The shortened 2020-21 NBA season continues to progress, as teams and players across the league deal with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.
There is discussion that the league will soon have access to vaccines, helping make things a little easier for them to conduct their daily business and have their primary focus be on the actual game instead of the chaos of the last 12 months.
Outside of the pandemic, the Nuggets are beginning to present their true selves after the first 15 games of the season. With several offseason changes to the roster, it has taken some time for the Nuggets to coalesce and try to regain their footing as one of the top four teams in the Western Conference. In some ways, they are better than the team last year, but in other ways, they are demonstrably worse than the 2019-20 team.
With that said, it’s time to assess the team’s performance, while also taking a look at the Northwest Division and the Western Conference, as well as their next batch of 14 games.
Why 14 (or in this case, 16 games) games as an evaluation period? With a 72 game season, 20 percent of the season comes out to 14 to 15 games. This time, with the back-to-back, I waited for them to finish their weekend series against the Phoenix Suns. The next evaluation will come after a four-game road trip that concludes against Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks.
Nikola Jokic - A+
There’s not much to criticize Jokic for so far this year. I think his worst game was their first matchup against the Suns, where he struggled with foul trouble but also had 17 points, 11 assists, and nine rebounds in a three-point loss. He’s had a double-double in every game so far, is undoubtedly an All-Star, and is making a clear-cut case to be the best center in the league. He is by far and away the best player on the roster, so much so that at times I feel bad for his teammates, who have to feel awful when they miss a shot he creates with his tremendous playmaking ability.
Jokic is playing with a consistency that defines legendary players in the league. He understands the game at a level that few can match in the game, both on offense and defense. In my opinion, the play that has made me gasp more than any other was his steal in isolation against Devin Booker in the fourth quarter of their game on Friday, January 22. Jokic was switched onto Booker, who got the ball at the top of the key. In years past, this was a guaranteed bucket for the other team. Who can forget Isaiah Thomas, during his stint with the Lakers, barbecuing Jokic and gleefully smiling as he got to the rim for an easy layup to help win a game? Not this time! Jokic swipes at the ball as Booker makes his move, picking his pocket with ease, in a move that just defied reality. It still makes me gasp, laugh, and be amazed each time I watch it.
Jamal Murray - Incomplete
I’m taking an easy out for Murray, who has struggled to start the year, but is clearly playing injured. There’s an argument for him to sit out some games and rest to recover, but it doesn’t seem like that’s within him to rest when he can still play, and the team will need him over the next few weeks. He’s still putting up 19 points a game, but you’d like to see his shooting percentages better. We still haven’t really seen Bubble Murray yet, the lethal scorer who could put up 50 points at any time. Once he gets his elbow right, I think he’ll be fine.
Gary Harris - C
Harris had an abysmal start to the season, finding himself among the worst 3-point shooters in the league. He’s shown improvement as of late, and is showing flashes of his old self a few times a game on drives to the rim. His defense hasn’t been quite as good, but I think part of that was just him shaking off some rust and getting accustomed to the rigors of regular season basketball. There is always going to be chatter about trading Harris, but I think that him being moved is extremely unlikely. He’s a valuable part of the Nuggets roster, and the team wants to succeed with him as part of it.
Will Barton - C
Barton is another player that has had a slow start to the season, showing signs of injury and aging that are worrisome for the remainder of his contract. Barton is a consummate teammate, willing to fill whatever role he’s capable of while on the team. It’s obvious that his shot isn’t falling like it used to, so he’s been dialing back his shot attempts. His defense isn’t quite as impactful as it used to be, but he’s familiar with the Nuggets scheme and gives good effort on that end of the court. He’s trying to figure out how to be an effective part of the rotation, but there have been nights when the team has needed more from him than just being effective, and he hasn’t been able to do that. All of us, Barton included, need to continue to be patient with him as he progresses. I have faith he’ll be good for the Nuggets this year.
Paul Millsap - B
Millsap has been better than most expected this season. I don’t think the plan six months ago was for him to be the starting power forward for the 2020-21 Nuggets, but plans change, and Millsap has stepped up to the challenge. He plays the fewest minutes of all the starters, and at 23.4 minutes per game, is more of a “starter in title only” player. The team plays well when he’s on the court, he’s shooting great from 3-point range, and he’s healthy. I expect him to ease into a bench role, with JaMychal Green or Michael Porter Jr. taking his spot in the rotation, as the season progresses, but he’ll continue to be a valuable part of the nine-man rotation. It’s nice to see him play well this year.
Monte Morris - A
Morris has been great for Denver. I was thrilled when he signed his contract extension with the Nuggets, and he’s rewarded the team by continuing to thrive in his role. He continues to be among the best in the league at limiting turnovers, with just eight turnovers in 16 games and 49 assists. He’s a reliable 3-pointer shooter, is playing better defense, and is one of the players I trust most in games. It’s such a boon to the Nuggets future to have him signed through 2024.
Michael Porter Jr. - D
I’m going to be critical of MPJ, not as much for his play on the court, but for his lack of availability to start the season. The best ability is availability, and due to the league’s Covid-19 protocols, MPJ had to miss nearly three weeks of basketball. He’s shown that he can be a valuable, productive part of the Nuggets rotation in the games he’s played in, averaging 16 points and seven rebounds a game, while shooting 55/44/89 from the field. He’s saying the right things in interviews with media, stating that wins are more important than individual stats, a noble sentiment and attitude. But my man, you need to be able to play! Stay healthy, be smart, and help the team win. He’s got the talent, he’s being given the opportunity, now he just needs to put everything together and continue to grow as a player in the league. The Nuggets success this season is contingent upon him reaching his ceiling.
PJ Dozier - B+
I think Dozier has been one of the best stories on the team this season. The former Gamecock has worked hard to earn a spot in the Nuggets rotation, and has been productive in the minutes he’s been given. At 6-foot-6-inches and 205 pounds, he has the physical tools to be a valuable 3&D guy on the team off the bench. Malone is comfortable putting him into games as a defensive stopper, and he’s been flexible adapting to different roles. He had a tough assignment to fill the power forward role with MPJ and Green unavailable in a few games this season, but that’s not where his future with the team is. He’s still figuring out his role in the offense, as he tries to play within the Nuggets system, but he has shown the acumen to be able to fit in well.
JaMychal Green - B
Green has shown that he can be a great fit with the Nuggets, and has already started to earn the respect of his teammates. He missed a couple games at the start of the season, and has shown some awkwardness when sharing the court with Jokic. As the season continues, he’ll grow more comfortable playing with his teammates, and I expect him to be named the starter around the All-Star Game for Paul Millsap. He is an eager 3-point shooter, and is converting at a 47 percent clip so far. He’s a versatile defender, physical rebounder, and seems to be a great teammate. He was a great offseason signing for the team.
Facundo Campazzo - D
While Green has shown great fit with the team, Campazzo has not. The front office and coaches raved about him in the offseason, and I’m not sure why. I don’t see the value of a 5’10” (at best) point guard that isn’t a great 3-point shooter, isn’t a great finisher, and can’t defend anyone in the league. The signing of Campazzo meant the Nuggets couldn’t add a wing player of size, when there was such a glaring need for a wing on the roster. I can’t ignore his fit with the team when evaluating his play on the court, because the whole reason he’s not having success is because of the roster composition. It is not fun to watch him play with the reserves. The occasional highlight pass isn’t worth the endless jumpers and drives he gives up on the other end of the court. I would much rather see R.J. Hampton, who is as green as a sapling, get his minutes. At least Hampton measures up to other NBA players.
Isaiah Hartenstein - C-
The best way I can describe Hartenstein’s play is that he reminds me of a football player who is playing basketball. There’s a lot of physical talent, a lot of athletic plays, flashes of brilliance, but they’re interrupted by some of the most boneheaded plays imaginable. He loves to clobber people on defense, and the fouling is a problem. I think part of it is due to the guard defense he’s having to work with as part of the reserves, but it’s not the entire story. Hartenstein has talent, and could carve out a role as the backup center on the team. If Jokic goes down for a stretch of games, I don’t think Hartenstein would be Malone’s first choice to fill that spot. There’s a good amount of room left for him to grow into, but things haven’t been a disaster either.
Bol Bol, R.J. Hampton, Zeke Nnaji - Incomplete
These guys haven’t played enough to get a grade. They’re purely end of the bench players (with the exception of Bol, who did get two starts due to injuries). Bol’s had some exciting plays, but these are guys that are only getting on the court in blowouts. There’s too small of a sample right now to accurately assess their play this season.
Coaching Staff - B
I want to give the coaches credit for the positives from the start of the season. The offense has been dynamic, and they’ve been flexible with lineups while dealing with absences from key players. The four-guard lineup existing would have stunned me a few seasons ago, even if it hasn’t been very good, at least they were willing to experiment with it. The defensive schemes have been good, and I attribute some of the early struggles to personnel and familiarity. A shortened training camp didn’t do the Nuggets any favors.
That being said, this coaching staff has been together for a while now, and has coached through a lot of competitive games. It would be nice if they could figure out how to lock Coach Malone out of the building when they play the Kings so that maybe they can finally just have a stress-free win over a team that has no business beating the Nuggets. There’s not really a good explanation for why the Nuggets aren’t 11-5 right now other than they couldn’t figure out how to pull out a win over a team that is giving up an average of 121 points per game so far. If you ignore the first five games of the season, Denver has a record of 8-3 — not bad in comparison to their start last season.
Front Office - C
I’m not factoring in Jerami Grant’s decision to leave in free agency. It appears there wasn’t much Tim Connelly could do to convince him to return to Denver. What does factor in, however, is their response. A theme for the front office has been that when their Plan A fails, they don’t have a Plan B. This happened in 2017 in the NBA draft, which resulted in them netting Tyler Lydon and Trey Lyles, and it happened again this year when they replaced Grant on the wing with Greg Whittington (who just had knee surgery and hasn’t played).
The signing of JaMychal Green looks like a win for them. Picking Zeke Nnaji and trading for R.J. Hampton could be wins, but it’s too early to tell. If they had drafted other players, they would have had to be so outstanding that they would have forced their way into the rotation to get playing time. Adding two rookies to a team that just went to the Western Conference Finals isn’t a situation where there are a ton of minutes to give to them. They have a high ceiling right now because we haven’t seen them play, but that also means they have a low floor. It’s an unknown range of probable outcomes at this point for both rookies.
If you’re a Facu fan, skip to the next section. Signing Campazzo didn’t make sense when it happened, hasn’t made sense to start the season, and seems unlikely to make sense when he’s unlikely to get more than 15 minutes a game each night. The Nuggets losses to the Clippers, Mavericks, Nets and Jazz have all highlighted the Nuggets lack of capable defenders on the wing. Look at the performances of the wing players for those teams:
- Paul George had his way with the Nuggets defense in the Clippers loss
- Luka Doncic had 38 points, 13 assists, and nine rebounds in the Mavericks loss
- Caris LeVert had 20 points and six assists off the bench while Kevin Durant dropped 34 points while dishing out 13 assists in the Nets loss
- Jordan Clarkson had 23 points on 13 shots in the Jazz loss
Would have been nice to put a wing defender on them instead of just hoping Will Barton and Gary Harris are up to the challenge! I would have loved to see them sign someone like Solomon Hill or Mo Harkless instead — even Torrey Craig would be better.
The Nuggets find themselves tied with the Trail Blazers for second in the division, but should feel very comfortable with where they currently stand. Their only division loss is to the Jazz, in a game that went down to the wire.
The Jazz are healthy and well, roaring through an eight-game winning streak that has them in second in the conference. They are deep, balanced, and playing great basketball. The team the Nuggets faced in the first round wasn’t complete, with Bojan Bogdanovic and Mike Conley Jr missing games in the series. With those two players back and more comfortable playing with Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, this is a dangerous team that is as good as their record shows. The Nuggets were barely better than the Jazz in the playoffs, and the Jazz are better this year.
They haven’t played Portland yet, and won’t for another month, but should hopefully be able to catch them without C.J. McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, who are individually out with a wrist injury and an ankle injury. The Nuggets defense hasn’t been good, but things are getting better as they get their new players more comfortable in the system and get healthy. The Trail Blazers defense is in the discussion to be the worst in the league, alongside the Kings and Wizards. When they meet up with the Nuggets, don’t bet the under.
The Thunder are in year one of a complete rebuild, trying to find young players that will fit alongside their point guard star-in-the-making, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. SGA leads the team in minutes played, with Darius Bazley second — I told you they’re playing young guys. The Nuggets throttled them in their lone matchup this season, and while they should win every game against them this season, they aren’t a team to take lightly. They play hard each night, and those young players want to win — they just don’t know how to yet.
The Timberwolves are an abject disaster. After going all-in on a core of D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns, they’ve seen their star center miss games with injury and COVID-19, and their young guard play terrible basketball. They drafted Anthony Edwards, a shooting guard, first overall in the 2020 Draft, then signed Malik Beasley, another shooting guard, to a four-year contract. They have the worst record in the conference, and Edwards hasn’t started a single game for them so far. This is a team without direction, a team without a star player that can produce wins, and a team without a coach who can lead them to wins. Oh, and they owe the Golden State Warriors a top-3 protected first round pick in the next draft, after which that picks becomes unprotected. Their only incoming draft pick is a future second round draft pick from either the Nuggets or the 76ers. They’re the polar opposite of the Nuggets in nearly every way, and in the discussion for the worst franchise in the conference. It’s not a good time to be a Timberwolves fan.
The Nuggets are fifth in the Western Conference, with a three-game winning streak helping keep them 0.5 games ahead of the Memphis Grizzlies and Phoenix Suns. Their wins against the Suns in their last two games are their first wins this season against teams that are likely playoff teams in the Western Conference.
The next 14 games
The Nuggets will be tested over their next stretch of games, with their road trip continuing against the Mavericks, Heat, and Spurs. They will face the Lakers in a Western Conference Finals rematch in their second game in February, with the game broadcast as the late game on TNT. They get another go at the champs on Valentines Day, in another national broadcast, with this one appearing on NBA TV. They close out this next run with another Eastern Conference road trip, albeit one against teams they should be able to pick up some wins against in the Wizards, Hornets, and Hawks.
Don’t forget about the Nuggets home games to close out January and start February. They’ll get to try to even the season series against Donovan Mitchell and the Utah Jazz, and then host Jerami Grant in his return to Denver. After being the fourth or fifth option on the Nuggets last season, Grant is by far and away the primary option on offense for the Pistons, who have the worst record in the Eastern Conference. He didn’t want to just be another cog in the machine for the Nuggets as a defensive specialist, and now he’s thriving on the worst team in the league.