Over six years ago, former Denver Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson posted a video of former Nuggets head coach Brian Shaw rapping a pregame scouting report to the Nuggets prior to a game late in the 2014-15 season. Shaw had expressed difficulty relating to millennials throughout his coaching tenure, and this was the keystone moment of a franchise trapped in a nightmare. Life in the Nuggets locker room had devolved, and Shaw was soon removed from his position.
That was the low point of the Denver Nuggets in my time. It was also the final year I was a commenter on Denver Stiffs instead of a writer, first spending a brief time at Hoops Habit during the 2015-16 year before returning here under the watchful eyes of Adam Mares and Zach Mikash. Things have improved noticeably from there, and it began with Michael Malone and Nikola Jokić.
The constant progression from the Nuggets began with those two, from the culture and habits established by Malone to the creativity and skill level established by Jokić. Jamal Murray soon joined that duo to make it a trio, and the Nuggets found the foundation upon which they could build a championship contender.
After several years of development, the Nuggets though they finally had the right mix of pieces to make it happen this year. Jokić and Murray were always the first reason why Denver could win, but Michael Porter Jr. showcasing his talent and turning potential into impact throughout the year made a tangible difference in the layers of Denver’s identity. Porter’s shotmaking was unparalleled for a forward so young, and seeing him put together these displays throughout the year gave Nuggets fans something extra they could hold onto that weren’t there in previous years.
The Jerami Grant departure before the season was a big blow to Denver’s versatility, but after the Nuggets acquired Aaron Gordon, they were back on track. After adding Gordon and Will Barton to Denver’s talented trio of Jokić, Murray, and Porter, there were very few teams that could match Denver’s talent level as well as their fit together. The Jokić-Murray two-man game was an established killer, but the versatility and skill level of the three pieces interwoven between that two-man game gave the Nuggets a real, genuine shot at a championship.
Then, the injury happened.
Everything changed for the Nuggets organization the minute Murray tore the ACL in his left knee against the Golden State Warriors on April 12th. Just over two months ago, yet it feels like an eternity. The injury was crushing for all involved, but crushing for Murray most of all. He was experiencing a career year, had found his stride next to Jokić, and was gearing up to prove that his bubble run was no fluke, that he could be that player any time he stepped on the floor. His ethos of resilience and fight permeated the identity of the Nuggets organization from top to bottom, and the Nuggets knew they always had a chance because Jamal Murray never said otherwise.
The Nuggets were forced to pivot, and for a time, they found success in moving everyone up a spot. Porter became the second option and flourished in the regular season, while Barton assumed more ball handling responsibility and Gordon continued to tie the room together. The Nuggets utilized Monte Morris, P.J. Dozier, and Facundo Campazzo as facilitators to create shots for others, and Denver’s backup frontcourt of JaMychal Green and Paul Millsap (and JaVale McGee) helped stabilize the rotation for a time.
Then, the playoffs began, and the Nuggets were immediately challenged by their lack of dynamic ball handlers. Murray was of course out, but Barton and Dozier joined him on the sidelines initially while Morris was working his way back from a prolonged absence. In their place started two new guards. The first was Facundo Campazzo, a 5’10” 30-year-old rookie with the competitive fire of a flamethrower with a variety of weaknesses but the hustle to make up for most of them. The second was Austin Rivers, a new addition who had been around for barely a month, cast aside by the New York Knicks and the rest of the NBA, only to be picked up by the Nuggets after Murray’s injury. Behind those two were Morris, 5’10 rookie Markus Howard, and another new addition in Shaquille Harrison, a non-shooter at shooting guard.
And yet, the Nuggets made it work. They had to progress through the challenges thrown their way, but between the brilliance of Jokić, the athletic advantages of Porter and Gordon, and the steadiness of Morris, Green, and Millsap off the bench, the Nuggets found a way to best the Portland Trail Blazers in six games. Damian Lillard gave it all he had, but the Nuggets supporting cast found a way to assist Jokić in a more regular manner than the Blazers players did for Lillard. That’s one of the biggest reasons the Blazers are about to undergo significant changes to their organization.
Things were looking up for Denver entering the second round, but the difference between the Portland Trail Blazers and Phoenix Suns became palpable early. While the Blazers were a mess defensively, the Suns were connected. They forced Jokić to take more jump shots than he was used to, and they also forced Denver’s role players to make important plays that they couldn’t replicate from Round 1 to Round 2. On the other end, the Suns consistently made the right play every single possession, and it became clear that the Nuggets had too many wholes in their defensive rotations to slow down the Suns in a meaningful way. In addition, Porter’s defensive struggles became even more apparent in the second round, especially after tweaking his back early in the series.
All in all, the Nuggets couldn’t recreate the magic that had sustained them for so long. Their talent level eventually caught up with them without Jamal Murray around, and the Nuggets didn’t have the requisite answers to the problems the Suns, a competent team with no legitimate weaknesses, posed to them. Though Barton made his return and the Nuggets eventually got Morris into the starting lineup, it wasn’t enough to slow down the Suns, who shot the ball extremely efficiently, even on difficult shots.
It’s difficult to blame any one player, or even multiple players, for such an abrupt exit. Jokić certainly wasn’t perfect, as evidenced by the ejection he received in Game 4 and the low percentages on his jump shots. He still averaged 25.0 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 5.8 assists against the Suns though, let alone even better numbers and shooting percentages in the prior matchup against the Blazers. There’s only ever so much one player can do, and Jokić didn’t receive the help he needed for the Nuggets to advance.
Michael Porter Jr. certainly didn’t play against the Suns the way Nuggets fans came to expect throughout the regular season. Porter averaged 15.3 points and 5.5 rebounds while shooting 38.3% from the field. The production and efficiency both saw a major reduction, as did Porter’s effectiveness on the defensive end. Both the Blazers and the Suns sought out Porter as the weakest link defensively, and that has to bother the 22-year-old, despite it being just his second year in the NBA.
Porter is definitely ahead of the curve in terms of becoming a star in the NBA. He has the mentality of an elite shooter and the efficiency to back that claim up. The Nuggets will have to decide whether they believe in Porter’s future on their roster as a star too. They have an opportunity to hand Porter a max contract extension worth roughly five years, $178 million beginning in 2022-23. If the Nuggets believe in Porter’s ceiling and fit with the rest of the roster, then this shouldn’t be a difficult choice.
For Porter to fully realize his potential though, he can’t be a liability on one end of the floor. Jokić is carrying such a heavy load offensively and Murray will be coming off an ACL tear. Asking either of them to be great defenders next season would be too much. It isn’t asking too much of Porter though, given his length, athleticism, and age. Porter wouldn’t have to be the best defender on the team, but there’s room for him to grow into a legitimately positive defender that opponents choose to avoid rather than target in the playoffs. Porter and the Nuggets should continue to work for that outcome. If Porter isn’t able to become a better defender over the next half decade, the Nuggets might never see a true championship opportunity in Jokić’s prime years.
For all the hemming and hawing about championships, it’s clear that the Nuggets are so much further along in those goals than most would believe after six years. The roster has been built up over considerable time, with Jokić, Murray, and Porter drafted in the 2014, 2016, and 2018 NBA Drafts respectively. Around them, the Nuggets have added key role players in Barton and Gordon to fill out the starting unit. Morris leads the bench unit, while both Dozier and Campazzo have a role in assisting the starting and bench units at times. Green and Millsap hold it down while Jokić and co. rest up, often giving the Nuggets a shooting boost with some defensive versatility in the frontcourt. That’s 10 players right there, all capable of contributing to playoff basketball, and it doesn’t even include Austin Rivers, the hero of Game 3 in the first round against Portland, or JaVale McGee, a veteran bench center addition clearly capable of playoff minutes after a solid Game 4 appearance.
Whether the Nuggets choose to bring back the same group next season or change things up will be entirely dependent on two things.
The first: how close do the Nuggets genuinely believe they were if Jamal Murray were at full health? Would he have masked enough weaknesses to help the Nuggets advance through the West playoffs? Do the weaknesses Denver showed still exist to that degree if Murray was averaging 38 minutes a night?
The easy answer is that the Nuggets were very close. There was a brief period in time where the Nuggets could be considered an inner circle championship contender. Between the Gordon acquisition and the Murray injury, the Nuggets looked like they had it all, from a starting unit with extreme talent/fit and a reserve group with the capability to fill in the gaps. The Nuggets will continue to tinker with the exact lineups, but the players they have, with Murray along for the ride, are certainly good enough to get it done. Add in a shooting wing here or a better defender there and they’re looking great.
The second, and perhaps more important point: can the Nuggets afford this team? Is ownership willing to pay in order to keep this group together?
Porter is extension eligible and is due to receive max money or close to it. Gordon is also extension eligible, and after losing Jerami Grant last summer due to an unforeseen change of heart, the Nuggets would be wise to ensure that Gordon doesn’t surprise them in the same manner. Barton and Green have player options. They could choose to be in Denver by simply accepting those terms, decline the player option and hope to re-sign a new contract, or depart altogether. The contracts of Millsap, McGee, and Rivers will expire, meaning that Denver will have choices on whether to retain any or all of those veterans for next year’s roster.
In all likelihood, this Nuggets roster is heading toward expensive territory. Likely tax territory. Great teams all pay luxury tax eventually when pressed into it. At least, responsible teams do. The Nuggets last paid the luxury tax during the 2007-08 season. They didn’t truly have a reason to pay it again until now, but as keeping Jokić, Murray, and Porter together grows more expensive, the Nuggets are reaching the financial portion of the circle of life where paying the tax is just how things are done. Not doing so would take away some options the Nuggets have to improve their own roster with the goal of putting the best team together that they possibly can in order to win the first championship in franchise history.
Given previous evidence, an incomplete television deal leaving hundreds of thousands of Nuggets fans without the ability to watch their team, and the COVID-19 pandemic that cost the Kroenke family many millions of dollars, there are many reasons to believe that the Nuggets will choose to NOT pay the luxury tax.
It would be disappointing if the Nuggets weren’t able to capitalize on such an impressive confluence of talent.
Whatever the case may be financially, it’s clear that the Nuggets are one of the most talented teams in the NBA, and they’ve retained most of their flexibility in the process. The Nuggets still have Zeke Nnaji, a 2020 first round draft pick that the team remains high on. The Nuggets still have first round draft picks in 2021 (this year), 2022, 2024, and 2026 going forward, and they’ve proven to have a keen eye on draft talent over a long period of time.
The Nuggets are hopeful that next time around, they will have their star point guard back rather than playing at a disadvantage like they did this time around.
There’s no timetable for Murray’s eventual return after his ACL surgery. Estimates would say roughly 10 to 12 months after surgery, meaning getting Murray back sometime in March or April is the most likely outcome, barring any setbacks. That would leave the Nuggets with very limited time to gel together at full strength before the 2022 playoffs, and there’s honestly no guarantee of that either. With the season calendar normalizing in the 2021-22 season, the expectation is that the 2022 playoffs would begin in mid April, putting a lot of pressure on Murray’s recovery before then.
If the Nuggets are smart, they will avoid pressuring Murray into coming back until he’s ready. They will also ignore Murray’s pleas to return prematurely, given his unwavering competitive spirit and desire to get back on the floor as soon as possible. If all things go well, then Murray will probably be able to contribute to Denver’s 2022 title prospects in some capacity. In all likelihood though, he won’t be back to full strength and comfort until the season after that.
It’s a painful process, the long and winding road to championship glory. The Nuggets have experienced pitfalls of every kind of their way back to relevance. Those pitfalls won’t go away either. New problems are sure to arise at some point, and there just isn’t any guarantee for success when injuries can pop up so fast, agendas can change, and people change too. Such is life in the NBA, especially for a mid market team like the Nuggets. They have to fight for everything they can get their hands on, and that reality doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon.
For Nuggets fans, it’s important to remember that these new problems the team faces are far more enjoyable than the problems of old. The Nuggets have the most valuable player in the NBA on their roster. They have talent at every position. They have a team that plays hard and plays together. Explaining Denver’s current situation to a Nuggets fan six years ago would be extremely gratifying.
But the work never stops. Until the Nuggets reach the summit, they will always be treated differently. They will never hold the respect of the rest of the NBA, or frankly, fans of other sports in Denver, until they climb the mountaintop. It’s far more difficult in the NBA, but that’s what will make the final success so incredible at the end. Nuggets fans should hold onto that feeling, that visualization.
Because it only gets harder from here.