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Denver Nuggets’ 2021-22 end of season roundtable

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NBA: Playoffs-Phoenix Suns at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

What was the best decision the Denver Nuggets made in the last calendar year?

Ryan Blackburn (@NBABlackburn): The Nuggets committing to Michael Porter Jr. as a starter gave them a ton of valuable information about the present and future of the organization. Nikola Jokić won MVP. He’s as understood of a player as there is in the NBA in my eyes. He’s steady and will be for a long time. Jamal Murray, though he sustained a major injury, is also a known entity. When he comes back, it will take him a little time to get up to speed, but once he does, he’s clearly worth a max contract. The Nuggets didn’t know whether they could trust Porter in big situations, but playing him through his struggle in the middle of the year and trusting him to be a big piece of their team gave the Nuggets several opportunities to evaluate his fit with Jokic, Murray, Aaron Gordon, Will Barton, and the rest of the roster. Now, as they decide whether to offer a max rookie extension or not, they can enter those talks with 10 times as much knowledge about the present and future of his game as they would have had if he came off the bench again.

Gordon Gross (@GMoneyNuggs): Playing Michael Porter Jr. His Playing time only really arrived in the Bubble playoffs and was sporadic this season thanks in part to Covid protocols until Denver’s injuries mounted, but, while he still has a lot learn, he can only learn most of it by playing. Denver has a habit of letting players move on to bigger roles with other teams (Malik Beasley, R.J. Hampton, Jerami Grant), but they’ve committed to MPJ here It’s vital to their future to make that fit work. Now, his progress in his own game needs to be matched by Denver scheming to maximize his contributions, so that the title they might have won this year with a healthy roster is still in their sights when Jamal Murray gets back.

Daniel Lewis (@minutemandan): Trading for Aaron Gordon. While the health of the team didn’t work out as they had hoped, trading for the former Magic forward was a sign to the rest of the NBA that the Nuggets were ready to have a seat at the title contender’s table. It signified that ownership and the front office sense that the roster is ready for title contention. Now that more and more teams are entering the offseason, we’re hearing about how teams wish their front office had traded for Gordon. Now the Nuggets have him, and his Bird rights, for a potential extension. Advantage, Denver.

Gage Bridgford (@GbridgfordNFL): The MPJ and Gordon points are both great ones, but, to be a little different, I’m focusing on something else. The fact that the Nuggets were willing to go shopping to address weaknesses was huge. When they had injuries to every guard on the roster, they signed Shaquille Harrison and Austin Rivers. They signed Isaiah Hartenstein in the offseason, but, when that didn’t work out, they acquired Javale McGee. Teams that win are consistently making moves, and the Nuggets made a point to do that this year. Some of those moves were better than others, but the willingness to make those moves shows they understand that they have entered their winning window.

What was the biggest mistake the Nuggets made in the last calendar year?

Blackburn: I can’t point to very many mistakes on Michael Malone’s part, given the Murray injury and how he ultimately gave MPJ the controls a bit, but the front office misreading the Jerami Grant situation stands out. The Nuggets used a first round pick to acquire Grant in 2019, and they thought Grant would be part of their organization for a long time before entering free agency in 2020. Had they realized that Grant wouldn’t be around much longer, they might have been able to pivot in a different direction sooner rather than later. The Nuggets recovered nicely with the Aaron Gordon trade though.

Gross: Betting that Jerami Grant was willing to be the fourth-most-important starter and fill in the gaps in the roster. It cost them the first rounder traded to get him plus the THREE first rounders (R.J. Hampton and two firsts) they traded for Aaron Gordon, who does not shoot as well as Grant. It also demolished their team-building plan for the summer. They are now hoping that Gordon is willing to be the glue piece that Grant was not.

Lewis: Not adding a playoff-caliber backup big man in the offseason. They would have been fine signing all the little guards they wanted if they had a legitimate backup center on the roster. The Nuggets backup guards are not known for their ability to get to the rim, and need someone to help break down the defense and get into the paint. It doesn’t help to have forwards spacing the court on the perimeter if you can’t get your guards into the paint. Not having that rim protector to bring in off the bench either was detrimental to their defensive versatility. I hope they correct that for next season, and find a way to add a player with those skills to the roster. The Nuggets shouldn’t have three bigs that all are better off playing power forward and stretching the court when at most two would be more than sufficient.

Bridgford: With the other guys focusing on the frontcourt, I’m looking at the backcourt. Denver ranked eighth in 3-point percentage this year, but they were only 16th in 3-point attempts with Murray being the only guard in the top five on the team in 3-point percentage. This Nuggets’ team flat-out couldn’t shoot when the playoffs happen. If Porter wasn’t hitting his shots, they had no one to help Jokic outside, and he needs room inside in order to work. The team doesn’t need a Jordan Clarkson that will take 15 shots in 15 minutes with 13 of them coming from outside. However, they do need at least one or two guards that can provide a scoring punch off the bench. Even if they didn’t sustain the laundry-list of injuries they had, they still had no guards off of the bench that could provide their own scoring outside of Monte Morris.

Who/what was your biggest surprise from this past season?

Blackburn: I didn’t know if Facundo Campazzo would be good. I was pretty skeptical of his move to the NBA after watching his first few games. It didn’t look like the Nuggets had any idea what to do with him, and it was clear that Facu had no idea how to adjust. As he ultimately settled into a ball handling role amid injuries to guards Gary Harris, P.J. Dozier, R.J. Hampton, Monte Morris, Jamal Murray, Monte Morris again, Will Barton, and P.J. Dozier again, the Nuggets found a rhythm with Facu as a pot stirrer. On the offensive end, Facu would set up his teammates, occasionally get hot from three, and play mostly mistake free ball. On defense, Facu would try and rile up opposing guards, jump into passing lanes, and create havoc at times. He grew accustomed to the NBA, and he kept raising the bar throughout the year. It was fun to watch him get comfortable and I bet he’s even better next season.

Gross: Nikola Jokic. That sounds silly, since I’ve been a huge backer since his initial Summer League debut, but he was a force of nature this year. Despite Covid protocols and injury woes laying out much of the team, he played every game and drug Denver to the 3 seed and a first-round playoff victory. Jokic’s biggest weakness in the past was not his defense or his weight but his insistence on choosing the correct basketball play over the one most likely to work: calling his own number. This year, Jokic was completely unphased by shooting however many shots it would take to win. Jokic is in shape, has fixed his (fixable) defensive shortcomings, and now has thrown his unselfish-to-a-fault mentality in the trash. No passivity here. Now, if the man could just get some respect from the refs...

Lewis: PJ Dozier. The front office bet big on him developing into a rotation piece when they let Torrey Craig go in the offseason, and he did not disappoint. I think it’ll still take him a little longer to become comfortable on offense, especially since he was jerked around the court so often this year, but he’s a Swiss Army Knife kind of player on a team that needs glue guys.

Bridgford: It’s a little bit of a late in the year edition, but Rivers was a huge surprise for me. When he was added to the team, I expected him to be the guy that came off the bench and took too many shots for his own good and to be bounced out of town before his first 10-day contract was over. Instead, he came in and figured out his role early on and stuck with it. His job was to provide a little defense and ball-penetration off the bench and eventually in the starting unit. He is a player that I would love to have back in Denver next season. He shouldn’t be in the starting lineup, but there are much worse players Denver could have in their rotation.

Who/what was your biggest disappointment from this past season?

Blackburn: Gary Harris playing only a handful of games and ultimately becoming trade fodder was really disappointing. There are very few defensive guards in the NBA with the brain and instincts of Harris, and he would have fit well in both of Denver’s playoff series this season. The problem? He can’t shoot the basketball anymore, and he was much closer to Shaquille Harrison at the end than someone like Jrue Holiday or Victor Oladipo, guards the Nuggets hoped he could become when they extended his contract in 2017.

Gross: Denver’s training staff. The Nuggets continually have massive injuries, and, while this year’s short offseason surely contributed (as anyone could have predicted) the leg and core injuries of the last several seasons continued this year unabated, with Gary Harris in particular being allowed to reinjure himself in just a half and likely costing Denver another draft pick when trading him. If the Nuggets have players who are simply injury-prone, then the current training regimen is not helping them stay healthy. If the regimen is injuring players that could be healthy, that’s even worse. Whatever the case, Denver should look into solving that problem. They cannot win a title with all of their guards sidelined or limping around the court every year.

Lewis: Gary Harris. Injuries may be to blame for this, but his decline into a piece that was easy to justify moving at the trade deadline was disappointing. We saw in the playoffs last season how valuable of a defender he could be, but with no offense skills, the Nuggets couldn’t keep putting him out there on the court. I would have liked to see him only play for Denver in his career, and seeing him with Orlando really sucks.

Orlando Magic v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

Bridgford: I wanted to change this from Harris, but I just can’t do it. Harris’ regression this year along with the last few seasons was so sharp hurt Denver on both ends of the floor before further hurting their guard rotation when they were forced to give up Harris along with Hampton and other first-round picks because he no longer carried value outside of his contract to match salaries. Gary did great work to help this team through their rebuilding phase, but his injuries and lack of shooting prowess culminated in a sad exit to Orlando.

What was your favorite moment of the 2021-22 Nuggets’ season?

Blackburn: Nikola Jokić raising the MVP trophy in front of a full capacity crowd of Nuggets fans prior to Game 3. The Joker kept his head above water in the race for the MVP award for the entire season. Other players came and went, but Jokić was the only constant in the race. He elevated his game, carried the Nuggets at various points throughout the year, and ultimately won an award that will stand the test of time forever. Nobody can ever take that away from him, and it will always hold a special place in my heart.

Gross: Probably the double-OT Memphis game in April. It was a week after Jamal Murray tore his ACL. Jokic put up 47 points, 15 rebounds and 8 assists and just would not let his team lose, and he buried a dagger 3-pointer at the end. Jokic is the lynchpin to Denver’s hopes, and it was a pleasure to get to watch him this year.

Lewis: Not just sending Jusuf Nurkic off for a nice summer, not just sending Carmelo Anthony off into another offseason without a title, not just putting an end to Lillard time, but driving the nail in the coffin for the Terry Stotts era of the Portland Trail Blazers with a first round playoff win. It rules beating a division rival in the playoffs, especially one that got really lucky against the Nuggets a few years back. Hard to beat that moment for me.

Bridgford: Blowing out the Milwaukee Bucks on the road in March before adding Aaron Gordon. The Nuggets were underdogs entering the game, and they promptly blew them out after winning the first quarter by 14 points. It was one of the few games all season that Denver was healthy, and they showed just what they can do when they’re all together. Now, if they can just have that same health next year for longer than a few days at a time.