This is the first in a weekly column called Nick’s Nuggets, where I will be listing things of interest to me (and hopefully you) as the Nuggets make a push toward their first championship. Yes, it is basically a rip-off of Zach Lowe’s “10 Things I love and hate” column; no, I don’t feel bad about stealing his format. It works too well for a disorganized mind like mine. The alternative would be a mix of haikus, Star Wars arguments, and MPJ hot takes linked together with a convoluted college-style thesis, so thank Mr. Lowe for providing me with a better organizing principle (at least until the Stiffs’ editors give me a lot more rope).

So let’s get to it. Here are five things I’m excited to see from the Denver Nuggets during the 2019-20 NBA season (in no particular order).

Does Jokic have another level?

Nikola Jokic was one of the best players in the NBA last season. This is not a hot take; it’s an indisputable fact. The 7’0 Serbian went from intriguing big man with some unique skills to a dominant superstar capable of leading a team deep into the playoffs. What a difference a year makes.

What difference will another year make? At just 24 years old, Jokic hasn’t even reached NBA prime territory yet. But it’s hard to imagine him improving much on a season in which he averaged 20.1 PPG, 10.8 RPG, and 7.3 APG on better than 51% shooting. I mean, is he going to average a triple double this year? 25/13/10? It’s unlikely, but possible. His 3-point shooting could get a bit better. His defense could improve marginally. But there aren’t many kinks in his game. Here are some highlights to remind us all of how lucky we are to have him on our team:

So maybe Jokic’s next level has nothing to do with stats. Coach Malone has talked repeatedly about the mental side of Nikola’s game. We’ve seen some cracks off and on during Jokic’s too-frequent outbursts on the court, during stretches where he seems to check out (like the Memphis game last season where he actually refused to shoot), and in his handling of his role as a leader. While Murray, Barton, Harris, and the bench players all have improvements that they need to make to their games on the court, perhaps Jokic already has all the tangible skills he needs to be one of the great players in NBA history. Perhaps what he needs is more intangible.

If the Nuggets are going to win a championship, Jokic has to play MVP-caliber basketball for an entire season and through a long playoff run. His mind has to be right. He can’t take nights off. He can’t allow his emotions to get the better of him. He can’t get bogged down by frustration or apathy or fatigue. It’s a tall order for the big guy, but I’ve seen enough from him to believe that he can become the unstoppable force the Nuggets need to win their first NBA championship. The only thing that can hold him back is himself.

Swiss Army Grant

Is there a more enticing Nuggets player this side of a healthy, in-the-rotation-MPJ than Jerami Grant? Think about the array of tools Grant has that Malone can mix-and-match depending on the game:

  • He can shoot. After making 58% of his threes in the preseason, Grant showed that his 39 3P% last year in OKC probably wasn’t a fluke. He also shot 92% from the line and 50% from the field in 21 minutes per game. Not a huge sample size, but enough to have this blogger excited.
  • He can defend. He’s a natural power forward, but he can guard basically any position on the court, including lengthy small forwards, and he provides much-needed rim protection for this Nuggets’ rotation.
  • He’s athletic. Freakishly so. At 6’8, he’s tall enough to defend the paint. And with his jumping ability and speed, he can guard smaller players, hit the glass, and score in transition.
  • He can finish. My goodness can he finish.

So how will the Nuggets deploy him? It’s unlikely that he will start over Millsap at any point, pending injury. It is possible we see him get some run in the starting lineup at small forward against bigger teams like the Clippers or Lakers, or if Malone opts for load management with an aging Paul Millsap. Coach has a lot of rotation questions on his plate because of the Nuggets’ tremendous depth—which is a good problem to have—so it will be fun to watch how he juggles Grant and other talented guys who need minutes.

MPJ’s style evolution

Speaking of talented guys who need minutes, I have to find something about Michael Porter Jr. to be excited about, because it looks as if the 6’10 phenom is going to rack up DNPs like he’s just had back surgery. His hair could be one such curiosity. He came into preseason sporting a sleek design on his high fade. I fully expect to see some variation in that design as MPJ tries to find anything he can to distract him from the fact that he isn’t playing. It’s also likely that Juancho will rub off on him during their long hours on the bench, so don’t be surprised if MPJ starts to ink a sleeve by mid-February.

Other things to watch intently:

  • Where will he sit on the bench? This could tell us a lot. I suspect he will start the season in the last seat and work his way up gradually, perhaps a seat for every game he gets into by Christmas.
  • What sort of hype man will he be? Towel waiver, jump-spinner, fist-over-the-mouth-“oh-no-he-didn’t”-yeller? However he hypes, I hope he avoids the spin-jump-bump with that fragile back of his. The last thing we need is MPJ doubled over because he jump-bumped Mason Plumlee after a dunk over Spencer Dinwiddie in November.
  • How much stretching will he do on the sidelines? Hopefully, a lot. We need to keep that back loose for the inevitable call up that will come one night when Craig and Barton are a combined 1-14. It may be the only chance MPJ will get this year to prove he deserves real minutes.

A healthy Will the Thrill

Listeners of The Dig know that I’m not a card-carrying member of the Will Barton Fan Club. With all due respect to the Thrill and many of my Stiffs’ colleagues both past and present who stan for him, my deep analytical critique typically goes something like this: “He isn’t good at basketball.” I acknowledge that this is not an accurate or fair take, that it’s the product of a myopic focus on poor shot selection and decision-making during some tight games, which I tend to focus on more than his positive contributions. This negativity was exacerbated by the difficult season Barton had last year.

The truth is, though, that a healthy, effective Will Barton could be just as key to a Nuggets’ championship run as MPJ’s growth, Grant’s deployment, or Murray taking a step into superstardom. In theory, Barton provides the Nuggets’ starting rotation something it needs: playmaking from someone who didn’t spend the weekend watching five hours of Pokemon (not that there’s anything wrong with that). But in 2017-18, Barton showed the ability to create good shots for himself and others on a consistent basis:

He was also, statistically, one of the best one-on-one defenders at the shooting guard position prior to being moved to small forward.

But last year, he never got right. After coming back from injury, his explosion and finishing weren’t there, which made him a liability against quality competition. During this preseason, though, he seemed to have a renewed spring in his step. It looked like he all but wrapped up the starting spot in the fourth game with a strong showing, as he scored 13 points on 50% shooting with 8 rebounds, 4 assists, and one steal in 22 minutes.

If Barton can shoot 37% from three like he did two seasons ago—and be a little better with his shot selection and defensive intensity—he could add a lot of value against smaller starting lineups or from the bench. But if he isn’t significantly better than he was last year, then the MPJ drumbeat is going to grow, and it will get loud quickly.  

Jamal Murray playing defense

I’ve been dying to see Jamal Murray play defense for three years now. This may finally be the year that we see it happen. We didn’t see much defense during the regular season last year, and we certainly didn’t see any during the playoffs when Murray made Derrick White look like the second coming of Steph Curry. He isn’t, and Murray is fully aware of his role in that revelation.

Which is why—to his credit—he acknowledged this weakness in his game and attended Kobe Bryant’s invite-only camp in the offseason to improve against some of the league’s most talented players, including Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving. At Nuggets media day, Murray addressed the work he did at the camp, seemingly embarrassed by his defensive shortcomings in the playoffs: “I’m trying to be able to not be a guy that’s going to be scored on like that or thought of that way.”

“I’m trying to be able to not be a guy that’s going to be scored on like that or thought of that way.”

Big props to the Blue Arrow for understanding that more is needed from a max-level player than just sharpshooting. His growth on the defensive end could be a key to the Nuggets taking the final step from contender to champion. But that growth needs to start in game one on October 23. The league is going to be more competitive than ever from the opening tip this season. There are 6-8 teams in the West alone that think they have enough to win it all. If Murray shows an early commitment to defense against the backcourt that embarrassed him last year, the Nuggets may be on track for a truly special season.

For more predictions, hot takes, deep dives, bad jokes, and confusing analogies, check out The Dig: A Denver Stiffs Podcast where my co-host Jeremy Poley and I explore one Nuggets-related theme each week. The show has been described as “unique,” “fun,” and “meh” by Nuggets’ media members and fans around the world. Check it out for yourself wherever you get your podcasts!

You can also follow me on Twitter: @NickHertzogSBN.