As January gives way to February, one of the great times of the the NBA season arises…the All-Star break. This is where the All-Star festivities sweep us NBA fans away in a wave of dunks, three point shots, and Kevin Hart antics. This is also where trade rumors fly and teams start either gearing up for an extended playoff run or packing for an early trip to the Lottery. The Denver Nuggets are poised to go a number of ways, and this assessment is to see where the Nuggets are as we enter the midseason. We will look at a main story line, a player who has done better than expected, a player that has done worse than expected, whether the Nuggets are going to be active or passive on the trade market, and lastly what to look for from Denver in the 2nd half of the season. Let’s get started.
Main story line(s) of the season: Lack of an identity/The Ascension of Nikola Jokic
The Nuggets are a team that doesn’t seem committed to a particular path. Should they keep stocking their roster with young prospects? Should they flip some of their young guys for an established veteran? How will they fix their overload of interchangeable talent at multiple positions? A lot more questions than answers come up when one mentions the Nuggets and their path, both for right now as well as their immediate future. Another major story line is that of the rapid rise and development of the Nikola Jokic. He has exceeded all expectations and has improved in almost all statistical categories from last season, taking the “sophomore jinx” and rejecting it like a stifled shot. In fact, many could argue that if Jokic had started for the Nuggets all year then he would have made a very compelling case to be an all-star. Last year in 55 games Jokic averaged 10.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 2.4 assists. This year he has raised his game to the tune of 15.2 points, 8.4 rebounds and 3.9 assists, all in 26 games so far. It will be interesting to see how Jokic’s play continues to go as the season rolls on.
Player who has done better than expected: Jamal Murray
I would’ve again nominated Nikola Jokic, but Jamal Murray has definitely impressed. The first year guard from Kentucky has had his ups and downs, but he has shown plenty of tantalizing potential and is making the most of his minutes on the floor. His defense can be more than adequate, his rebounding is surprisingly solid for a guard, and he constantly pushes the pace and puts the pressure on defenders with his dizzying array of basket forays and tough floaters. He can slide to the point guard slot in a pinch, and is also a knockdown shooter. Here’s the kicker: the kid is only 19! His stats aren’t mind blowing (only averaging 8.0 points, 2.6 rebounds, and 1.8 assists in just over 19 minutes a game) but I see an increase in his playing time and production coming soon after the All-Star break. His potential is tremendous and it will be interesting to see if he will develop into an all-star caliber guard here in Denver. He most certainly has the talent to.
Player who has done worse than expected: Will Barton
I was going to go with Emmanual Mudiay, who is turning the ball over at an even HIGHER percentage then last year, but I decided to roll with Will Barton. After a strong year last season, Barton has looked more or less lost for much of this campaign. He seems to struggle to grasp when to be aggressive and when to be more of a playmaker and get others involved, and while he has missed some time with injuries, his uneven play has continued all year. His season statistics aren’t bad at all (13.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3 assists per game) but his role and fluctuating play have been frustrating. For instance, here’s a look at his last four games.
Vs Clippers: 29 Minutes,18 points (8-13 FGM/FGA) 3 rebounds, 3 assists
Vs Timberwolves: 26 Minutes, 1 Point (0-1 FGM/FGA) 2 rebounds, 6 assists
Vs Jazz: 22 Minutes, 5 points (1-7 FGM/FGA) 4 rebounds, 2 assists
Vs Suns: 25 minutes, 16 points (6-7 FGM/FGA) 2 rebounds, 4 assists
As you can see from the stat line, Barton is getting a consistent amount of minutes (he’s averaging 28.6 for the season) but his play is very inconsistent. He will go from shooting contested shots with open teammates around to passing up wide open shots to set up a much more difficult shot. His feel for the game seems to be unreliable as a linchpin for the second unit right now, but hopefully he can break out of the slump and come back strong.
Are the Nuggets active or passive on the trade market: Active
The Nuggets were already in the running for the “formerly shopped” Paul Millsap, and definitely want to add a player who can stand out as an anchor for the team on the defensive end. A roster change up in Denver seems to be more likely than unlikely. Jusuf Nurkic has already expressed his desire to move somewhere else, and a trade including him seems to be an absolute certainty. Teams have expressed interest in productive veterans Danillo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, as well as Will Barton, and any one of them could be moved by the trade deadline. Jameer Nelson has been rumored to be a possible buyout candidate, and with LeBron’s call for a “third playmaker” ringing through the land, it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility to see Nelson with the Cavs by the trade deadline. Kenneth Faried could and probably will also be dealt, possibly in a package deal with Nurkic. It is also widely believed that Malik Beasley and Gary Harris could be dealt for the right price, although that is unlikely to happen. In summary, Denver will most likely make some moves moving forward, and it will be fascinating to see what the front office decides to do.
What to look for from the Nuggets in the 2nd half of the season: What moves did the Nuggets make?
This trade season is especially important for the Nuggets because they stand on the precipice of making a couple decisions. Do they plant their feet and decide to fully embrace their run to the playoffs? That would possibly mean trading some of their young prospects and/or a pick for an established “win-now” player. The focus would be less on developing their young talent and more on focusing to keep winning. If Tim Connellly decides to blow up this current iteration of the Nuggets and elects to rebuild yet again, then that would most likely include a fire sale of most of the players currently on the roster. This would almost certainly knock the Nuggets out of playoff contention and their only real action would be in the 2017 NBA draft, as they try to find a star to pair with Nikola Jokic to build the next great Nuggets team. A lot is riding for the Nuggets on the coming weeks. Follow @digindenver to keep up with all of the latest.