ability on defense, Grant provided the Nuggets a dimension they never had during the 2018-19 season. Though it took a significant amount of time for Grant to find his groove within the flow of the starting unit and the bench, Grant ultimately proved that he could contribute to both units in different ways.
The playoffs are made for Grant’s versatile skill set as a complementary player. So much of the playoffs revolves around singling out players with major weaknesses and taking advantage. Grant’s only significant weakness is rebounding which, while important, can be covered up by other team rebounders. With the Nuggets needing versatile defenders to cover for Murray and Jokic in various spots, Grant’s ability to shadow opposing wings and forwards on the perimeter while shooting 40% from three on the other end projects to be a necessary skill. Just imagine what the Nuggets would have looked like in their series against the Portland Trail Blazers last year with Grant’s ability to cover Rodney Hood.
It wouldn’t surprise me if Grant ultimately plays more minutes in the playoffs than anyone expects, and if he performs well in that setting, the Nuggets will have to do their best to lock him up for the next few years while Jokic, Murray, and Porter continue to develop. That quartet has the makings of a championship contender for several years if things go well.
Gary Harris - The Ultimate Proving Ground
While the Nuggets have continued to trend up in the last three seasons, Gary Harris has had innumerable struggles to stay healthy and effective as Denver’s starting shooting guard. During the 2017-18 season, only five qualified guards averaged 17 points per game while shooting over 39% from three-point range: Harris, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, CJ McCollum, and J.J. Redick. It appeared that Harris, in only his Age 23 season at that point, was part of the next wave of elite two-way players, but the injuries have slowed that momentum to a halt. Just two seasons later, Harris is averaging 10.4 points and shooting 33.3% from three-point range in 2019-20, underscoring some major regressions in his game offensively.
Harris is another player that could benefit from a long hiatus and starting the postseason with a clean slate. He is still Denver’s de facto starting shooting guard, and his perimeter defense on the opposing team’s lead playmaking guard remains important when playing next to Murray. Taking what Harris does right now and adding in a consistent three-point shot makes all the difference though. There’s only so much Harris can do while only impacting one end of the floor in a positive manner. Torrey Craig in the 2018-19 playoffs is a great illustration, as the 47% three-point shooting was just as important as the perimeter defense.
Can Harris get back to the basics and consistently hitting the shots he is capable of hitting? Can he be the lead defender in a Nuggets rotation that will desperately need a leading presence against James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and the Houston Rockets (if that is ultimately Denver’s playoff matchup)? We will see.
Nikola Jokic - Recreating greatness again and again
Nikola Jokic’s playoff numbers from 2018-19 will forever be burned into my memory: 25.0 points, 13.0 rebounds, 8.4 assists while shooting 50% from the field, 39% from three, and nearly 85% from the free throw line. For reference, the only other player in NBA history to average 25, 13, and 8 was Oscar Robertson, who did so on an absurd pace and playing 47.5 minutes per game. Those are absurd totals and underscore a feeling that Nuggets fans have had for awhile: Jokic had his coming out party on a national stage and proved himself an NBA superstar.
Now, it’s all about recreating that level of greatness in different situations for Jokic. He was lucky to play against weaker competition in the front court than he will see from most teams going forward. Many elite teams present some matchup problems for him as well. The Lakers can deploy two bigs or slide Anthony Davis to center. The Clippers have two elite wings who could outscore the offense Jokic offers by simply being mismatches on their own. The Milwaukee Bucks have two elite front court defenders in Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez.
If the Nuggets are good enough to face the top teams in the playoffs, can Jokic continue to be great? I believe he can, but he hasn’t been fully tested yet.
Jamal Murray - Taking steps toward stardom
The playoffs are the easiest avenue for a young player to go from good to great. Many players have an opportunity to prove themselves on a national stage with the world watching. Jamal Murray was no exception last year, and though he had several ups and downs, the overall product was a young player capable of producing like a star in key moments. From his 21-point fourth quarter outburst in Game 2 against San Antonio that saved Denver’s season, to his back-to-back 34-point performances in Game 3 and 4 on the road against Portland, to his series-clinching floater in Game 7 to help the Nuggets earn the first round victory, Murray had several moments that gave the Nuggets confidence he would be a star player for a long time.
Nothing he did during the 2019-20 season should dispel that narrative, despite having similar per game numbers to 2018-19. He improved as a defender and improved his scoring efficiency despite a three-point shooting dry spell during the middle of the year. But young stars don’t top out at “pretty good” in today’s NBA. Young stars continue to growth until they find themselves in legitimate All-Star conversation. Murray doesn’t need a massive leap to get to that point, but more consistent shooting and a higher level of playmaking for himself and others would go a long way during these playoffs.
In a league where superstar duos have become the new super teams, Murray is on the precipice of seeing his name join the likes of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Kristaps Porzingis, Kemba Walker, Khris Middleton, Ben Simmons, and others as elite second options on playoff contenders. Murray isn’t there quite yet, but with improved shooting consistency and more frequent outbursts of being un-guardable in key moments, he could certainly get there.
Will Barton - Playoff redemption
The road back to being a starting caliber player for Barton after his hip surgery early in the 2018-19 season has been difficult. When Barton first returned to action, he couldn’t generate the same lift and bounce that helped the springy wing scorer become the player he was. He took a beating in the playoffs and was benched midway through the first round against the Spurs. Though he was an under-the-radar contributor after that, he wasn’t the starting level contributor the Nuggets hoped he would be when they signed him to a new contract during the summer of 2018.
Fast forward to this season, and those struggles are seemingly in the rearview mirror. Barton averaged 15.1 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 3.7 assists while shooting 37.5% from three-point range. The only two players in the NBA to match those averages and three-point percentage this year were Brandon Ingram and the aforementioned Khris Middleton. Both were All-Stars, and the fact that Barton maintained similar numbers (albeit slightly worse in each category outside of rebounding) is a testament to the work that the slender wing has put in.
The final step of the redemption process comes in a playoff setting. It’s one thing to put up numbers against the Charlotte Hornets and Portland Trail Blazers. It’s another entirely to be just as effective against a team full of elite perimeter defenders like the Clippers, or a switching style full of playoff veterans like the Rockets.
So much of Denver’s season has been about the second star behind Jokic and whether Murray can fill that gap. I’m more interested in whether Barton can be Denver’s third scorer or not. There were several occasions in the playoffs last year where it felt like “Jokic and Murray versus the other team.” If Barton can be an effective third scorer, the need for a top line second scorer becomes less dire and more of a luxury.