Today is the day of the first Denver Nuggets game in months. I’m excited. The players and coaches are excited. Fans are excited. The entire NBA world is getting ready to welcome basketball back into our lives for the first time since March 11th, 2020 when the league shut down.
Denver Stiffs has been asking and answering several questions pertaining to the NBA restart, all of which can be found here in the Bubble Questions story stream. The goal of these articles is to reintroduce fans to a Nuggets squad that had several questions left to answer this season. Those previews will continue until August 1st when the Nuggets take on the Miami Heat in their first seeding game.
As part of the SB Nation wide restart series, all NBA affiliated blogs of teams taking part in this restart are reintroducing the teams in unique ways. In this piece, let’s focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the Nuggets that make them a borderline title contender but may ultimately hold them back:
It may be simple, but it’s important to remind everyone that Nikola Jokic is somewhere between the sixth and 10th best player in the NBA right now with potential to go higher. Very few teams in the NBA can speak to having a player of his caliber at the centerpiece of everything they do. Jokic IS the Nuggets, leading the team in scoring, rebounding and assists and making life easier for each and every player he plays with.
Despite contracting coronavirus while abroad in Serbia, it’s clear that Jokic is in the best shape of his life after reinvesting himself some time in early December of this past season. He brought a new mentality, a playoff mentality, to the Nuggets organization every single day, carrying an injured roster through difficult moments and proving himself at several points throughout the year.
There are very few players Nuggets fans would definitely rather have leading their team than Jokic, and based on the work and development Jokic continues to put in, that number moves closer to zero every single day.
Jokic is the biggest part of the offense to be clear, but there’s only so much one player can do. He can turn any team into a top 10 offense, but it’s up to the supporting cast how high in the top 10 the Nuggets can climb. Jamal Murray is at the top of that list. He and Jokic are the only players with a usage rate about 25%, which puts a lot of shotmaking and playmaking responsibility on his shoulders. While the per game numbers didn’t rise from Year 3 to Year 4, Murray’s development was focused on his execution of the little things. If he continues to improve in that regard while finding his footing as a versatile star scoring threat, he will ascend to All-Star status.
Beyond Jokic and Murray, Will Barton, Paul Millsap, Jerami Grant, and Monte Morris have all offered steady contributions throughout the year as positive contributors on the offensive end of the floor. Barton is the stereotypical “Jack-of-all-trades” player that every team needs to fill multiple roles. Millsap and Grant have offered solid shooting, floor spacing, and other ancillary needs at power forward. Morris remains solid in both creating his own offense off the dribble and setting the table for other scorers.
Where the Nuggets ceiling really starts to take shape is identifying where they can improve. Gary Harris has regressed offensively for two seasons, but before the hiatus, it seemed like some shooting and explosiveness was coming back to him. The 2017-18 version of Gary Harris was one of the NBA’s young rising stars, and that version could still be around. If Harris were to find his three-point shot and creativity with the basketball again, the Nuggets starting unit adds a new dimension.
The other key element to this conversation is Michael Porter Jr. and his individual ceiling. Very few forwards come into the NBA at 6’10 or taller with the ability scoring and shoot effectively in the various ways he showed this year. His chemistry in the Nuggets rotation was taking root before an ankle injury derailed him, but the seed were there for a young star to take root. If the Nuggets can find him some time to prove himself in these seeding and playoff games, he may prove to the NBA world that the Nuggets have found another gem in the draft and are ready to compete at a high level offensively.
A trait that would have appeared as a weakness in previous seasons, the additions of Jerami Grant and Michael Porter Jr. to Denver’s rotation have helped the Nuggets win games in various ways. From playing traditionally with four bigs in the rotation, to utilizing Grant and Porter as the only two bigs on the floor, the Nuggets have found combinations throughout the season they can utilize in a playoff series against the best in the NBA.
Against the Houston Rockets, the Nuggets may decide to go small when Jokic takes a rest. Grant and Porter have the combination of size, skill, and shooting to be impactful there. Against the Utah Jazz, the ability to deploy Torrey Craig and Gary Harris as defenders against Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley, and Jordan Clarkson will be paramount to Denver’s success. Against the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers, playing big with Grant and Millsap in the same lineup against Kawhi Leonard and Paul George or LeBron James and Anthony Davis will give the Nuggets a chance in either of those matchups.
Will they ultimately be successful in those matchups? It’s hard to tell, but the additions of Grant and Porter at least offer some optionality.
Big wing defense
It’s no secret that the Nuggets have a void of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard defenders in their starting lineup. While Barton has made defensive improvements and both Harris and Millsap remain solid, none of the three have the blend of size and athleticism needed to match up with the pinnacle of the NBA’s elite. Harris and Barton are simply too small for players that will bully their way to where they want to go, and it’s difficult to believe that Millsap will stick with those players for a seven game series at 35 years old.
Craig offers some additional size and may be called upon early in games against the Lakers, Clippers, or even the Dallas Mavericks with Luka Doncic. Grant probably possesses the best mix of length and athleticism to deal with the aforementioned three stars. Unfortunately for the Nuggets neither of those two start for Denver, and placing them in the starting unit would be a unique wrinkle that the Nuggets may not be prepared for.
This is the ultimate issue. because how the Nuggets match up with big wings probably sets the bar on their championship ceiling. If the Nuggets can find a way to match up with those players across a seven game series, then they could very well join the championship race. If the Nuggets struggle to slow down the best of the best, then it will probably put too much pressure offensively on Jokic and Murray for the Nuggets to keep up.
Youth and inexperience
While the Nuggets did vet themselves nicely in the playoffs last season and likely learned a lot about how to deal with difficult situations, their playoff experience still pales in comparison to that of the Lakers, Clippers, or Houston Rockets. Those teams have players that have gone deep into the playoff mix for several seasons, and most of them have done it together.
The Nuggets will head into their second playoff foray as a team. It will be the first for Michael Porter Jr., and his ability to grow up quickly is near the top of the list in ways the Nuggets can advance deep into the playoffs. Much of Denver’s playoff roster is the same, but it’s still a young roster overall. Jokic and Murray are still learning how to maximize their talents, and in a playoff series against LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the Los Angeles Lakers, it’s totally reasonable for the Nuggets to fall short on the experience side of things.
Can the Nuggets overcome this factor? Can Jokic and Murray grow up to be the dynamic duo the Nuggets need them to be? Will the rest of the veteran roster bring it when called upon? Does Porter have a major part to play? There are several questions to figure out based on the overall playoff inexperience of this group, and answers will definitely be had in Orlando.
Add it all together, and do the Nuggets have what it takes to walk away from Orlando with a championship in hand? The answer is an emphatic maybe. So much of Denver’s story is yet to be told, and a lot of it will come down to how ready Jokic and Murray are to being the leaders on an elite team. If they step up and find a new gear as a tandem, then anything is possible.
There will be obstacles as outlined above, but theoretically, those obstacles can be worked around while mixing up the personnel on Denver’s roster and utilizing the versatility afforded by the additions of Grant and Porter. If those two can also find a new gear together, they will offer a nice change of pace from the steadiness of Denver’s starting lineup on both ends of the floor.
I wouldn’t bet on the Nuggets winning a ring this season, but I also wouldn’t count them out. All it takes is the right mix of talent, know-how, and execution at the right moment in time. If the Lakers and Clippers can’t find the right mix before the Nuggets, then there’s a real possibility the Nuggets advance deeper in the playoffs than anyone thought they could. And if they were to advance to the NBA Finals, it’s anyone’s guess at that point.