Things have been negative for the Denver Nuggets lately.

For all intents and purposes, a seven game road trip across the east coast facing five playoff caliber teams generally does that to teams. Six games in, and the Nuggets are 2-4 on the trip, 40-35 on the season. They are on the brink of elimination with merely a glimmer of hope remaining in the form of another team’s collapse.

Expectations were high this season, and those expectations weren’t met. Win totals and individual statistics aside, the Nuggets haven’t put together 48 minutes of consistent basketball to elevate the team in a difficult playoff race. That will be primarily how this season is remembered: mismatching talents, tactics, and execution.

Not all is lost though. The Nuggets aren’t a “playoffs-or-bust” team, though sometimes it may feel that way. The Denver Nuggets are still trending in a positive direction for a variety of reasons, and five of those go a long way toward the season being a glass half-full kind of year.

1. Nikola Jokic is simply amazing

When looking back at some of Jokic’s best moments throughout the season, it’s hard to come up with just a couple. In just the past five months, Jokic did the following:

  • Posted a career high 41 points against the Brooklyn Nets.
  • Posted eight triple-doubles, 4th most in the NBA behind Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, and Ben Simmons.
  • Improved his three-point shooting to an elite 39.8%, 7th best among players 6’10 or taller with at least 100 threes attempted.
  • Averaging 6.0 assists per game, most by a center since Wilt Chamberlain in 1968 (50 years ago) and third most EVER by a center (Wilt did it twice).

So far in his short three year career, Jokic has been one of the most productive young centers of all time on the offensive end. He’s a great scorer, a borderline elite rebounder, and may go down as the best passing center of all-time when it’s all said and done. Pundits said that about Stephen Curry’s shooting through his first three years in the NBA (if he could stay healthy), and similar things can be said for Jokic as a passing center. That’s a generational skill the Nuggets can build around for years to come, and barring unforeseen circumstances where Denver botches Jokic’s free agency, they will have at least four more years to continue building around their young superstar.

2. Jamal Murray is on track to join Jokic as a young star

How many 21-and-under guards have scored at the rate Jamal Murray has scored at so far this year? Not many. Here are 21-and-under guards that have scored 15 points per game or better while shooting 43% from the field and 35% from behind the three-point line:

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Stephen Curry is on this list. Kyrie Irving is on this list. Those are players that, with Murray’s work ethic and drive, are potential levels for the young guard to reach as he ages and expands his game. He already has the explosive scoring mentality, having scored 30 or more points seven times this season on a playoff contending roster. He has the efficiency to be truly impactful in those scoring outbursts.

Will he be a Curry or Irving type? It’s way too early to assume anything. So far, he has shown enough to say that those outcomes are within the realm of possibility for him as a scorer. While it’s far more likely that he never reaches that point, saying that he could average 20 points per game on high efficiency throughout his career? That’s not out of the question at all.

3. Gary Harris continues to add to his game

Sparty went from averaging 3.4 points per game in his rookie season as a bench warmer, to 12.3 points as a starter, to 14.9 points as a threat, to 17.7 points this year as a real problem for opposing teams. His efficiency remains high, coming in at 59.9% true shooting, the 16th best TS% in the NBA among players to attempt at least 10 field goals a night.

Oh, and he did this.

Denver’s most exciting moment in the last five seasons came on the backs of Sparty and the Joker. Harris isn’t just a three-point shooter or a slasher anymore, but in order to take the next step as a franchise, Denver needs shot makers, plain and simple. They have three guys in Harris, Jokic, and Murray who are/will be under contract for awhile that have been able to make those big shots. That’s the most important thing right now.

4. Paul Millsap has shown flashes of fitting in perfectly, even if it hasn’t been perfect

I know people will bash me on this one, but in Paul Millsap, I still see a player who complements Denver’s core extremely well. He draws the attention of the defense when he has the ball in his hands, and he’s a smart player who’s had issues fitting in this year due to interrupted chemistry and a wrist injury.

But with Paul Millsap on the floor, the Nuggets have posted a 106.8 defensive rating this year, not elite by any stretch of the word, but a number that drags the defense from “abomination” to “average” status. As currently constructed, Denver’s ceiling is likely as a team that operates as a top 3 offensive unit next to the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, and other top tier offenses. Denver’s ceiling defensively? A top 20 unit in all likelihood, maybe around what Millsap’s current defensive rating looks like, but as a unit (would rank 17th among NBA teams this season). Millsap covers for a lot of mistakes made by Jokic, Harris, and Murray, and adding more players with his intelligence and effort defensively may accomplish that goal.

As for the offensive end, it’s been a larger struggle. Lately though, Jokic and Millsap seem to have found a groove, as they did at the end of Millsap’s first stint before the injury. By developing chemistry and understanding each other’s role, I have faith that Jokic and Millsap can still be a top offensive pairing at power forward and center. All parties involved must understand the pecking order, but that process looks like it’s starting to occur.

5. The coaching staff and front office now fully understand what they have and don’t have

The Nuggets have an offensive superstar at center in Nikola Jokic. They don’t have a Rudy Gobert-like rim protector. The Nuggets have talented scoring guards at all three levels of the floor in Jamal Murray and Gary Harris. They don’t have Rajon Rondo-like facilitators or Tony Allen-like defenders. The Nuggets have offensive minded stretch forwards in Trey Lyles, Juancho Hernangomez, and Tyler Lydon. They have a defensive minded, grind-it-out forward in Paul Millsap. They don’t have exceptional athletes and guys that can both shoot and defend at a high level like Paul George, Otto Porter, or Robert Covington.

These are the holes the Nuggets need to fill. They are extremely evident from both a roster and philosophical perspective. Torrey Craig was put in a difficult position this year as a two-way guy because he has a skill set that the Nuggets desperately crave: defenders to surround Denver’s young core members. Adding more Torrey Craigs should definitely be a goal for Denver in the offseason, but hopefully guys that are even better at what Craig does than Craig himself. Luc Mbah a Moute, P.J. Tucker, and others were available last year. Guys like Kyle Anderson, Trevor Ariza, and other glue guy types should be available this year.

Beyond that, coaching the right way is almost as important as providing the coach the right assortment of players every year. Denver now knows what Jokic is, what he’s capable of, and how much the team has to rely on him. Instead of trying to find ways to rely on him less, as was attempted this year, Denver must use Jokic’s skill set as a way to elevate everyone around him. They must cover for his weaknesses defensively by finding guys that are willing to fly around and putting them all up and down the rotation.

Players, coaches, and front office personnel unwilling to buy into Jokic-ball need not apply next year. The Nuggets are about to get weird, and it’s going to be awesome if they just go for it this time.

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