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Roundtable: The Second Half Begins

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The first half of the Nuggets season is over, which is the topic of discussion for this week’s roundtable.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Atlanta Hawks Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

What is the outlook of the team coming out of the All-Star break?

Gage Bridgford (@GbridgfordNFL): I think the Denver Nuggets are one of the top four teams in the Western Conference. They’re currently two games back of the fourth place LA Clippers and six games back of the first place Utah Jazz. One major issue for Denver throughout the first half was health. Only Nikola Jokic suited up for all 36 games before the break. If they can stay healthy, they can easily push their way into hosting a playoff series by the time the season ends. If they continue to be banged up, they’re going to be mired in the back half of the pack.

Gordon Gross (@GMoneyNuggs): The Nuggets are working toward hosting a first round playoff series and getting their rotation figured out as everyone comes back from injury. The second goal may hamper the first goal, because what Denver can do to win regular season games might not be what they need to do to win playoff games. It’ll be an interesting balancing act, especially deciding what to do at power forward with Paul Millsap and JaMychal Green.

Brandon Ewing (@B_Skip1717): The Nuggets were finally hitting their stride going into the all-star break, so hopefully they can build on that to start the second half of the season. This teams outlook has to be centered around their health and like I mentioned above, the Nuggets are finding their rhythm again, but will adding more players to the mix potentially hurt their success?

Gary Harris, Paul Millsap, and JaMychal Green should hopefully return sooner rather than later, but we won’t get an update on them until the Nuggets injury report comes out today or tomorrow. Same goes for the players on the covid protocol list — R.J. Hampton, Facundo Campazzo, Markus Howard — and whether or not they will be available when the Nuggets take on Memphis Friday night. It will be imperative for the Nuggets to continue and find success even when all these players listed above are back at full strength.

Ryan Blackburn (@NBABlackburn): The Nuggets figured some interesting things out in their final ten 10 games of the first half. The pecking order of Nikola Jokić, Jamal Murray, and Michael Porter Jr. was clearly established, and everything seemed to fall into place around what those three players were doing night in and night out. That came without the presence of Gary Harris and Paul Millsap though, two players who define a more defensive minded play style than Porter will ever be part of. The Nuggets became an offensive team that played some defense in the latter portion of the first half. Is Michael Malone okay with that? Can they retain that identity? Because it seemed to work for them.

What is the X-factor for the Nuggets second half?

Bridgford: Aside from health, it’s going to be the play of Jamal Murray. After starting the year slow, he went on a tear over the final 10 games before the break by averaging 29.5 points while shooting 57.4 percent from the floor and 50.6 percent from 3-point land. If he can maintain that level of play, Denver will be in contention for wins every night between he and Jokic. If he can’t, they’ll only go as far as Jokic can drag them.

Gross: Michael Porter Jr. without question. Murray’s surge over the last 6 weeks was vital for Denver, but his career has been built on surges and lulls. If he finds a lull for any reason the Nuggets must have a clear picture of how to use MPJ to pick up the slack. Going into the break he averaged 17 points and 10.5 rebounds on just 11 shots a game, while shooting an obscene 52.6% from 3. Obviously that 3 point percentage won’t hold, but his gravity opens up a lot for Murray and Jokic to operate and Denver needs to continue to take advantage of it with even more shots if possible. Porter makes the offense easier for everyone when he’s involved.

Ewing: It’s going to be what it always is for this team: can the big three of Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Michael Porter Jr. carry the team on a nightly basis? As of late, they most certainly have, but is that sustainable for an entire season? We saw it took a couple months for those three to finally build some chemistry and the Nuggets struggled because of it. This team is not built to survive one or even two of those guys playing poorly, so hopefully they can build on what they have shown us as of late. If they can, it makes the Nuggets a true threat to get back to the Western Conference Finals for the second consecutive year.

Blackburn: I have questions about the Jokić, Murray, and Porter trio, but my answer is Tim Connelly. The Nuggets have distinct weaknesses on their roster and a rotation that doesn’t align with many of the truths the Nuggets learned about themselves in the first 36 games. The trade deadline is in two weeks, and Connelly and Co. have the opportunity to alter Denver’s outlook and re-center their focus. I don’t think Denver can optimize their star trio with the roster at full strength. There are too many questions about who will play and the positions Denver needs. Denver can try and solve that issue at the trade deadline, but it will take a big time deal from Connelly to make it happen.

Which injured player do the Nuggets miss the most?

Bridgford: It’s probably close between Paul Millsap and JaMychal Green, but Millsap will get the nod as the guy that had been playing more minutes. Millsap gives them a steadying defensive force in the forward room that they don’t have with him on the shelf. His absence forces everyone up a spot in the rotation with Michael Porter Jr. playing at power forward. Porter just doesn’t have the strength to avoid being bullied by bigger forwards, and Millsap can bang with those types of guys more effectively.

Gross: Denver has unfortunately been missing Gary Harris for most of a couple of seasons now, so I’m not sure I can pick him. They so rarely have him available at full strength. I’ll go with JaMychal Green, as he provides a defensive presence and pairs with either Jokic or the bench well with his ability to stretch the floor a bit too. With MPJ carrying a bunch of rebounding and offensive responsibility, it’s good to have another forward who can grind more on defense without being slotted for a ton of minutes - MPJ needs those.

Ewing: I’m not sure they have really missed any of them, but I’ll go with Gary Harris. Not only was Harris finally getting his shooting stroke back before getting hurt, but his defense also been missed. JaMychal Green was also playing fairly well before getting hurt, so adding him back to the rotation wouldn't hurt.

Blackburn: For regular season wins, the answer is JaMychal Green. He has been mostly good and gives Denver a better, more stable option at backup center than Isaiah Hartenstein. For winning a title, the Nuggets need Gary Harris to be back and to be great. His two-way play is key to giving Denver options against some of the guard heavy teams at the top of the conference. The Utah Jazz with Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, and Jordan Clarkson ran rampant on Denver in the playoffs until Harris returned. The Phoenix Suns with Chris Paul and Devin Booker would be more of the same. Gimme a healthy Gary Harris for a playoff run.

NBA: Washington Wizards at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Will we see more lineups with four guards on the court at the same time?

Bridgford: As long as Michael Malone remains the head coach, I have my doubts about that. Surrounding Jokic with four guards would be great to give him room to work inside along with getting more shooters for him to hit, but that’s not how Malone has built his lineups since he’s been the head coach. It compromises the team’s ability to play effective defense against bigger players which is a major factor for Malone, and he would likely try to exploit smaller teams by going with an even bigger lineup to counter them. Unless someone has replaced Malone with a clone being operated by Mike D’Antoni, I don’t see a one in and four out lineup.

Gross: Are the Nuggets likely to remain injury-prone? Signs point to yes when looking at the trend line over the past few seasons. I would never put the 4-guard lineup out of reach, but my hope is that Denver’s bigger players can stay healthy enough and effective enough that Denver doesn’t have to resort to those sorts of novelty acts very often - especially because that’s not Malone’s wheelhouse.

Ewing: It’s definitely fun to think about, but I don't think we’ll see it. Maybe if a team were to go really small then yes, but I think we’ll see a lot more three guard lineups than four guard. The addition of PJ Dozier back in the lineup has been a breath of fresh air and if the Nuggets were to employ a four guard lineup, Dozier could definitely play a spot as one of the forwards. One thing is for certain and it’s that Jokic would get about 1,000,000 assists if the Nuggets do roll out a four guard lineup.

Blackburn: Oh yeah, and here’s why: the Nuggets have seven guards they want to play: Murray, Morris, Campazzo, Harris, Barton, Dozier, and rookie R.J. Hampton. When Denver faces teams that like to go small in crunch time, the Nuggets have the personnel to combat it. I’m reminded of a game against the Phoenix Suns early in the year when Denver went with four guards against CP3, Booker, Mikal Bridges, and Jae Crowder. Denver nearly won that game too. Going to four guards won’t be Denver’s first choice because I sense Porter will be the closing power forward most nights; however, if Porter gets into foul trouble or is having a rough night, I wouldn’t be surprised by four guards at all.

What will be the Nuggets record to finish out the season? What seed will they be in the playoffs?

Bridgford: Denver sits at 21-15 currently, and I’m expecting them to expand that as the season goes on. They have 36 games remaining. In order to hit the over on their preseason win total of 44.5, they would have to go 24-12 over their final 36 games. They have the sixth-easiest remaining schedule based on current records, and I think that’s about where they’re going to finish out record wise at 45-27. It’s a slight regression from the expectations they had to start the year, but that’s going to happen when you’re missing half of your roster for multiple games. I think they end up with the fourth seed. One of the top four teams is going to fade due to injuries or other reasons, and Denver is close enough that they’re able to snag that fourth spot.

Gross: Gabe wrote it out succinctly. 46 wins for Denver as they get healthy and go on a bit of a tear again a soft upcoming schedule it gets them the 4 seed.

Ewing: The Nuggets play as of late almost had me change my tune, but I’m going to stick with my prediction that I made at the beginning of the season and say 43 wins. It does help that Denver has an easy schedule, but I just have a feeling there will be one more rough patch and it may cause their record to take a hit. Luckily, I still think they’ll make the playoffs and hopefully make some noise again once they get there.

Blackburn: At the beginning of the year, I predicted a 50-22 record. It’s safe to say I overshot Denver’s success by a lot and didn’t foresee their issues incorporating Porter into everything they do. Still, I feel pretty bullish on Denver’s prospects in the second half. They will drop games here or there that they shouldn’t, and they will win an extra game or two against top teams that they probably shouldn’t. That’s just who they are, and it will probably lead to a 24-12 record in the second half and a 45-27 record overall. The schedule is relatively easy at the start, and though that could make some Nuggets fans nervous, I still see the, taking care of business on most nights.