Welcome in to the Denver Stiffs Mailbag! Thank you for stopping by. This is the weekly (well, bi-weekly) article where Nuggets fans ask me questions on Twitter and I answer as many as I reasonably can. If you have a question you’d like to ask, don’t hesitate to do so in the comments below or on Twitter!

For now, let’s get right into the questions.

It really is a sad state of affairs. I did the math last night. Nikola Jokić has played 525 regular season and playoff games in his career. Over 200 have occurred since the 2019-20 season began, which is when the Comcast blackout began. Being generous, if the Denver Nuggets were on national TV for about 50 of those games, that means that they weren’t on national TV for about 150 games, AKA roughly 30% of Jokić’s entire career.

According to Mike Singer of the Denver Post back on December 17th, Altitude TV, the KSE producer of coverage for the Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche, and others, made it clear that they would be willing to work through a mediator to come to terms on a new cable deal. This was more or less an admission by Altitude that they had to weaken their stance on the terms Comcast was offering, and perhaps that helps move both parties in a direction more amenable. We will see if that actually happens, but the first step has at least come out publicly.

Either way, it would be nice to watch the Nuggets away games from the comfort of my couch rather than on my 15-inch laptop screen.

So, this is a fascinating question because I’m not sure how much the actual starting lineup would be helped. As great as Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. are, the process for the replacement starting lineup has been very good. The replacement starting unit of Monte Morris, Will Barton, Aaron Gordon, Jeff Green, and Nikola Jokić actually ranks sixth in the NBA with 251 minutes, and its +7.9 net rating is pretty good, only trailing the Golden State Warriors and Utah Jazz starting units.

Where the most impact would be felt is in the residual units. Among Denver’s top 10 most played lineups, only four have a positive plus-minus, and all of those are variations of a Morris, Gordon, and Jokić lineup. Adding Murray and Porter back into the mix means allowing for more flexibility in non-Jokić lineups, perhaps turning them into positives rather than times to be feared.

Jokić’s raw plus-minus when on the court is +199 in 941 minutes. Off the court, it’s -194 in 696 minutes. Let’s round those values off and say it’s +200 in 940 minutes and -200 in 700 minutes.

If Murray and Porter are back, the Jokić on-court number doesn’t change that much. Let’s say it goes to +225 or so in those 940 minutes. Pretty good. I’d imagine the Jokić off-court number drops down to about -100 in 700 minutes if Denver’s intended starters were healthy enough to stagger with the second unit as needed. That evens out to +125 in 34 games.

Those numbers may not mean a lot to some, so here’s a way to simplify it: the Chicago Bulls are +126 in 34 games themselves, and they have a record of 24-10.

If Murray and Porter were healthy, I’d conservatively predict that the Nuggets would be about 24-10, which would be two wins away from the Utah Jazz for the 3 seed in the West. Some fans may assume more than that, and they might be right, but 24-10 feels pretty good. It translates to roughly a 58-win pace, firmly in the race for the top seed in the conference.

So, I would be shocked if Jamal Murray returned any time before about February 10th but would be surprised if he was held out to any time after about March 15th or so.

This is based not just on what I’m hearing, but also on what I’m seeing and what goes into ACL rehab. Murray posted a video on Instagram of him throwing down a windmill dunk (taken from the wonderful Katy Winge’s Twitter here.)

Murray’s clearly making great progress. There have been no true speed bumps from what I’ve been told, and though Michael Malone said not to be disappointed if he doesn’t play in January or February, I’ve heard February is still a genuine possibility.

Don’t expect January though, and here’s why: there are competitive steps Murray will have to take once he’s fully cleared for basketball activities, including 3v3 and 5v5 reps that just can’t be simulated in rehab. Murray will take those steps, but once he does, it’s probably fair to start the clock on his return for “four to six weeks from that point.” Obviously, changes to the timetable can occur based on how Murray feels and other extenuating circumstances, but Murray and the organization will look to satisfy all benchmarks before even thinking about an actual game. That takes time.

So, pay attention to whether Murray is practicing against live competition or not. That’s probably the best indicator going forward, more so than anything I can share.

There are so many to choose from! How can I pick just one?!

Actually, my favorite came to mind almost immediately. It was last season against the Los Angeles Lakers when Facu Campazzo passed the ball to Zeke Nnaji for a corner threeright by Kyle Kuzma’s ear.

The greatest thing about this pass is it gets better the longer you watch. At first, it looks like a standard pass, reading the rotation of the defense and hitting the open man. On the first play, you realize that Facu made a no-look pass to the corner through a tight window by Kuzma, who couldn’t quite react in time.

On the final replay, you see that the pass is legitimately insane. Campazzo’s looking at his pick and roll read the entire time, maybe an infinitesimal glance in Nnaji’s direction but there’s no reason to believe he would throw a pass in that direction. When he does, the ball zips so precisely past Kuzma’s ear that Kuzma might as well have not been there. The touch on the pass was absurd, and the accuracy was pinpoint. Credit to Nnaji for making the shot and immortalizing that highlight forever.

There’s a part of me that has wanted to ask Michael Malone about this for awhile. The Nuggets made a conscious decision to start Monte Morris at the beginning of the season, and every game Morris has played, he has started.

The starting unit this year, as mentioned above, has played the sixth most minutes in the NBA. It has a +7.9 net rating which is pretty good, but Jokić’s individual net rating is actually higher because the Nuggets have found some other configurations around him that have performed well. Interestingly enough, those lineups actually factor in replacements for Will Barton rather than Monte Morris. Austin Rivers has played 48 minutes with Jokić, Morris, Gordon, and Jeff Green, and Denver has a +21.5 net rating in those minutes. Same for Davon Reed, who has played 31 minutes with the same four-man combo that has an absurd +54.9 net rating in that time. The lineup with Campazzo in place of Morris (that include Barton, Gordon, Green, and Jokić) has played zero minutes so far, so it’s difficult to say one way or the other if it would be good.

There are certain matchups where Campazzo in place of Morris would be helpful, particularly against inexperienced backcourts like the Houston Rockets or Oklahoma City Thunder. In addition, Facu would be happy with facilitating for others more consistently and not necessarily taking a ton of shots himself. Morris can and should take some shots in the starting unit if he’s out there.

Perhaps that’s the reason to make the switch: give Morris more autonomy over the second unit as a reliable scorer and creator in a lineup that generally needs it badly. It’s not a negative reflection of Morris, but rather an admission that his 18.4% usage rate could probably stand to increase by a couple percentage points helping improve the second unit.

It’s something to think about, though hopefully it’s a moot point that lasts no longer than about six to eight weeks or so if Murray comes back around then.

So, the easy answer to why the Nuggets didn’t add DeMarcus Cousins is that they didn’t have any open roster spots. They have 15 fully guaranteed contracts and would have had to cut someone if they wanted Boogie on the roster. The Milwaukee Bucks signed Boogie to a minimum contract because they had an open roster spot and because it became clear that that their starting center, Brook Lopez, would be out with a back injury.

The Nuggets don’t need an elite backup for Nikola Jokić, and frankly, Cousins doesn’t represent a good backup. He scores and grabs rebounds off the bench, but he’s shooting 22% from three in his 15 games. JaMychal Green, for all of the consternation surrounding him, is shooting 26% from three and has more defensive versatility. The way Green defended against the Warriors just isn’t something Cousins is capable of at this stage of his career.

And that’s okay! Good for Cousins for latching onto a team that could use him. The Nuggets really don’t need his skill set.

Right now, the Nuggets stand at 18-16, fifth place in the West and on pace to finish with about 43 or 44 wins, well below expectation. Obviously, a couple of factors have dragged that projection down, from the injuries to key contributors to the third toughest strength of schedule in the NBA.

According to Positive Residual, and as you note, the Nuggets have the easiest remaining schedule from a win percentage perspective. They’re also tied for the second most home games left to play, will get back Jamal Murray at some point during the next couple of months, and should look to stabilize while other teams continue to scramble.

With all that being said, I think 50 wins is still on the table. Denver would have to go 32-16 the rest of the way, but they’re absolutely capable of that and will probably need that many to stay above the Clippers, Lakers, Mavericks, and T’Wolves for a top five seed. The Memphis Grizzlies, currently in the fourth seed, have a 23-14 record and need to go 27-18 the rest of the way to crack 50 wins. They’re certainly capable, but Memphis does have the ninth toughest schedule remaining (according to Positive Residual) and there might be some slippage at some point.

Denver should be shooting for the fourth seed, home court advantage in the first round for the fourth straight season, and an extra home game in a prospective first round series against a team like the Grizzlies. If Denver was able to accomplish that in what was a nightmare of a season for a long term health perspective, then they deserve plenty of credit for that, Jokić and Malone specifically.