The offseason sure went quickly, didn’t it?
The Denver Nuggets played their final game of the 2020-21 season on June 13th, just a little over three months ago. The season ended in an ugly fashion after a heroic performance by the team to simply advance past the first round of the playoffs. Six weeks later, the Nuggets selected Bones Hyland 26th overall on July 29th. A little over six weeks after that, and we are back in business, preparing for the 2021-22 season.
Nikola Jokić and the rest of your Nuggets are back in town, getting together with the team again in preparation for training camp next week. The team will travel to the campus of University of California, San Diego, where they will hold training camp in the same facility as the Brooklyn Nets from Tuesday, September 28th to Sunday, October 3rd. On October 4th, the Nuggets will play their first preseason game, a bout with the Los Angeles Clippers in Staples Center a little over 100 miles away.
In the meantime, players and coaches will be made available to the media prior to departure next week. Rather than having a true “media day” with players, coaches, and executives speaking at the same time, the Nuggets have opted for smaller sessions throughout the rest of the week. Still, everyone will be answering questions, and Nuggets fans surely have many.
Here are 10 questions that come to mind:
1. What are the team’s goals this season?
It may sound strange to not say “championship or bust” because the Nuggets made a championship move when they acquired Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline last March. Everything changed when Jamal Murray tore his ACL, and so did Denver’s priorities, whether they stated them publicly or not.
Without Jamal Murray at full health, discussing a championship seems to be a moot point. The Nuggets have a strong roster even without their star point guard — they have the MVP for crying out loud — but holding this roster to those expectations without knowing whether Murray will even be back seems like a difficult proposition.
Perhaps all teams should simply operate with the highest standards? Perhaps the Nuggets need to believe they can win a championship without Murray at his best in order to become the best version of themselves next year?
Still, I’d guard against putting significant pressure on a player returning from a major injury. The Nuggets are going to be a great team for a long time if they play things correctly, and it’s important to prioritize long term health for a number of reasons. Murray will become a great player again, but it needs to happen on his own timetable rather than being at the mercy of championship expectations this year.
2. What is the timetable for the healthy return of Jamal Murray?
It’s still okay to be curious.
I’ve long thought that Murray could make his return to the court as early as the All-Star break around February 21st or as late as the middle of the playoffs around April 21st. That range represents exactly 10 months out from surgery on the early side and exactly one year out from surgery on the late side. In reality, it’s all about how Murray feels at every step of the recovery process, from what he can handle physically and mentally to how he responds to the pain and rebuilding going on.
Rather than speculate, there may or may not be an opportunity to update the timetable for his recovery in media sessions this week. It’s unlikely that Murray will be made available for comment, but Michael Malone and/or Tim Connelly may be able to offer an update themselves. Don’t hold out too much hope though; teams are notorious for keeping rehab information out of the public eye, and for good reason.
3. What does Nikola Jokić have in store for an encore performance?
After the first MVP award of Nikola Jokić’s career (well, second award, after his 2014 Adriatic League MVP), it’s fair to wonder whether the 2020-21 season will be the best of Jokić’s career. It was one of the best individual seasons in NBA history, and it’s possible that Jokić could provide an encore of sorts. At just 26 years old and in the best shape of his professional career, there’s no telling whether Jokić is done making improvements to his overall game.
Could Jokić become an even better ball handler than he already is? Could he make improvements as a defender? Could he maximize his shooting efficiency to new levels? Could he start reverse dunking on the regular?
It’s anyone’s guess.
4. Is Michael Porter Jr. ready for stardom and all that comes with it?
After an up and down 2021 playoffs that saw both a 22-point quarter in a closeout Game 6 against the Blazers and a litany of defensive and ball handling concerns, Michael Porter Jr. had a full offseason to improve his body and improve his game for the first time in a very long time. Since his first back surgery in 2017, Porter has been in a constant state of recovery, whether it be from surgeries, drop foot, or the NBA bubble and a much shorter offseason last year. This is the first opportunity Porter has had to evaluate his NBA season and make improvements.
Porter is a popular pick to become a legitimate star this season. He’s a popular pick to be the Most Improved Player in the NBA. He will have plenty of opportunities to showcase his talents, as well as plenty of roadblocks. Is he ready to take more shot attempts than ever before? Is he ready to balance those shots with being a facilitator and getting others involved? Is he ready to make improvements on the defensive end of the floor that may be the final barrier to Denver becoming a legit championship contender?
Those are questions the Nuggets need to know the answer to as soon as possible.
5. Speaking of which, when’s that contract getting done?
Rather than rush their negotiations, Porter and the Nuggets are taking their time on Porter’s rookie contract extension. When free agency began, I expected Denver to commit to Porter on a max contract, roughly five years, $171 million beginning in 2022-23 and ending in 2026-27. That clearly didn’t happen, and no contract has been fully agreed upon to this point. According to a league source, the negotiations on the dollar amount are basically complete. What remains are negotiable injury protections.
The Nuggets and Porter can’t want this to hang over training camp like a grey cloud in San Diego. Taking care of business and taking care of an important core member of the team are both important to the Nuggets, and I’d expect this deal to be done within the week. If it isn’t, that will be cause for minor concern.
6. Will Aaron Gordon live up to his contract extension?
The Nuggets took care of one of their forwards last week, agreeing to a four-year, $88 million contract extension with Aaron Gordon that has the potential to turn into $92 million if certain incentives hit. That’s a big contract, but it’s close to market value for an average starter in today’s NBA. Gordon represents someone who had higher expectations than that when he entered the league, but he may have found the perfect situation in Denver to showcase what he truly is: an elite, complementary player.
There were tangible signs of Gordon’s improvements in a Nuggets uniform: the Nuggets put together an elite offense and elite defense with Gordon and Murray on the floor together, a +16.8 Net Rating in 121 minutes for the duo that represented Denver’s brief championship window. Gordon himself shot the highest true shooting percentage in his career, capitalizing on the attention drawn by stars around him to take higher quality shots, mostly generated by Jokić.
Can Gordon still become the best version of himself in a Nuggets uniform in a less optimal situation? He had a different level of success with and without Murray, just as the rest of the Nuggets roster did. Can Gordon instead make it work with Monte Morris, Facundo Campazzo, and the rest of Denver’s guard rotation? Can he also become the best defender he can be?
The Nuggets will need all of that and more.
7. What will be the pecking order in the Nuggets backcourt?
Without Murray to stabilize things at the top, there are questions about the Nuggets backcourt and who will be tasked with replacing Murray. Porter will probably shoulder the bulk of his scoring absence from his forward spot, but the Nuggets will still need some playmaking off the dribble to make up for the absence of their star guard.
The Nuggets re-signed Will Barton and Austin Rivers to help stabilize the rotation as veterans. They will join Morris and Campazzo. So will P.J. Dozier, who may be in line for e breakout himself. Denver could certainly use his versatile two-way game to get them to where they want to go.
Do Morris and Barton start for the entire year? Does another member of the rotation make more sense as a starter? Could the Nuggets have a surprise contributor? All are fair questions while Murray recovers.
8. How do the Nuggets utilize Jeff Green?
Denver’s only major addition to the roster this offseason was former Brooklyn Nets Jeff Green, an athletic 6’8” forward/big man who filled a niche role for the Nets last season. The Nets knew they lost a key contributor when Green moved on to Denver, and Nuggets fans should be excited about Green’s addition to the roster.
Just how Denver uses him remain to be seen. He will certainly be a backup, but just what position he plays will be interesting. Green split time at power forward and center for the Nets in the regular season last year but played roughly 80% of his minutes at center during the playoffs, according to Basketball Reference. The Nuggets don’t have a true backup center, and it appears that the plan at the outset is for the Nuggets to go center by committee when Jokić goes to the bench.
It will be interesting to see whether Green plays more power forward or center for Denver. Perhaps he plays some small forward, given Denver’s dearth of legitimate options at the 3 behind Porter.
9. Does the rotation still need a full-time backup center?
When the Nuggets brought in JaVale McGee at the trade deadline, their other trade acquisition outside of Aaron Gordon, the expectation was for McGee to not only be a backup center option for the rest of the regular season and the playoffs, but to also be an option to re-sign going forward. Obviously, none of that came to pass. McGee never really had an opportunity to prove his worth in Denver, sat on the bench for the majority of the playoffs, and now plays for the Phoenix Suns.
In his place, the Nuggets brought in Jeff Green to join JaMychal Green as the primary bigs off the bench. Both stand at 6’8” though and represent small ball options at center. Neither brings the traditional rim rolling and rim protection of a true center, and it appears that Denver’s plan is to go small and playing a switching style defensively.
Zeke Nnaji (6’9”) represents a slightly taller option on Denver’s roster. Bol Bol (7’2”) isn’t wanting for height but lacks the size and physicality to play center full-time. The Nuggets just brought in Petr Cornelie (6’11) on a two-way contract, and it’s possible he may be able to partially solve the frontcourt size issue. Still, the Nuggets will be navigating murky waters in going center by committee again. We will see whether it pays off or if they need a more stable option at the trade deadline.
10. Will there be time (or a need) for Bones Hyland?
The Nuggets drafted Bones at 26th overall in the draft this year, and after a stellar summer league that saw the 21-year-old showcase elite off-the-dribble talent, there’s hope that the rookie can contribute to the Nuggets rotation immediately. It isn’t in head coach Michael Malone’s nature to play a rookie over a veteran without giving that veteran a chance at first, so it’s fair to expect Austin Rivers, Facundo Campazzo, and P.J. Dozier to be given the first opportunity to hold down Denver’s backup backcourt rotation.
Still, the Nuggets will probably need some scoring off the bench at some point. Denver’s three best healthy scorers (Jokić, Porter, Barton) will all be in the starting lineup, and there will be times when the bench is relying upon players like Campazzo, Rivers, and Dozier to be the primary playmakers. It’s possible that Bones Hyland might be a better option immediately than one or more of those guys when it comes to creating scoring opportunities for himself and others.
If the Nuggets struggle to find bench scoring at the beginning fo the season, don’t be surprised if they given Bones an opportunity to prove himself sooner rather than later.