Thank you to everyone that asked questions in the latest edition of the Stiffs Mailbag! It’s always a fun article for me to write and allows me to go into conversation mode with other Denver Nuggets fans. It also gets to the heart of what people really want to talk about.

If you have a question, either share it in the comments below or ask me on Twitter!

Let’s get into it:

To answer this question, it’s important to contextualize what each of those scenarios really mean for the leaps that Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon each (hypothetically) take.

On one hand, MPJ winning Most Improved Player (MIP) seems like a natural progression. Already having averaged 19.0 points and 7.3 rebounds per game last year, it’s easy to understand what MPJ winning MIP would mean for his numbers: most likely 24 to 25 points per game, 8 rebounds, an improvement on his paltry 1.1 assists per game, and an improvement on the defensive end. If all of those things came to pass, Porter would likely be an All-Star caliber player and certified second offensive option on a championship team.

On the other hand, the answer is clearly Aaron Gordon winning Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY).

Right now, Gordon is a solid starter on a playoff team. He has significant strengths, most notably his 6’8” frame and the way he utilizes it both offensively and defensively. He still has weaknesses though, and it’s fair to question what he brings to a championship team when the circumstances are…less than ideal…after the Nuggets faltered against the Phoenix Suns last year.

If Gordon were to turn around and win DPOY, it would likely mean an improvement in rebounding, team defense, and individual defensive production. Gordon has the capability to be an elite wing/forward defender, but his current statistical averages for steals and blocks don’t reflect it, nor does his overall statistical impact on his team’s defensive rating. If those aspects of his game not only disappeared, but became overwhelming strengths? The Nuggets would be in a great spot.

In the last 20 seasons before Nikola Jokić won Most Valuable Player, there have been 13 individuals who have won an MVP award. Among those 13 players, five have won it multiple times: LeBron James (four times), Tim Duncan, Steve Nash, Stephen Curry, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. They represent 12 of the 20 MVPs handed out, meaning 60% of MVPs have been awarded to someone who has won it multiple times.

So, I think it’s reasonable to think that Jokić may win another. It takes a special circumstance to win though, and some of the greatest players in NBA history have just a single MVP award to their names, including Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, and Hakeem Olajuwon. If Jokić never won another one, it would be okay. His legacy is cemented already.

Still, Nuggets fans can be a bit excited that Jokić, in his own prime, is sort of between eras right now. There are other special players currently in their prime, but there’s also a changing of the guard a bit, as players like LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Chris Paul will all be at least 32 by the time the season starts. Jokić is 26 and should still have several years of peak performance in him. He has a great opportunity to defend his MVP this season, and the Nuggets will probably be an elite team for a while longer, meaning he will always be in the conversation.

If I had to predict it, I’d say he wins another in his career. He’s that good. In the way that many discuss Magic and Bird running the 80’s, Jordan owning the 90’s, Kobe and Duncan leading the 2000’s, and LeBron, Steph, and KD running the 2010’s, I think it’s possible that Jokić could be that player for the entire 2020’s decade. Knock on wood.

Assuming I’m making this with Jokić represented as the best player, I can still include Tim Dunca….kidding. I’m kidding!

I’d rather not separate Jokić and Murray, but for the purposes of this exercise, I think it’s only fair. In that case, let’s go with Gary Payton instead. Elite point of attack defender, perhaps the best to ever do so, and he’d run some great pick and rolls with Joker.

Let’s go with Reggie Miller at shooting guard. Elite shooter first and foremost, but also an elite cutter. He’d be able to run DHO’s with Jokić as well as weak side actions where he’s not involved all the time.

At small forward: Scottie Pippen. Let’s take this elite sidekick, and put him over on Jokić’s team instead. Another smart, high IQ passer who can run pick and roll and move the ball, be a tertiary scorer, and simply be one of the best defenders on all-time.

Finally, let’s go with Anthony Davis at power forward. Another great second option who can protect the back line on pick and rolls, be the weak side screener and duck-in/pop option, and simply fill in the gaps in the defense wherever he can.

So, in short: Gary Payton, Reggie Miller, Scottie Pippen, Anthony Davis, and Nikola Jokić.

Bones Hyland is going to be such an interesting player to monitor at the beginning of the 2021-22 season. After an impressive Summer League showing, Bones is in a great situation in Denver to have the best of both worlds. He should be considered a candidate for some playing time throughout the year and showed in Summer League that it is probably deserved, but he won’t be pressured into that playing time. With Denver brining back Austin Rivers, it signals to me that Bones won’t be asked to be a rotation player immediately.

Despite the Nuggets needing additional scoring while Murray recovers from injury, it doesn’t have to come from Bones. Denver’s projected starting lineup of Monte Morris, Will Barton, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, and Nikola Jokić is going to be just fine. The bench unit I currently have projected to begin the year features Facundo Campazzo, Austin Rivers, P.J. Dozier, Jeff Green, and JaMychal Green. With some staggering of lineups and some growth from Dozier, Bones isn’t really needed to save the day. Rivers is capable of stringing together points, and Jeff Green still has plenty of scoring left in the tank.

For his rookie year, the most likely spot for Bones is as an injury replacement most of the time, spending some time down in the G League and other times filling in the gaps in the rotation until Murray returns. Then, Bones likely won’t play at all after that point unless he shows special talent that mandates a rotation spot.

Similar to the answer above, the likelihood is low. Michael Malone, while I’ve shown in the past has played rookies far more than folks give him credit for, is definitely going to be most comfortable when he’s relying on a veteran instead. Austin Rivers was brought back to be that safety net, the player that can execute what Malone needs done on both ends of the floor.

Now, bringing up Facu is interesting. The point guard from Argentina is in the second year of a two-year contract the Nuggets signed him to last offseason. With Murray out, he’s certainly in line for playing time as the primary backup point guard behind Monte Morris and should be solid in that role; however, there’s an argument to be made that the Nuggets could play Bones at point guard off the bench to add additional scoring. The biggest weakness in Facu’s game is his ability to score off the dribble in different areas on the floor, and that’s projected to be Bones’ biggest strength.

Still, I don’t think Facu will be losing his rotation spot unless something unexpected happens. I’d put the likelihood that Bones replaces him at “very low” for good reason.

The Marc Gasol situation has been bubbling below the surface for the last several months for the Los Angeles Lakers, and things really went downhill when they added Andre Drummond to start over Gasol. Now, Drummond is a minimum contract backup in Philadelphia, and the Lakers have replaced him and Montrezl Harrell with Dwight Howard and Deandre Jordan. Assuming the Lakers brought those two centers in to play, it likely means Gasol won’t, and Gasol would probably hate that.

If, for some reason, Gasol was released from his contract in some way, there are very few places that make more sense for him than the Denver Nuggets. They’re a contender who could use an extra body at center. They play a similar style with Nikola Jokić in the starting unit to what Gasol might be comfortable with in a bench capacity. Though Denver has other options on the second unit, Gasol offers them something they could utilize: a bench representation of Nikola Jokić.

At 36 years old and turning 37 in January, I doubt that Gasol wants to play every night during the regular season, and the Nuggets could offer what is honestly a great situation for him. When they play big, Gasol mans the middle on the second unit. When they play small, JaMychal and Jeff Green slide over to the big man spots while Gasol gets a rest. By the time the playoffs roll around, Gasol might not be in the regular rotation, but he would be an excellent option to stand in for Jokić should the MVP get into foul trouble, sustain an injury, or something similar.

If he becomes available, the Nuggets should move hell and high water to add Gasol to their roster.

Three things come to mind:

  1. Internal improvement from Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon (see above)
  2. Perimeter defense
  3. Another bench big man option a la Marc Gasol (see above)

Improvement from Porter seems likely, at least in some capacity. Improvement from Gordon, or at least additional familiarity after a full offseason to become integrated into Denver’s ecosystem, also seems at least possible if not likely as well. The addition of another big man is a possibility. Or, Zeke Nnaji or Bol Bol could just turn into capable bench center options. That would make things way easier.

The one factor I’m still concerned with is perimeter defense. Denver’s projected starting unit, even at full strength, doesn’t feature an elite perimeter defender. Murray and Barton are both solid. Porter is still figuring things out. Gordon has potential, but he also may be otherwise tied up with interior defense as well. The Nuggets need a dedicated perimeter defender that can be matchup proof defensively. Facu Campazzo is great in some facets but not others. P.J. Dozier has the highest potential in this category, but he remains unproven. It’s asking too much of Austin Rivers to be the best defender.

If the Nuggets can add to their perimeter defense, preferably internally AND externally, then a championship becomes a legitimate possibility. If not, then it may always be at the edge of their grasp while they struggle to stop elite offenses.

Honestly, the only thing that matters is if LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook are healthy. If they’re firing at full strength, they will always have a chance. They don’t need a ton from the supporting cast. It doesn’t even have to be a proficient group, just functional.

Behind their Big Three, they have Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Nunn, Malik Monk, Talen Horton-Tucker, Wayne Ellington, Kent Bazemore, Trevor Ariza, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Deandre Jordan, and Marc Gasol (for now). Again, it doesn’t have to be proficient. Just functional. They can get enough scoring out of Nunn, Monk, and Melo to get through the regular season. Add in two centers and probably Rondo, Bazemore, and Ariza for glueing things together, and the Lakers will still be really good.

Would I prefer to have their 2019-20 supporting cast if I were them? Yes, they were also mostly role players as well. As long as LeBron, AD, and Russ stay healthy…yada yada yada.