Nikola Jokić just scored 50 points, and it didn’t make it a difference against the Sacramento Kings.
Take a step back and acknowledge that fact for a second. Sure, the Denver Nuggets were without several rotation players. Sure, the Kings are better than many give them credit for and a matchup nightmare to boot.
Tell that to Nikola Jokić, a superstar and top five player who could demand a trade at the drop of a hat.
The Nuggets have dilly dallied for a long time with Jokić at the helm. “We don’t skip steps” has been a consistent mantra, and for good reason. The Nuggets have never been in proper position to compete for a championship, so they didn’t rush the process. They’ve taken their time, built this roster from the ground up, and they finally saw the fruit of their labors in the bubble last season, making the Western Conference Finals.
Now, they’ve taken a step back.
Sure, the Net Rating is better. There are statistical indicators that say they’re actually better than last season, but the first 22 games of the season have revealed an ugly truth about the Nuggets so far this season: they aren’t winning a championship with the current roster. That might come as a shock to some. After all, they just made the Western Conference Finals last September.
Unfortunately, that team is gone, and there’s no use trying to recreate something that can’t be reformed with what’s left on the roster.
Torrey Craig had his faults. I was one to name them pretty consistently. His incompatibility with Jokić made him a low usage player, but in that low usage, he offered a physicality on the wing that no Nugget on the roster can match. He would run through a brick wall if asked, and he was tough enough to do it. That helped Denver survive, notably in Game 7 of the Western Conference Semi Finals against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Mason Plumlee was another player with several faults, and that left him generally under appreciated. As a quality rebounder, passer, and screener, Plumlee served a purpose for Denver by helping the Nuggets survive when Jokić stepped off the floor. In Game 7 against the Utah Jazz, Plumlee played just eight minutes, but he was a +3 in a two-point victory while grabbing three rebounds and blocking a shot.
Most of all, Jerami Grant is the player the Nuggets are missing over anyone else. Very few players in the NBA can both fit into a role and excellent above their station the way Jerami Grant has proven he can with the Detroit Pistons. The versatility to score in different ways, match up athletically on the wing against anyone, all while playing solid defense. The Nuggets miss a player who can do that more than any team in the NBA.
And that right there is the fundamental reason why the Nuggets have to approach this season in a different way than the year prior. This would never be the same group.
And to be fair, they’ve tried to zag. In some ways.
To replace Grant, Plumlee, and Craig, the Nuggets decided to get creative. With limited options and cap flexibility, the Nuggets replaced Grant in the only way they could at the price point they could afford: JaMychal Green. The 6’8” traditional stretch big man has in many ways helped keep the status quo for the Nuggets. His minutes thus far have been incredibly valuable for Denver with his efficient three-point shooting, solid rebounding, and veteran presence against power forwards and centers. That was a strong move by Tim Connelly and company. Despite Green playing some power forward, his greatest asset to Denver has been his ability to slide to center with bench units to hold the status quo. In some ways, Green is replacing a hybrid version of Jerami Grant AND Mason Plumlee.
Unfortunately, replacing both players at the same time has left Denver in the difficult position of truly replacing neither. The Nuggets don’t have an athletic wing to defend top NBA scorers and creators anymore. They don’t have a legitimate back big man that Michael Malone trusts to play regular minutes either. Isaiah Hartenstein was meant to help fill the void left by Plumlee, and while he has been fine, he’s only averaging nine minutes per game for a reason. Malone simply doesn’t trust him.
The next few moves are even more questionable at this stage. Despite committing to Monte Morris as a long term asset, the Nuggets used one of their important methods of acquiring a true wing replacement on a 5’10” point guard in Facundo Campazzo. The former Real Madrid player has been fine as a Nugget, but without the proper pieces around him, it’s difficult to form a competent lineup against the best teams in the NBA.
In the 2020 draft, the Nuggets selected 19-year-old R.J. Hampton and 20-year-old Zeke Nnaji. It took five injuries to rotation caliber guards before Hampton saw more than eight minutes in a single game. He played 27 minutes and was very impactful, but he’s also listed at 6’4” and 175 pounds, hardly the size of the best wings in the NBA today.
Rather than find a capable replacement or even a roster upgrade, the Nuggets built a roster of guards, bigs, and primarily young players. The only true wings on the roster with significant size are Michael Porter Jr. and Greg Whittington, and Whittington has yet to suit up for a game after sustaining a knee injury before the season started.
In reality though, this season, and many of Denver’s issues, surround Porter. He was meant to be the replacement for Grant, though he has yet to find a true rhythm this season. In Grant leaving, Craig leaving, and the Nuggets not signing a replacement, the expectation was that Porter would fill the vacated time and transition into a full starting role. That hasn’t happened yet. Porter began the season in the starting unit but spent the majority of his games coming off the bench behind Will Barton and Paul Millsap. It wasn’t until the Nuggets had five guards sit out Saturday’s game before Porter was reinserted into the starting group.
This was not the plan. During preseason media availability, president of basketball operations Tim Connelly shared that it was “no secret” that the team would be relying heavily on Porter this year. At the first available opportunity, it appears that Malone has deviated from that plan. Before Saturday’s game in which five rotation players sat out, Porter was averaging 23.6 minutes per game off the bench and under 10 shot attempts per game. Porter’s role has trended in the opposite direction since the beginning of the season, and it’s beginning to affect his impact lately.
If the Nuggets were still legitimate championship contenders, then I would offer up a pass for this change in Porter’s role; however, the Lakers game proved the Nuggets still have a long way to go. Jokić is clearly ready to go, but so few players can join him on that path to readiness at the highest levels right now. I have faith in Jamal Murray reaching that star level when the time comes, but Murray is just one guy.
Beyond Jokić and Murray, the Nuggets are looking for consistent, high level performance. They are going to have difficulty finding it. Monte Morris and JaMychal Green have been rock solid within their roles, but that’s just who Morris and Green are: role players. The last pieces to compete a championship team. Harris, Barton, and Millsap represent an old guard of Nuggets incumbents who have become increasingly inconsistent. It’s rare when all three play well at the same time, and even when they do, the trio has limits athletically against several high level opponents. PJ Dozier is good most of the time but still raw. Campazzo and Hartenstein are inconsistent and matchup based. Hampton, Nnaji, and Bol Bol are too young.
Perhaps Porter is too young as well. Perhaps the Nuggets are putting too much pressure on him to be too good too soon; however, heavy is the burden for a young star to bear. If Porter wants to be great, he has to adapt and survive, and so do the Nuggets.
Does that mean Malone should be starting Porter, ironing out the chemistry concerns right now, and getting him ready to be a factor in the playoffs? Probably.
Does that mean Connelly must acknowledge mistakes building the roster and find another competent wing that can help Denver out in the interim? Possibly.
Does that mean the Nuggets have to stop holding on to what made them great previously and focus instead on what will make them great going forward? Definitely.
The Nuggets have a long way to go, and they owe it to Jokić to do everything in their power to get ready while he’s still dominating the way he did on Saturday afternoon. No more holding onto what was. No more hoping for what could be. Get this man a shield right now.
The best way to do that is to figure out how to optimize Porter before it’s too late.