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Player Grades: JaVale McGee was brought in to be a veteran leader

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Evaluating the short 2020-21 Nuggets season of JaVale McGee

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

When the Denver Nuggets began the 2020-21 season without Mason Plumlee as their backup center for the first time in four seasons, it was with the expectation that they would struggle initially. Isaiah Hartenstein, a 22-year-old castoff from the Houston Rockets, was brought in on a small two-year contract to help mitigate the loss of Plumlee, but the Nuggets really approached the position as a job-by-committee.

That might have changed had JaVale McGee been brought in to man the paint from the outset, but even when the 33-year-old was acquired during the middle of the season, the Nuggets still used McGee sparingly. McGee played 175 regular season minutes and 34 playoff minutes for Denver across 17 total games, not exactly a substantial addition on the court.

From all reports though, McGee most made an impact as a veteran leader and voice behind the scenes. He was one of the players to speak up as the Nuggets were being discarded by the Phoenix Suns on the way to a series sweep. McGee could have just as easily checked out given what his role on the team was at the time. Instead, he invested in the Nuggets. perhaps they should invest in him going forward.

JaVale McGee 2020-21 per game stats

Team Games Minutes Points Rebounds Assists Turnovers 2-point % 3-point %
Cleveland 33 15.2 8.0 5.2 1.0 54.9 25.0 55.4
Denver 13 13.5 5.5 5.3 0.5 50.8 0.0 49.8

What Happened

The addition of McGee at the trade deadline was overshadowed by the addition of Aaron Gordon, but adding McGee solidified Denver’s big man depth entering the postseason. The Nuggets made the trade with one specific team in mind: the Los Angeles Lakers. They knew that in the event of facing a LeBron James and Anthony Davis pick and roll with other bigs floating around, they couldn’t rely on Hartenstein to be their primary backup center behind Jokić. So, the Nuggets acquired McGee.

During the regular season, the Nuggets mostly focused upon a starting frontcourt trio of Michael Porter Jr., Gordon, and Jokić. Off the bench, they had a nightly choice of McGee, Paul Millsap, and JaMychal Green to fill the backup big man spots. Ultimately, the Nuggets decided that the spacing and switching style Green and Millsap offered would prove the most useful, and that ultimately became true in the first round of the playoffs against the Portland Trail Blazers. It changed against the Suns, but that didn’t matter through round one.

McGee never had the opportunity to leave his mark. He got into Game 4 against the Suns and played extensively after Nikola Jokić was ejected, but that was his only significant playoff action, and it came too little, too late in the process. The Nuggets were cooked at that point.

Best Moment — Twin Towers start in win versus T’Wolves

It could have been McGee receiving his championship ring at Staples Center for his time with the Los Angeles Lakers, or possibly one of his highlight dunks throughout the year. Instead, let’s go with this 24-minute performance against the Minnesota Timberwolves: 12 points, 13 rebounds, and two blocks, including one on Karl-Anthony Towns. in the right situation, McGee showed that he absolutely can flourish, and he did so while helping to hold Towns to 6-of-18 shooting on the night.

Player Grade — C

his grade isn’t necessarily a byproduct of McGee’s performance but rather how often he was able to get on the court. The Nuggets, rightly or wrongly, decided that remaining committed to the Green-Millsap tandem was in their best interest for much of the season, and when Nikola Jokić is the starting center, it can be hard to find time to impact the game as the backup center, let alone as the third string option.

The Nuggets traded two second round picks for the opportunity to add McGee to their roster during the middle of the season. In terms of this season, that trade certainly didn’t work out the way the Nuggets hoped it would. Denver never had the opportunity to see if McGee would have made a difference against the Los Angeles Lakers. When they faced the Blazers and the Suns, they needed smaller, more switchable options.

That isn’t a reflection on McGee as a player though. When he was on the court, he mostly did what he was asked to do. When he was off the court, he was a consummate professional and excellent teammate.

Offseason Outlook

McGee is set to be an unrestricted free agent, and heading int his 14th season, it’s unclear what McGee wants to do going forward. He has won three championships in his career, has played for several teams, and has filled many roles from his early years on the Washington Wizards to now with the playoff contending Nuggets.

Millsap is also a free agent and isn’t expected to return to consistent minutes, while Green has a player option. The Nuggets will likely look to involve young big man Zeke Nnaji in their rotation a bit more, but whether Nnaji plays small forward, power forward, or center most remains to be seen. There’s a world where McGee makes sense as Denver’s primary backup center option next season, but Denver’s first choice would likely be Nnaji and a returning Green on most nights.

Whatever the case, it’s up to McGee whether he wants to be back in a Nuggets uniform, and he would certainly be appreciated by a fan base clamoring to see him play for most of last season. McGee is certainly a fan favorite, and that may count for something.