How have your expectations changed from the beginning of the season up to this point?
Gage Bridgford (@GbridgfordNFL): My expectations haven’t changed for one simple reason. Health. Out of 23 games this season, Denver’s most-used lineup, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic, has played in just 16 games together for 250 minutes. Jokic, Barton, Millsap and Monte Morris are the only four players out of the 16 that have touched the floor that have played in every game. When this team had a largely healthy rotation, they rattled off five wins in six games including wins over the Utah Jazz and back-to-back victories against the Phoenix Suns. When they’re fully healthy and struggling, then I might hit the panic button.
Ryan Blackburn (@NBABlackburn): I believed that Michael Porter Jr. would fit more cohesively than he has thus far. It seems that when surrounded with complementary players off the bench that put him into position to succeed, Porter often thrives. He understands his role when asked to fill a bench scoring role, but operating within the team construct as a starter next to Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and others has been difficult for him. This may improve with time, but the Nuggets don’t have an endless supply of time before questions start to arise about the overall plan to integrate Porter into what the Nuggets already do.
Gordon Gross (@GMoneyNuggs): I looked at the disaster that was Plan A for the Nuggets this offseason (potentially sign Jrue Holiday, bring back Jerami Grant) and thought Denver must have a fall-back plan. They do not appear to have a fall-back plan, and are making it up as they go. Nikola Jokic is thriving, looking like an absolute world-killer, which is great. Unfortunately so far this year he looks like Kevin Garnett in the Minnesota years, which is not what Denver was hoping to see in the follow-up campaign to last season’s Western Conference Finals run. The Nuggets still have time to put it together, but the plan really can’t be, “Wait for health and then cross fingers for chemistry” because health has not been on their side for several seasons. They have to come up with something other than Plan A to make this season a success.
Daniel Lewis (@denverstiffs): I thought they would be a little bit better, but not by much. If they really wanted to incorporate MPJ into the rotation more, and have him fill the void created by Jerami Grant leaving, there were going to be rough patches. It’s been disappointing to see all the new innovations with new players not work out, but I’m willing to concede that part of that is due to the lack of a training camp. I was hoping they’d show that they were more the team that knocked off the Clippers and Jazz in the playoffs, but they look more like the team that barely escaped the first round.
How would your expectations be different for this season if Mike Conley’s 3-pointer in Game 7 at the buzzer goes in?
Bridgford: Truthfully, I don’t think they would be different. Unless the roster had changed, such as Jerami Grant staying rather than going to the Detroit Pistons, then I might have a different expectation. We saw Jokic and Murray take the next step in that series against the Jazz, and the expectation was for them to continue that this season. Jokic is more than holding up his end of the bargain. He needs Murray and the rest of the roster to step up with him.
Blackburn: The moment Jerami Grant left, everything about my expectations changed for this Nuggets group. People are slowly beginning to understand the utility and necessity of having a player like him on this Nuggets roster, and it’s become abundantly clear that nobody on the roster can fill that void. Had Mike Conley’s shot gone in, that prospect wouldn’t have changed. That was a 50-50 series against a team that currently sits at the top of the Western Conference standings. Denver could easily be there if they had continuity at their side. They don’t, and that has hurt them this year.
Gross: I’m with Ryan, my expectations changed with Grant’s departure. Still, I will say that I expected the bubble leap from Jamal Murray to pay off more in the regular season, and whether because of injuries, exhaustion or simply that he’s not gonna be that player over 82 games, he’s simply been unable to pay that off. I may be grading Murray on too harsh a curve but after his bubble performance I did expect Denver to be able to play more as a two-headed monster. Instead Jokic has stepped to even a higher level, and Murray will have to heal up and catch up.
Lewis: So much of this hinges on what happened in the offseason, not what happened in the playoffs. The Nuggets are missing Mason Plumlee, Torrey Craig, and Jerami Grant, and that impacts their season expectations more than if Conley’s shot had fallen. I do think the front office may have had more urgency to get better rather than wait for internal improvement if they hadn’t won a series though. I think there is a sense of “hey we made it to the Conference Finals, we’re a good team” in the organization. To be honest, I don’t think that’s deserved.
The Nuggets have preached about not “skipping steps” in the past as they’ve constructed their roster. What’s the next step they need to take?
Bridgford: The step is development. If they’re not trading younger players for established starters, they need guys like Michael Porter Jr. to find their next level. In limited minutes, R.J. Hampton looks like a viable rotation player. P.J. Dozier, prior to his injury, was one of the best defensive players on the roster. With all of their injuries, they need to get healthy and have Michael Malone start pulling the right strings when they’re at full strength. If they can get out of their own way in the third quarter, they should be able to right the ship.
Blackburn: Like Gage above me, I believe the next step is rediscovering the foundation and surrounding pieces of the roster once again. Nikola Jokić is clearly established, and a healthy Jamal Murray cannot be discounted after his bubble performance, injuries and poor play this season be damned. The Nuggets have to surround those two with athleticism, versatility, perimeter shooting, and defensive talent. The coaching staff and front office must be honest with themselves about whether the current group has the traits they need to be competitive in the playoffs. If the answer is yes, then they must remain patient and find that competitive level. If the answer is no, then moves must be made to find players who can fill the void.
Gross: To be bold. That may involve paying off their drafting and young talent evaluation model, using Dozier and Hampton to replace higher-priced vets and placing a big bet on Michael Porter Jr. to be able to carry a scoring load without falling down on the defensive side. That may involve a trade of young players for some ready-now roster fits that complement Jokic and allow him to direct the offense without giving up these seemingly endless 20-0 third quarter runs. But what it doesn’t involve is hedging bets for aging and injured trust players to try to salvage a couple of wins. Denver has to commit to something - that’s the next step.
Lewis: The next step they appear to be taking is to be the same old Nuggets as always - content with being good but not great. I’d like to see them actually commit to winning now, when they have a great core, rather than settle for good enough. They look like a team that lacks cohesion and shared goals — a frightening look for a team that talks a lot about being a championship contender.
RJ Hampton has played minutes with other guards out of the lineup — what are his strengths and weaknesses?
Bridgford: One major strength of his is rebounding. He averages 9.6 rebounds per 36 minutes, and he’s had 17 total over the two losses to the Sacramento Kings and Milwaukee Bucks, including seven in just 16 minutes against the Bucks. He’s got a ton of athleticism and stays active on the defensive end, which is something some of the other Nuggets’ guards can struggle with at times. On offense, his shot needs some work. He’s shooting 50 percent in the last two games, but he needs to speed up the pace of his release. He’s a good slasher if the offense can find ways to get him moving off of Jokic and heading towards the rim.
Blackburn: Agreed on rebounding being the biggest strength so far. It’s a small sample, but among the players listed at 6’4” and under, Hampton has generated the highest rebounding rate thus far, higher even than Russell Westbrook. The Nuggets often send a player (normally a shooting guard like Gary Harris) up the court for a full-court pass, so it’s an interesting contrast to see Hampton grabbing as many rebounds as he does at the position. He’s earning playing time with rebounding, energy, and defensive attentiveness, all being good traits to have in a young player looking to stay on the court. He still has a ways to go finishing at the rim and reading the court before making decisions, but those weaknesses will come around with time and repetition.
Gross: Hampton is a hustle player. His motor is one of his biggest assets, and he can run like the wind and jump out of the gym, traits that are helping Denver on the boards as everyone else has said. He’s very unsure in traffic and his release is slow, but he’s been committed to shooting when he’s the man getting the kickout pass. The stuff in the tall trees inside will come. He’s still finding his legs in the NBA, but playing incredibly hard and trying to make the right play will pay dividends when he’s not thinking so much and catches up to the speed of the NBA game.
Lewis: He looks like a special athlete. He has incredibly quickness, and that is able to translate into several parts of his game. I think he’s being told to focus on rebounding, which helps him stay at home on defense and not cheat for outlet passes. He looks to be a real threat in transition, as long as he learns how to dribble in traffic. He looks really excited to be on the court, and has a passion for the game. As for weaknesses, he’s going to need time to become more comfortable shooting and dribbling. So far though, he looks like he has a good foundation he’s building off of, and could be a valuable pickup for the team.
Isaiah Hartenstein started the season as the backup center, then JaMychal Green took a turn, now it’s Vlatko Cancar. What should the Nuggets do with that role the rest of the season?
Bridgford: Play the hot hand. If you’re not going to start Porter, you can have him playing the four alongside Green at the five which can mitigate the rebounding you’re losing without Hartenstein. If Hartenstein shows some flashes of being able to play effective ball, get him on the floor. Otherwise, Green is probably your best bet. He brings activity and outside shooting ability to the position that you don’t have otherwise.
Blackburn: I’d like to see Denver give Zeke Nnaji a shot. He has played 10 games and 23 total minutes, all of which have come in garbage time situations. It’s clear that the Nuggets need some size in their bench big rotation, but they also need to maintain floor spacing and shooting. Going to four guards isn’t the long term answer Denver is looking for, and Hartenstein, though he has been solid within his role, isn’t playing a role the Nuggets will need in a playoff environment. Nnaji fits the bill of a stretch big man who can hit open jumpers in a playoff series while making the right reads and rotations defensively. In order to get him ready for that, he needs to play.
Gross: Personally I want Paul Millsap to transition to the bench center role. He’s played center plenty in the past for Atlanta, and having a small-ball center works fine against much of what the league throws out there for non-starters. I agree with Ryan, Denver can’t keep trying this 4 guard lineup, and the injuries to the guards give them a chance to experiment. Millsap at center gives them some of those Nnaji-at-PF minutes that would be nice to work in as well. I still feel like Green is a starter next to Jokic in a shortened playoff rotation, and I’d like the Nuggets to get to that realization faster than they did with Jerami Grant, who wasn’t a full-time starter with a healthy Millsap until the playoffs.
Lewis: We’ve seen Hampton succeed in a limited role so far given the opportunity, why not play Zeke Nnaji? He was supposed to be this prospect who was ready to step in and help a team immediately, and he’s played the fewest minutes of any first round pick this season? I’d like to be able to watch more videos of him on the court doing things instead of watching videos of him play the piano on the road in a hotel lobby. Give Nnaji run! It’s not like the team is winning a championship with this current lineup, might as well work on getting the young guys some extra minutes so they can be positive contributors in the 2021-22 season.