The 2018-19 season is over, but for many Denver Nuggets fans, the wounds still cut deep.

Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Gary Harris proved their salt in the postseason but ultimately fell to the Portland Trail Blazers in seven games. There’s a lot to talk about this postseason, and Nuggets fans have questions. I decided to answer what I could in a Post Mortem mailbag on the 2018-19 Denver Nuggets. Enjoy!

This really is the ultimate question for how the Denver Nuggets will conduct their business moving forward.

How many teams have won a championship during the 2000s with both starting guards under 6’5? There are very few examples, but here we go:

The Miami Heat started Mario Chalmers (6’2) and Dwyane Wade (6’4) together during their back-to-back championships. They had some amount of help in the form of LeBron James.

Before them, the Dallas Mavericks won their championship in 2010-11 with a final starting lineup including J.J. Barea (probably 5’8) and Jason Kidd (6’4).

The Heat won against in 2006 with Wade as the shooting guard, this time with Jason Williams (6’1) as his back court mate.

That’s it.

Four of the past 19 championships. Handed out to players with a shooting guard 6’4 or shorter. Now, that’s not to say it can’t be done, just that there are special precautions one might need to take in order to overcome a possible deficiency.

The Heatles of the early 2010s had a variety of forwards who could switch onto smaller players and make life difficult for them. James was a terror defensively when locked in, as was Shane Battier. The Mavericks had Shawn Marion and Deshawn Stephenson to turn up the defensive pressure when need be. The first Heat team had an older Gary Payton and an athletic Antoine Walker off their bench, versatile players who made things work.

Most importantly though: both teams had top 10 defenses as well as top 20 players of all-time. Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki make life easier. LeBron James makes life easier (duh). It may be asking too much of Nikola Jokic to be a top 20 player of all-time, but if you have the confidence he can get there, having two guards under 6’5 isn’t so much of a curse. As long as the team has the necessary defensive counters, then things should be fine.

Honestly, it’s too early to tell.

There are benefits and detriments to extending Jamal Murray before his fourth season.

For the Nuggets themselves, they have to feel confident that the Murray-Harris-Jokic trio is good enough for them in order to extend the offer early. In Gary Harris’ third season, he averaged roughly 15 points per game on 50% from the field and 42% from three, playing solid defense at his position. In Nikola Jokic’s third season, he averaged roughly 18 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists per game on good efficiency. The Nuggets felt that those performances were good enough to warrant what amounted to a no nonsense contract in the subsequent summer.

For Jamal Murray, he just averaged over 18 points and just under five assists in his third season. He won the Nuggets many games and came to play in the playoffs, especially in the second round. He should feel like he deserves a big contract from Denver.

The question, of course, is how big.

If Murray is shooting for a max deal along the lines of what Jokic received, I think we can kiss negotiations goodbye. Murray was good, but not good enough to warrant a max deal or anything close to it. Devin Booker received a max deal, and while I don’t think Murray is that far off from Booker, he isn’t there quite yet.

The goal should be to find a happy medium. If I were both team and player, I think I’d be interested in a five year, $100 million deal that averages $20 million per season. A step up from Harris’ deal but not in the range of a max. If the Nuggets are smart, they will try and get this done before the deadline. Murray’s a player who opposing teams could throw a LARGE amount of money at in free agency.

It’s hard to build a contender in a smaller market. Outside of the top 12 markets in the NBA or so, most places aren’t blessed with top free agent signings in the offseason. During last season’s free agency, of the top 25 listed free agents on CBS Sports, only 11 changed teams. Of those 11, six went to cities in the top 10 NBA markets. LeBron James was the only top 5 free agent to change teams, and he went to the Lakers.

So, for a middle/small market team, the steps to win a championship are as follows:

  1. Identify at least one franchise cornerstone to build around
  2. Surround that player with young, developing talent
  3. Assemble a playoff caliber roster and make the playoffs
  4. Use playoffs to determine the viability of core members on the team
  5. If Step 1 is false, make major changes. If Step 2 is false, modify the roster using draft, free agency, and trades
  6. Enter playoffs again with a stronger roster
  7. Recruit key free agents or make additional trades as “final pieces” to ultimate vision
  8. Win a championship in Year 3 or 4 of playoff timeframe

The Nuggets are currently in Step 5. This is the hardest part of the rebuild in my estimation. In order to see through all eight steps of the rebuild, the Nuggets must be honest with their most important pieces. Is Jamal Murray enough of a second option? Is Gary Harris enough of a third option? Is Paul Millsap aging too fast to be this good in a year or two? Is Michael Porter Jr. as good as Michael Porter Jr. thinks he is? Honesty is the best policy, and the Nuggets must be honest with themselves here.

I think Nikola Jokic answered questions about his legitimacy as a number one option in the playoffs. Now is the time where the Nuggets understand his weaknesses (mobility on the perimeter, taking end game shots that aren’t drawn plays, etc.) and find the best pieces to complement him.

Ah, the Michael Porter Jr. question. Is there a player with a more anticipated debut than Michael Porter Jr. in Nuggets history? Probably Carmelo Anthony or Allen Iverson, but Porter is close. Everyone seems to think MPJ will be very, very good, and so far, the word on his health has been encouraging.

Now, all of this could change as soon as the world sees Porter play in summer league. He will either be healthy enough to showcase his high scoring potential as a shooter at 6’11, or he will be restricted in his mobility, which would greatly lessen his potential impact in other areas on the floor.

If he’s healthy, I expect the Nuggets to try and get him on the floor immediately. That means a permanent rotation spot, like what they had with Jamal Murray in his rookie year, regardless of what goes on around him. I don’t think Denver will ask him to start immediately, nor do I think they should. I’d expect one of Will Barton or Torrey Craig to start next year with Porter serving as the primary backup at small forward. He could play power forward in addition, but I bet Juancho Hernangomez fills that role next year.

This is one of the truths of the NBA postseason that’s hard to swallow, but as it stands, the Nuggets still ranked reasonably high in the three-point shooting department. Right now, Denver is fifth in three-point percentage among the playoff field at 34.4 percent. Most teams struggle in the playoffs from a shooting perspective, so it’s not surprising to see Denver perform a little bit worse than what fans are used to seeing.

Monte Morris shot 0 of 13 on threes in the postseason. That really hurt Denver’s bench and depressed the total percentages. I don’t expect him to be that bad going forward. I also expect improved performances from Will Barton and Jamal Murray. Barton shot 27 percent but improved as the playoffs went along. Murray is young, and while 33 percent is respectable, he has the talent to shoot ever better.

Could teams use more shooters? Sure. If I were Denver, I’d make a run at Danny Green this offseason, but more because of his defense rather than his shooting.

The real question is Mason Plumlee, who I noticed started to really struggle defensively in the second half of the year. That carried into the playoffs. With Plumlee on the floor, the Nuggets struggled to rebound on both sides of the ball, and for a team that values possessions and plays at a slow pace, having someone on the floor who can generate team rebounds is vital. If I were Denver, I’d look for the best possible options at backup center that can rebound and space the floor. Dewayne Dedmon comes to mind.

I don’t see why not. In the West right now, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Anthony Davis are the consensus best players in the front court from a voting perspective. Those players have the ear of the national audience. Soon though, Durant may not be in the West. The rumors are real with him possibly going to the New York Knicks, and if he were to do so, fans couldn’t vote for him in as an All-Star in the West front court. Same with Davis, who could easily be traded to an Eastern Conference team.

If Jokic wants to be an All-Star starter (he doesn’t care) then he must get off to a great start statistically. Even better than he did this past season. 20, 11, and 7 probably won’t cut it. Could he average close to a triple-double? Could the Nuggets once again lead the Western Conference in wins at the All-Star break? It will be interesting to see that develop,

I have some plans to put out big free agency lists later in the offseason. There are still six weeks until free agency, so look for plenty of free agent related content going forward.

In terms of an under-the-radar signing, I already mentioned Toronto Raptors wing player Danny Green. He’s a quality wing that knows how to defend, combining some of the best tendencies of Torrey Craig (defense) and Malik Beasley (shooting). If Denver were to go after Danny Green, they would have to recalibrate the rotation with other offseason moves, but I think it would be worth it.

As for other low key free agents, two that come to mind are Thaddeus Young and Trevor Ariza, veterans that could potentially replace Paul Millsap in case the Nuggets decide to move on and decline his team option. Ariza is primarily a stretch forward meaning the Nuggets would have to feel confident in the progress players like Porter, Hernangomez, and Jarred Vanderbilt have made. Thaddeus Young would be a traditional power forward replacement for Millsap, a smart defender with some ability to handle the ball on the short roll in pick and roll situations. He’d mostly serve as the fifth option offensively and would have to improve his three-point shot.

I actually think it’s a good idea. He will need rest, but playing for Serbia and representing his country is clearly important to him. I’m also not as worried about his physical fatigue as I am about mental fatigue anymore. Representing his national team should be an enjoyable experience, and playing against the best players in the world is never a bad thing. In addition, it would be really fun to watch him lead the Serbian team again. His performance against USA after his rookie season was epic.

I’m generally not in town very often. Having just undergone graduation at the University of South Carolina, my chances to personally cover this Denver Nuggets team have been limited. I do, however, have one good story.

The Nuggets held a press conference to announce the free agency news of both Nikola Jokic and Will Barton signing their extensions to remain in Denver. I was home for the summer, so I attended the event. The two sat up on stage with Josh Kroenke in the middle, and after brief words from Josh, they opened up the room for questions. I decided to ask one (paraphrasing): “To both of you, now that you have inked new extensions, what’s the next step? How do you both plan on getting better and helping the team in the coming years?”

Barton gave a good answer. He spoke about “locking in on defense, being better off the ball” and other facets of his game he wanted to really improve.

Jokic gave an answer that centered around the team that I think should have indicated a bigger jump for this team than anyone was anticipating.

“I think it’s not just individual training. I think we can help each other, you know. I think we can do meetings, to help each other a lot to get better as a team. I think you can get better in two ways, as a team and [individually].”

Clearly, Jokic has the team on his mind. For a star player to put the team first in those extremes is really important. All Jokic wanted to do on that stage, an event designed to celebrate his individual accomplishment in earning a max contract, was talk about his teammates and how the group could get better. The Nuggets didn’t make a lot of personnel changes between 2016-17 and 2017-18, but they won an additional eight games through individual development and, perhaps more importantly, team chemistry.

This was a great moment for me because it was the first time I asked a question in that sort of venue. I was 21, and it’s fairly daunting when surrounded by professionals who have done this for years. Despite that, it was a growing moment for me and something I will look back on fondly as an indicator that this team was something special.