The Denver Nuggets have undergone a lot of changes since the start of last season. Let’s review the transformation and figure out what’s next for this young squad.
Last season was one that featured heavy experimentation for the Denver Nuggets. From the lineups that featured two 6’10″+ big men who were both considered centers, to playing rookie Jamal Murray at both guard positions, the Nuggets trotted out a variety of different lineups throughout the year.
Not all experiments are successful though and the former one was nothing shy of a disaster. Before the Nuggets shipped Jusuf Nurkic off to Portland, they attempted to keep he and fellow center Nikola Jokic on the court at the same time.
It didn’t work. Denver had serious spacing issues with the two monsters down low. And Jusuf Nurkic made it clear that he considered himself a starter. The Nuggets ran their two big men experiment for exactly 8 games, 5 losses and 13 days, just one day shy of two weeks.
“This isn’t working, I want to come off the bench.”
After it became clear that this would never work, Jokic swallowed his pride for the sake of Jusuf Nurkic‘s and the organization. He spoke with Malone and told him he’d rather come off of the bench for the sake of the team.
With Nurkic at starting center, the Nuggets went 6-11 until Malone decided to pull the plug on that experiment. 33 days later, Jokic was back in the starting line up. This meant that Nurkic was riding the pine. Things got better from there, but Coach Malone let that particular experiment run for 19 days more than it should have.
The Nuggets’ season was dangling by a thread at that point. At 9-16 they were well below .500 and fighting an uphill battle to get back into the playoff race. Of course, they would ultimately find themselves competing for the final spot out West. Not everything that Malone tried worked last season, but ultimately, he unearthed a dangerous starting line up and he chose the right European center to hang onto. Nikola Jokic might not be human.
Did Everyone Really Just Realize Jokic is a Basketball God?
Not many people got to watch Jokic in action in either of his first two seasons. Traditional stats say Jokic is one of today’s better players, while analytics say he’s a top-10 player. Jokic played well with just about everyone on the team. His on off splits were amazing. David Morrow blessed us with his calculated splits:
— David Morrow (@_DavidMorrow) September 6, 2017
Jokic started 51 out of the final 57 games, catapulting the Nuggets offense to a top 3 offense in the NBA. There has been an ongoing feud on Twitter between analysts and fans/journalists who are on the fence when it comes to the numbers.
Kelly Scalleta of Real Ball Insiders broke down the argument using the eye test to please non-believers. Duncan Smith also chimed in with his own article backing up the claim that Nikola Jokic is indeed one of today’s young emerging stars.
Others aren’t convinced. Jokic was only on national television for a grand total of 24 minutes last season. Most didn’t see him play, and when they finally checked out the hype for themselves they may have seen a poorly conditioned, sub par defender with limited athletic ability. Respectfully, those people are wrong. Jokic is as good as advertised.
Rookies Did Their Part
The Nuggets’ rookies improved as the season went on. Jamal Murray saw some minutes at both guard positions and was relied upon to start a few games. In the month of April, Murray averaged 15.1 points and dished out 5 assists per game while starting in 6 out of 7 games. The rookie played the entire season with a double sports hernia, which was successfully operated on over the offseason.
Juan Hernangomez played with heart and passion. Although he didn’t get to see the court as often as his counterpart Murray, he played well once he got the chance. In March he averaged a season high 17.4 minutes per game and he matched it with a season high in points at 6.9 points per game. He was a big reason as to why the Nuggets beat the future champion Golden State Warriors squad. The Spaniard scored 27 points on 6 of 10 from three in 43 minutes of action. Hernangomez often looked lost on defense but that is expected out of a young guy with minimal experience.
Both of these players are primed to take the next step and explode onto the scene this season. The Nuggets are loaded with young talent and potential, which is what made their summer acquisition so spectacular.
Paul Millsap is Here to Guide the Young Guns
Paul Millsap signed a three year deal worth $90 million with the Nuggets this offseason. He is thought to be one of the best imaginable fits beside Nikola Jokic in the front court.
Ray LeBov, one of the OG’s of basketball analytics, spoke with me over the phone and he told me he loves the signing. The frontcourt is sure to flourish this season with Millsap alongside the Serbian sensation. “My only worries are Millsap’s age and his production as the younger guys develop” he told me.
Millsap is older than most of Denver’s key players, but he won’t have to produce as much as the young guys develop. Plus, the team option allows them to bail out of any worst case scenarios. A floor leader and a defensive leader is what these Nuggets need and it exactly is what he is expected to bring to the table.
Efficiency Leads to Money in the Bank for Harris
The Nuggets had found their identity as a team and discovered their franchise cornerstone in Jokic. They spent the summer acquiring the perfect addition to their frontcourt and locking down their back up center to a long term contract. The to-do list was getting smaller for Denver and they checked off another massive assignment on Saturday night when they extended one of their most important players.
Gary Harris lead all shooting guards in field goal percentage as he put up 14.9 points per game. With percentages of 50% from the field, 42% from three and 78% from the free throw line, it is difficult to overlook Harris’ efficiency. The Denver Nuggets and Gary Harris agreed to a contract extension which, with incentives, could net the young shooting guard up to $84M in four years. With Harris’ contract out of question, we should expect him to improve upon his previous season as he looks to take the next step into stardom.
What’s Next for the Denver Nuggets?
The Nuggets have played their hands for the present and for the future wonderfully. Now that the Harris extension is completed the Nuggets can turn an eye toward their next extension.
Nikola Jokic will be in line for a contract extension next summer and that will require a max contract. The incentives on Harris contract won’t count against the cap until they become likely and won’t affect the tax at all until they are achieved. This structure will provide Denver will more wiggle room as they draw up Jokic’s deal. This was an important move but Denver will need to do more to clear up the necessary space.
The next move would be for the Nuggets to move Kenneth Faried‘s contract. With so many power forwards on the team who fit their pace and space style of play, the Nuggets can afford to trade Faried for a minimal return. Plus, he commands a lot of money to be part of a three player platoon.
If the Nuggets are able to thin out the power forward spot, the next priority is naming their starting point guard. Murray clearly has more upside and scoring ability than his counterpart, Emmanuel Mudiay. You’d think that he’s the obvious choice to start. But Mudiay has the physical tools to be a superb passer and plus defender. Those are the thing it appears Malone would prefer to see out of his starting one.
But Mudiay has struggled to keep any playing time that’s been afforded to him. His shooting has been abysmal and he can’t seem to avoid turning the ball over.
Mudiay must take the next step in his career and play up to expectations. He regressed last season and saw himself on the bench towards the end of the year. This may be his last opportuntity to salvage his value in this league
If the Nuggets do not make the playoffs this upcoming season, it will be a disappointing one to say the least. With three of the top-10 players at their positions respectively, they have one of the better rosters in the NBA. No more excuses, time to get it done.