The Denver Nuggets didn’t finish the season the way they would have liked but it was a success, nonetheless. Nikola Jokic dominated the MVP voting, we saw flashes of greatness from MPJ and beat a division foe in the first round of the playoffs.
Injuries were the story of this season for Denver but also for the whole league. Countless marquee names fell victim to injury including Jamal Murray. Championship expectations were on the horizon, but when Murray fell it felt like the whole season was a wash.
That is what I love about this Denver team. When all hope seems to be destroyed, they recreate something you could never imagine. They made history last year coming back from 3-1 playoff deficits twice and this year they continued the same resilience. Damian Lillard has one of the best performances you will ever see, making you think there’s no way Denver wins this game or the series. Think again. The big Serbian leads his team through the fire with help from the supporting cast.
So when doubts are raised against this team, I encourage people to reconsider. The doubts might be practical and sometimes probable, but the results are not. This is a very good basketball team, and they are here to stay.
With that being said, I thought it best to wrap up the season with a little award tribute. I know the Nuggets not named on this list will be extremely heartbroken by not winning one of these prestigious awards, but this isn’t youth athletics so I’m not giving out participation trophies.
Let’s get started.
Distinguished Service Award - Paul Millsap
I would like to begin this award ceremony by paying homage to Paul Millsap. When he signed his 3-year deal in 2017, Denver had just come off four straight losing seasons. They had some young talent in Jokic, Murray, Harris, and Barton, but very few anticipated the success that core would eventually bring. The pride of Montbello transformed the Nuggets into a winning, resilient, and prosperous franchise once again.
During his time with the Nuggets, he averaged 12 PPG and 6 rebounds but his impact spans beyond the box score. His veteran leadership gave this team toughness and a seasoned intellect that helped them improve every year. He is beloved and respected by all his teammates and admired by the fans for a lot of reasons, but for me, one sticks out in particular.
Paul made a lot of fantastic plays in his career and in a Nugget uniform, but Game 5 between the Nuggets and Clippers in 2020 will be etched in Nugget history forever. After being down 3-1, many anticipated Denver’s departure from the bubble in Game 5. There was no hope on the horizon as Denver trailed by 16 with a 1:00 left in the second quarter until Millsap had enough. Clippers forward Marcus Morris got in his grill telling him to get ready to go home and Millsap stood his ground as the team followed. We know what eventually ensued as Denver won in 7 games, but Millsap’s physicality told the rest of the NBA this isn’t the same ol’ Nuggets.
The play gives me chills every time I watch it because it was almost as though he stood up for the whole state when he did that. The Nuggets had a “soft” reputation among the league, and he put that to rest right there. That play and the series conveyed to the NBA landscape Denver deserves to be respected. His time is most likely up in Denver and possibly for his career, so I, along with many others, want to thank Millsap for what he provided to this franchise and the state of Colorado.
Highest of High Five Award- Gary Harris
Although he is not on the team anymore, he was a part of this season for Denver and he deserves praise as much as anyone else. Harris played almost 7 seasons with Denver and was a massive contributor to their future success. His first season as a Nugget came in 2014 playing alongside Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried, Gallinari, Lawson, and others. He endured the worse of the Brian Shaw era and flourished in the early Malone years. His best year was 2017-2018 where he averaged 17.5 PPG and shot 40% from beyond the arc.
That same year, Denver lost to Minnesota in a rare play-in game, but that season forged the foundation on which Denver stands right now. There are so many miraculous moments from his career. He was known as a 3-and-D guy, but people forget how great of a finisher he was. He accomplished some of the craziest layups I had ever seen, and of course, his walk-off three-pointer to beat OKC in 2018 is an all-time Nugget moment.
Throughout most, if not all, of the 2000s, Denver was known for their offense and lack of defense. Gary is one of the best defenders to ever grace a Nugget uniform. His on-ball defense, work on screens, and IQ was an absolute joy to watch. Another play that gives me chills is his defensive effort on Donovan Mitchell in Game 7 of the 2020 first round.
With a 2-point lead and 12 seconds left, he knew Mitchell was going to be aggressive and get a head of steam, so he told his team in the huddle he was going to jump his first move so make sure to give help. Mitchell did exactly as Harris predicted. He sprinted downhill, Gary caught his first move, changed Mitchell’s direction, and stole it from behind.
That play encapsulates who he was on the floor. He had all the physical tools, but his intellect and team-first mentality helped mold Denver into a winning franchise. So with that being said, I extend my gratitude to Gary Harris for helping make basketball fun and relevant again in Denver.
Medal of Honor - Nikola Jokic
What more can be said about the season he had this year. He truly was the MVP in every sense of the word. He led a team, that at the beginning of the year, had true championship expectations by dropping triple-doubles as a routine. His focus had to shift a bit when Murray, Barton, Dozier, and Morris went down. For possibly the first time in his career, he had a scorers mentality. Sure, he facilitated as he always does but he knew he was the most reliable option and he delivered night in and night out.
After the Murray injury, he averaged 27 PPG, 10 rebounds, and 8 assists. His highest scoring stat lines of the season were 50 against Sacramento, 47 against Memphis and Utah, and 43 on the Celtics. He buried the previous notion where he didn’t look to score enough and carried a team who started two 3rd string guards past the first round.
In those playoffs, he averaged 30 PPG, nearly 12 rebounds, and 5 assists. Damian Lillard’s performance in Game 5 was the best showing I’ve ever seen, and with that in mind, it still wasn’t good enough for Portland to beat Denver in that game or the series. He also put up the first 30 point, 20 rebound, 10 assist playoff game since Kareem and Wilt against a stifling Suns defense.
The season did not have a feel-good ending, but it was a season we will all remember because of the greatness of Nikola Jokic. He captured the Nuggets’ first and only MVP, and who knows, maybe he will capture their first and only championship as well.
Glue Guy Award - Jamal Murray
Nikola Jokic might be the Ferrari but Murray is the V12 engine that gets it going. Before his injury, Denver had genuine championship expectations. Michael Malone even pointed out after the April 1st game against the Clippers, he thought his team was championship bound. Murray had his highest scoring year as a professional, averaging 21 points and 5 assists while shooting 48% from the floor.
He had a slow start to the season, as did Denver as a team, but once late January hit, he ignited the Nuggets back to their winning ways. The Nuggets had a surprising 7-7 record until their trip to Phoenix. We know now how great Phoenix is, and they were just as tough back in January, but the Nuggets had Murray to cover their issues.
One day after the Nuggets beat Phoenix in OT thanks to some Murray heroics late, he followed it with another great performance. Down three with five seconds left in regulation, Murray isolated Ayton at the three-point line. Ayton played as good of defense as he could, but it wasn’t enough as Murray hit an incredible step-back three to send the game into OT. Denver won that game in 2OT as Murray dropped 26, which leaves us wondering what could have been in Denver’s eventual playoff matchup.
His ACL injury was heartbreaking to the team and to the NBA landscape, but Murray is what they like to call “a dog”. He’s resilient, fearless, and determined. If there is anyone who can come back even better off an ACL injury it is him. He is breaching star status in the NBA and with continued health, he will captivate audiences yet again and flourish among basketball’s elite.
Homerun Hitter Award - Michael Porter Jr.
This is an award consisting of two connotations. It’s good and bad. As his game is constructed right now, he is the perfect analogy to a homerun hitter in baseball. When he has the ball in his hands, he can put up points in bunches, or it can result in a devastating turnover or a terrible shot. With that being said, he is still young and has the most upside on the team offensively. If he reaches his potential, he can be a legitimate 26-30 PPG scorer and already is one of the most efficient shooters in the game.
We have to remind ourselves that he is not just young as a person but young as a basketball player as well. He only played three games in college before heading to the NBA, so his basketball knowledge is still somewhat of an empty canvas. Sure, there are players who go from high school to the NBA or play one year in college and flourish in the league but that is far from the norm. His performance in the league thus far is actually a pleasant surprise, considering his injury history and he only averaged 10 PPG and shot 33% from the field in his 3 games in college.
He has such potential that we expect so much, and although his playoff performances were disappointing, Denver’s championship window hasn’t closed. It will get tougher as teams get healthier, but in the coming years we will have the MVP, and two microwave-type scorers in Murray and MPJ. The Nets big three is the best talent ever assembled, but there aren’t many teams that share Denver’s experience and firepower.
Now that he has a full season to prepare, I think he will blossom into an all-star level performer. He led Denver in scoring 11 times during this tumultuous season and had a career-high 39 points against Houston in April. This season and last he showed he can prevail in clutch time. He hit a huge three against the Clippers last year in the playoffs, and also hit a massive three against Portland to steal Game 5.
When MPJ hits his stride, he will not only assist Denver’s push towards a Finals appearance but also help make Nuggets basketball popular nationally. Folks love to see highlights of dunks and contested threes, so when he does start to thrive he will be a national media darling.
I had to leave some people out at the risk of overloading content, but every player on this team made a positive impact this season. Denver doesn’t win that Portland series without the presence of Monte Morris and the timely shots from Austin Rivers. JaMychal Green also hit some big shots and he was a menace on the boards.
Facu Campazzo was this team’s energizer bunny. Say what you want because I know people have mixed feelings about his production, but his effort level is unmatched and should be unquestioned. PJ Dozier also stepped into a much larger role this season and showed he can be an effective scorer, facilitator, and defender. He will be a key player for the Nuggets moving forward.
Furthermore, Will Barton’s performance in the second half of Game 4 against Phoenix was inspiring. They are down 3-0, he is still not 100%, they’re losing significantly, yet he is dropping buckets trying to get his team back in the game and the series. There was absolutely no quit in him, and he is another Nugget that endured the losing seasons and supported them to through their road to success.
Coming from Orlando, an unfamiliar team to the Nuggets, I think many weren’t sure what to expect from Aaron Gordon. He was a high draft pick, fascinated people in the dunk contest, and was one of the main pieces for Orlando. No, he wasn’t as efficient as some would have thought offensively, but he is a great defensive player and talented offensively in the right spots. When Denver made that trade with Murray still healthy, Denver looked better than any team in the league aside from a healthy Nets squad. Gordon fit seamlessly and all was good. When the injuries happened, he was forced to play a role he wasn’t used in a Nugget uniform, so I think patience is best exercised with him. He is a great role player when Denver is healthy and will be a vital factor for Denver’s championship run next season.
As I conclude this piece, I want to thank all the readers and contributors to the site. This was my first year, and I got the opportunity to cover my childhood team so I could not be more appreciative. Whether you agree or disagree with my content, I appreciate you taking the time to read it. Although this caps off the 2021 season, stay tuned because I will have much more content in the offseason and moving forward.
And that concludes your 2021 Denver Nugget team awards with your host—Tommy Knowlton.