This season has been an up and down ride for the Nuggets. There’s a pretty good possibility that Nuggets fans have just witnessed a back to back MVP play for their team, but the jubilee that would normally come with that fact has been subdued by a few factors. Chief among them is the fact that Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray have missed most or all of the season. Add in middling play from a lot of the supporting cast, and it’s a wonder that the Nuggets have achieved the level of success they have.
You could attribute the vast majority of that success to Nikola Jokic. He’s been a consensus top 3 player in the league with him coming to be the MVP favorite by the end of the season. He has put up masterclass after masterclass. You could count the amount of bad games he’s had with one hand and still have fingers to spare. He’s averaged all-time sorts of numbers, and is arguably putting together the best offensive peak the league has ever seen.
With all that being said, his supporting cast has been underwhelming for large swaths of the season and has a lot to prove going into this playoff run. In all likelihood Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. are missing the playoffs. They won’t have reinforcements and they’re going against what has been one of the league’s best teams in the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors have star power in their supporting cast that the Nuggets just don’t possess when not healthy. Due to that there are questions heading into the playoffs for every player and I want to look into the biggest for each of the Nuggets’ rotations players.
Nikola Jokic: Can he shoulder the weight again?
In the last playoff run the Nuggets had, Nikola Jokic was largely amazing. His play was spectacular and he had a large backpack that he had to carry. However, toward the end of the Suns series you could tell he was getting tired and frustrated. The one question to have about Jokic in the playoffs would just be can he carry as much as he needs to in order to win a series against what is probably a better team in the Warriors?
It will mainly come down to fatigue. If he can keep the workload up without being overworked then the Nuggets are in a position to where, with Steph Curry potentially missing the first game and maybe more, they could win. However, if Jokic comes out flat in this series the Nuggets can just as quickly kiss the season goodbye. If he plays bad in drop coverage like he did against the Suns last season, it won’t bode well for the Nuggets. Instead of Chris Paul and Devin Booker, who are great players in their own rights and fantastic shooters, they are going against Steph Curry; the best shooter of all time. He isn’t someone you can be lazy with on defense. Jokic will likely have to play at the level eventually and when that happens he will need to be able to keep up his energy regardless.
There’s little chance that he doesn’t play well, but he will need to raise his play in order for the Nuggets to have a chance at winning. It is unfair, but those are the expectations that come with being a superstar and likely back to back MVP. Once you rack up a certain amount of accolades, people put all-timer expectations onto a player. Jokic certainly has the talent and pedigree to warrant those expectations. Add on top of the fact that some fans want to drag him down, and as soon as he messes up or missteps and there will be people looking to call him out for it.
Aaron Gordon: Can he impact the game defensively?
Aaron Gordon has a reputation as a great defender, and that reputation is going to be put to the test on the biggest stage these playoffs. For the majority of the season, Aaron Gordon has been assigned defensive assignments on guards and Malone could certainly continue that trend by putting him on Steph Curry or Jordan Poole, trying to use him as a point of attack deterrent. However, Malone could also put Gordon on Draymond Green to try and disrupt actions that he and Steph may run, or Andrew Wiggins. He could also end up on Klay Thompson and have to chase him off the ball.
During the regular season, his most frequent defensive matchup was Andrew Wiggins. Quite frankly, it’s his best matchup and allows him to be what he’s best at on defense; a help side defender and someone who can fill in gaps on missed rotations. He’s fine as a point of attack defender, but it’s not something that he particularly excels at. He is one of the best on Denver’s roster, but that’s more so due to a lack of defenders. He is a high level defender when used right, and I hope he gets a chance to show that in this series.
Putting him in a position where he has to be everything for Denver defensively is a lot to put on him. He’s done well at it, but I think putting him where he can help off of his man and play help defense is going to be more beneficial because he just impacts the game so much more in that context. It’s also not like Andrew Wiggins is a bad player. He will be a threat to the Nuggets if left to go against some of Denver’s weak points. With Gordon on him though, throughout the season against the Nuggets he only averaged 12.3 points per game and 3.3 assists per game on 34.9% from the field.
This play encompasses what putting Gordon on someone who he can help off of does for the defense. He can cover up for other’s mistakes more and just generally be more impactful. He’s not bad as a point of attack defender, but he’s far more useful and just better when he’s put as a help defender.
Will Barton: Is he able to be impactful?
This will be Will’s first healthy playoff run since he has gotten to Denver and we don’t really know what a playoff Will Barton would look like. Last playoffs he came back for the last two games in the Suns series and was good, but he has taken a step back this season. His athleticism isn’t what it once was and his inattentiveness off ball on defense as well as him being able to be blown by with ease on ball on defense has me and many others concerned with just how viable he can be in a playoff environment.
He still has his positive traits for sure, and he impacts the game in great ways sometimes. You can see him starting to become a worse player than what he once was though, and his drop off since the start of the season has been tough to watch. I want Will Barton to be good. He’s been such a good locker room guy for the Nuggets and made a lot of the earlier Nuggets teams tolerable to watch. He’s helped the team a lot and deserves to have a good run with the team. Unfortunately, things don’t always go how people want. Will Barton’s likely matchup defensively is going to be Klay Thompson and that could easily go south with how Will’s screen navigation has been this season.
If he can be impactful, it will come on the offensive end of things. He isn’t a good defender anymore and often times is a negative on that end. His shot creation and shooting are still there. If he is able to create threats outside of just Nikola and take some of the load off of Joker it will make his time so much easier. Here’s to hoping that Will is able to take attention off of Jokic.
Monte Morris: Can he continue to show up in big moments?
In clutch situations (game within 5 points in the last 5 minutes of play) Monte Morris is shooting 51.4% from the field and has had a game winner this season. Against the Trailblazers last season, he came up huge. He shot well from 3 this season as well at 39.5%. He is a very solid player and someone the Nuggets will have to likely rely on in the playoffs. He is good at playing off of Jokic, the two of them have developed a good two man game.
He has many of the same defensive flaws as Barton, but it’s not for lack of effort, he’s just too small to really impact the game defensively at his size. He can be shot over very easily and dies on screens at times. He’s a negative defensively, and that’s a theme among the Nuggets back court. Most of them cannot be considered even average defensively, and in a series against such a loaded back court, it’s sure to be a cause for concern for everyone involved in the Nuggets.
Ultimately what the Nuggets will need Monte to be is a reliable closer, and he’s shown that he should be more than capable of doing just that. He simply needs to do what he has done and show up in the big moments. He needs to be able to perform to his level, make smart decisions, and just be a rock for the Nuggets to rely on.
Jeff Green: Can he take advantage of open looks?
With this question you may be asking why his defense is not the biggest question. Well that is simply for the fact that Jeff Green isn’t going to be a good defender. He hasn’t shown that in Denver, so it’s not a question. Rather, the biggest question from my point of view is whether he can be a release valve for the offense when he’s open or not. He has regularly missed open 3s, only shooting 31.5% from 3 this season on about 2 attempts a game.
The places where he’s really shined for the Nuggets have been inside the arc though. When the team is in a pinch he can sometimes create his own shot from the post or by simply driving to the rim. He creates a good amount of rim pressure and next to Jokic he’s found his way to the rim quite easily. He’ll need to do just that and hopefully shoot better from 3 than his average. There is hope for that, as he did shoot well the past season in Brooklyn, but it’s more than likely that he shoots about 30-33% from 3 and does most of his damage inside the arc. A spot where he has really shined is in the inverted pick and roll with Jokic. He does well as a roll man as seen below.
Bones Hyland: Can he thrive in the moment?
Bones Hyland has had a phenomenal rookie season and has gotten All-Rookie team hype. His shiftiness and shooting have impressed many. His ability to score is something the Nuggets desperately needed and he’s stepped up. He’s been one of their top players since he’s gotten the backup point guard duty and the bench has been a lot better with him running the show instead of Facu Campazzo. Per cleaningtheglass.com, lineups with Facu Campazzo as the point guard were a -9.8 net differential while lineups with Bones as the point guard were a +7.6.
He has really come into his own and earned his keep since the All-Star break. Since March 1st Bones averaged 14 points per game and 4.6 assists on splits of 47.8/41.2/83.9. His finishing has also improved and he has helped Denver’s bench become less of a weakness than it was to start the season. However, he has awful moments on defense and is a clear negative on that end. In order for him to rightfully earn playing time he will need to step up in the moments Denver needs him and keep the production of the last couple of months up.
Bench Mob: Can they tread water?
With the rest of the Nuggets’ bench it is more or less the same question for all of them, so for the sake of brevity I’m grouping them all together. Can they simply keep Denver alive while Jokic sits? All they need to be able to do is just not get blown out. Jordan Poole is certainly going to give them issues so can they match his production? Gary Payton II will also be a hound defensively so can they match his tenacity? We’ll find out soon enough.