36 games and halfway through the first half of the 2020-21 season, the Denver Nuggets have found some answers, along with a whole host of questions, before the playoffs begin in May.
Nikola Jokić has been the stalwart of the season, averaging 27.1 points, 11.0 rebounds, and 8.6 assists per game. He suited up for every single game in the first half, as is to be expected from him, and he’s averaging a career high 35.9 minutes per contest. The Nuggets have asked Jokić to do a lot in the face of their ups and downs, and he has managed the burden like a pro.
Jamal Murray, though he started the season slowly due to a variety of factors, found a new gear in the last 12 games of the first half schedule. Averaging 28.5 points, 4.9 assists, and 4.7 rebounds in that stretch on elite shooting efficiency, Murray showcased exactly what the Nuggets were hoping to see from him following his incredible performance in The Bubble.
Michael Porter Jr., though he has been the most up and down player of the Nuggets so far, has found a nice rhythm in his last nine games. He has scored in double figures nine times in a row, has grabbed at least seven rebounds in eight of the nine games, and has hit multiple three-pointers in the same eight of nine game stretch. Almost more importantly, the Nuggets have a positive plus-minus in Porter’s minutes in 12 of his last 13 games. There are signs that he is growing and finding his niche within the role the Nuggets are asking him to fill, which is basically to be their third option on a nightly basis.
Those three factors combined together — Jokić’s nightly dominance, Murray’s newfound consistency, and Porter’s sustained rhythm — have given the Nuggets some confidence in their initial plan this season. They wanted to see the team undergo this process, as painful as it may be, of incorporating Porter into what they do. Seeing Porter take part in his own recovery, grow as a full-fledged member of the rotation rather than just an ancillary piece that can score independent of what Denver wants to do...this was the primary goal of the season outside of winning in the playoffs, and the Nuggets are trending in the right direction.
Denver’s greatest attentions will always be on workshopping the Jokić-Murray-Porter trio. It’s around those three that Denver has chosen to revolve. Jokić and Murray have already established themselves and have given Denver confidence in their ceiling with those two operating the two-man game.
Denver signed their fate with Porter the moment they made the 6’10” scoring forward basically untouchable in trade discussions. This was before he was a significant part of what Denver did on a nightly basis, and though it took other organizations by surprise, it is the basic tenet the Nuggets have utilized in team building discussions. They want desperately for Porter to develop into that third legitimate piece next to Jokić and Murray, and the front office has been willing to pay the price to do it.
This coming offseason, Denver will again be faced with a major decision as Porter becomes rookie extension eligible. The 2020-21 season has been all about giving Porter every opportunity to prove he deserves a major contract. That will still continue even after the trade deadline, but the more Porter proves right now, the more aggressive the Nuggets may or may not be in the next two weeks.
How aggressive will the Nuggets actually be?
There are two separate lines of thinking given that Denver’s overall goal is to win a championship. The first line of thinking: with the way that Jokić has played and now that Murray (and Porter) seem to be joining him consistency wise, the Nuggets could choose to lay low around the trade deadline. They might know (or at least feel) that they have enough talent to win a championship even without doing anything. The Nuggets are very loyal to their players, and they may simply want to give this group an opportunity to prove how far it can go.
The other line of thinking: with Murray and Porter emerging as consistent second and third options in recent weeks, the Nuggets may decide to get MORE aggressive than usual around the trade deadline to fill gaps on their roster around their stars.
As Porter has found his rhythm, it has become increasingly clear that the Murray-Porter-Jokić trio is optimized when surrounded by guards and wings that can do a little bit of everything. This allows Porter to slide to power forward to play next to Jokić more consistently, and the Nuggets should consider that when hoping to fill holes.
Denver could choose to lay low and figure out their current roster as best they can prior to the playoffs. If they did nothing, they would probably stay out of the play-in game and put themselves in a good position to win a playoff series or two behind the star power of Jokić and Murray.
They might also choose to be aggressive though, going for players increase the talent level of their roster even if they aren’t perfect fits. Guards and wings like Bradley Beal and Zach LaVine may not be available to them, but Kyle Lowry of the Toronto Raptors? Buddy Hield of the Sacramento Kings? Lonzo Ball of the New Orleans Pelicans? They may or may not be perfect fits with Denver’s roster, but if they were to become available and Denver added them, they’d increase the overall talent level of the group.
Who can the Nuggets trust come playoff time?
The holes in Denver’s roster give them vulnerabilities against top West teams. For a long time in the first half, Jokić was the only reliable option night to night. Murray soon joined him, followed by Porter. That has given Denver the semblance of structure, but it may not be enough for a full-fledged playoff run given when Porter currently is in his development.
Beyond those three, there isn’t another consistent scoring option on Denver’s roster. Some might point to Will Barton, who’s shooting nearly 39% from three-point range on nearly four attempts per game. Unfortunately Barton is also shooting the sixth lowest percentage on layups in the NBA this season. Barton is averaging the lowest usage rate of his career and the second highest turnover percentage, per Basketball Reference. It’s difficult to outright say the Nuggets can trust his scoring in a playoff environment at this point.
Gary Harris and Paul Millsap are in the same boat for different reasons. Harris has played just 19 games this season, and tomorrow’s second half opener against the Memphis Grizzlies will mark the 18th game he has missed. It’s hard to be relied upon when missing so much time and when the offensive game has regressed as much as it has anyway. Millsap played the first 26 games of the season and missed the last 10, but at 36 years old and struggling to remain impactful against the best teams in the West, the Nuggets would be foolish to count on 30 minutes a night from Millsap as a consistent fourth option offensively. Doing so would burn him out in the regular season, and it isn’t viable in the playoffs anyway.
Beyond Harris, Barton, and Millsap, neither Monte Morris nor JaMychal Green are going to be that consistent fourth option. It’s above their station in a playoff environment. PJ Dozier? Doubtful. Facundo Campazzo? No. Isaiah Hartenstein? Now, we’re just getting silly.
There’s logic in Denver trying to reshuffle the roster to find a fourth player they can anchor to that starting unit. Whether it’s another guard, wing, forward, or big, the Nuggets could use that additional consistency.
For what it’s worth, there is some belief that the Nuggets are losing faith internally with their long-time veteran options and would be willing to explore other options.
Will the Nuggets add another big wing option?
The Nuggets have several players on their roster that can fill one or two holes if given the opportunity, but one or two other holes often emerge when the Nuggets make those choices. The Nuggets have long looked for two-way players that can do a little bit of everything. They thought they had one in Jerami Grant that helped solve some optimization issues, but that obviously fell apart last offseason.
This is Denver’s biggest weakness at this point of the season. Denver can match up with the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns, the top two teams in the Western Conference standings, reasonably well positionally. Unfortunately, the next two teams in the standings, the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers, have given the Nuggets some issues. Becoming more athletic on the wing to face those two teams should be a priority for Denver at this point. Grant was a key piece in Denver’s formula against the LA teams, and without him, Denver has a dearth of options to throw at LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard.
There are very few players in the mold of Grant available to give the Nuggets a boost in athleticism and versatility at the starting forward spots. Here are four Denver might consider:
- Aaron Gordon, Forward — Orlando Magic
- Harrison Barnes, Forward — Sacramento Kings
- Kyle Anderson, Forward — Memphis Grizzlies
- Taurean Prince, Forward — Cleveland Cavaliers
Gordon and Barnes are better, pricier options than names like Anderson and Prince; however, all four would give Denver an additional rotation player in between 6’7” and 6’9” to utilize in the regular season and the playoffs. Gordon and Barnes are definitely good enough and versatile enough to make an impact in a series like that. Anderson and Prince might not be, but there’s at least a chance.
Other lower cost options that could bolster Denver’s overall playoff rotation:
- Otto Porter Jr., Forward — Chicago Bulls (if he accepts a buyout)
- Trevor Ariza, Forward — Oklahoma City Thunder
- James Ennis, Forward — Orlando Magic
- Maurice Harkless, Forward — Miami Heat
- Troy Brown Jr., Wing — Washington Wizards
Do the Nuggets need a backup behind Nikola Jokić?
Jokić has played the second most minutes in the NBA this season. With the departure of Mason Plumlee and Isaiah Hartenstein replacing him, the Nuggets have found moments of respite mixed in with feelings of dread when Jokić leaves the floor. JaMychal Green his highest percentage of minutes at backup center in his entire career, and the Nuggets have often played Murray and Porter with the backups to help smooth out major weaknesses in the rotation.
The Nuggets likely won’t try to fill this hole at the deadline, though it does exist. When Jokić leaves the floor, the Nuggets offense drops from a 120.0 offensive rating to 102.7. The Nuggets may instead choose to load up on defenders in their second unit rather than try to find a center that can keep the offense moving. Nobody can do what Nikola Jokić does in the playoffs though. The Nuggets discovered that with Plumlee last year and are unlikely to try and make the same mistake twice.
Instead, look for Denver to fill that center spot by committee, beginning with JaMychal Green and perhaps going to Paul Millsap, Isaiah Hartenstein, or even Zeke Nnaji if Green struggles in that role.
As the trade deadline nears, there will be more updates to Denver’s line of thinking and how they will proceed. For now, expect them to be properly aggressive in finding upgrades where they can. They likely need more than what they currently have to compete for a title, despite the foundation of what they have right now being pretty good.
There are the makings of a really good championship roster in place. Some of this process takes time for Murray and Porter to continue their development. Other parts of the process are surrounding Denver’s most important players with options that can optimize what they already do.
There’s work to be done on that front. The Nuggets know it. Tim Connelly knows it. Let’s see if the Nuggets can solve the puzzle.