The Nuggets 2017-18 season was full of drama all the way through game 82. While most of the stories involved injuries to star players, or inexplicable losses to tanking teams, some of the lesser remembered stories either still had an impact on the season, the team going forward, or were just plain odd.
After the Nuggets season ended with heartbreak Wednesday night in Minnesota we all remember the key moments that led to a winner-take-all result. For some it was injuries like Nikola Jokic missing the six-game road trip, Gary Harris missing the seven-game road trip (and then some), or Paul Millsap missing 44 games. For others it was the losses to teams like Dallas, Sacramento, Atlanta, and Memphis among others.
With all of the key missteps along the way some other interesting stories may have been lost. Some of which may have impacted how the Nuggets ended up, like injuries and illness suffered by Plumlee, Chandler, and Juancho. Another, Monte Morris’ play in the G-League, was more of a positive story to the season, while Lil B’s strange one-game curse yielded a home loss to the Embiid-less 76ers. Here’s a look back at the season’s underrated storylines.
Juancho gets mono
After an impressive finish to the 2016-17 season for Juancho Hernangomez there was a lot of hype heading into his Summer League performance and what he could contribute to the rotation in 2017-18. He and Malik Beasley were given the keys to the Nuggets’ Summer League roster and they showed a fair amount of improvement during their week in Vegas. Juancho shot nearly 40 percent from three on more than seven attempts per game while scoring 16.4 points per game in 30 minutes per game.
Juancho showed some versatility in the Summer League as well. This was just what the Nuggets needed after strapping themselves into a logjam at power forward and a lack of depth at small forward. After Summer League Juancho participated in EuroBasket for Spain and continued to show his effectiveness as a spot up shooter who could give great energy at the three or four.
Unfortunately, in late October as the NBA regular season was beginning Juancho was diagnosed with mono with no clear timetable for full recovery. The effects were felt throughout the season as Juancho ended up only playing in 25 games and playing only about a third of the minutes as 2016-17. Although his free throw shooting improved, his three point percentage dropped significantly, possibly as a result of the lack of energy he was able to produce.
With the emergence of Trey Lyles (at least for part of the season) and Torrey Craig the rotation became crowded. Still you have to wonder what Juancho could have done if healthy this season.
Lil B curses the Nuggets for home loss to 76ers
We all know Lil B has been handing out sports curses for several years now, some of which have been hilariously accurate. It’s safe to say I never thought the Denver Nuggets would end up on that curse list. That was until the Nuggets social media team sent out this response to a Lil B tweet prior to their home matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers on December 30th.
wait, who's Lil B? https://t.co/QaAVxPl9Ey
— Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) December 31, 2017
Naturally, this tweet didn’t go over well with Lil B who took the opportunity to give the Nuggets “THE BASEDGODS” warning.
WHO DOES THE NBA DENVER NUGGETS PLAY TONIGHT LIVE? BOTH TEAMS ARE BLESSED BUT THE NUGGETS WILL BE PLAYING WITH "THE BASEDGODS" WARNING.. THIS IS JUST A WARNING… PLEASE PLAYERS TELL THE ORGANIZATION TO SEND LOVE TO LIL B!! THE STAFF AND PLAYERS!!! – Lil B
— Lil B THE BASEDGOD (@LILBTHEBASEDGOD) December 31, 2017
This game against the 76ers was one of the games that I was able to attend this season. Honestly, going in I thought it would be a great opportunity for the Nuggets to end the calendar year strong against an Embiid-less 76ers squad. Keep in mind this was not the same 76ers team that has currently won 16 games in a row on their way to securing the three seed in the Eastern Conference. At the time the 76ers were still just sneaking their way into the playoff picture.
In his pregame interview Michael Malone warned of overlooking the 76ers team, but it still appeared that the Nuggets did just that (or simply couldn’t overcome Lil B’s warning).
Despite one of Jamal Murray’s best scoring performances of the season the Nuggets found a way to blow a near 15 point third quarter lead. It was a strange game in which the Nuggets only shot 21.9 percent from three on their home court, without it even being a back-to-back scenario. Whether it was the curse of Lil B, or just a sluggish effort in the middle of a long season, the loss to the 76ers was one that added to the list of questionable losses that added up in keeping the Nuggets out of the playoffs.
Plumlee’s core injury
Fans have been on Mason Plumlee’s case since he arrived in Denver after shipping off Jusuf Nurkic and a first round pick in exchange for the center. Last season is was acceptable to think that Mason hadn’t yet adjusted to the mile high city and needed an offseason before we could truly see the impact he could have. Unfortunately, for the early part of the season Plumlee struggled, often looking like he was playing tense, especially at the free throw line. In the game against Philadelphia, Plumlee hit the pinnacle of his struggles by going 0/6 from the floor and 1/6 from the free throw line in 22 minutes, leading to sarcastic cheers whenever he actually did hit a free throw.
All of this added onto the general confusion as to why Plumlee received a contract extension for three years and $41 million. Michael Malone was quick to defend his backup center, urging the fans to give Plumlee a break at the free throw line. Perhaps part of the reason for this was the possibility the Plumlee was suffering a core injury throughout the early season. Malone confirmed the core injury and said that it would likely bother Plumlee for the whole season.
Simply by looking at some highlights even from the end of Plumlee’s time in Portland you can see the difference in how tight he now plays (even more so than usual) especially when shooting.
Fortunately for Plumlee and the Nuggets it didn’t appear that the injury bothered him in the second half of the season as much as it had. After the All-Star break Plumlee improved his scoring per 36 minutes by 1.5 points, while more significantly increasing his FG% by 7 percent and increasing his FT% from 42.1 percent to 55.3 percent. This was so much of an improvement that the fan discontent quickly turned to admiration, especially after Plumlee kept the Nuggets season alive with his block in Oklahoma City.
Wilson Chandler’s mask
Wilson Chandler’s late season injury got a fair amount of attention, but given the other injuries on the season it will likely be forgotten when looking back on 2017-18. Prior to suffering his injury in the Oklahoma City game Chandler had been getting into a grove at just the right time for the Nuggets. He was a guy the team could count on in times where it seemed like others didn’t want to take the shot to step up and knock down the late shot clock three.
Chandler’s season will likely be remembered, however, for his shocking 48 minute scoreless drought in the final game of the season. Sometimes though we are quick to forget the effect that an injury and the accompanying equipment may have on performance. A mask in particular is uncomfortable to wear, and either because of fogging or its dimensions restricts vision.
In Chandler’s nine-game stretch before the mask that separated his two one-game absences from injury he hit at least one three in eight out of nine including shooting 50 percent of better from three in more than half of those games. He also had no shortage of experience playing greater than 41 minutes. Although the Nuggets lost both games that Chandler needed to play 41+ minutes during that stretch, he stepped up huge in both of those games, scoring 26 points in each including hitting 7/14 from three combined.
Chandler also had at least a steal or more than two assists in every game during that nine game stretch, something that at least partially shows vision offensively and defensively. After returning with a mask, Chandler accumulated a total of seven assists and two steals in the five games to close the season.
Aside from the statistics it was clear that Chandler was playing as if he was reluctant to shoot at times, and at others didn’t seem aware of his surroundings. It was unfortunate for the Nuggets that this came at a time where they had hoped he would have a little more offensive impact in the final game of the season, but it seems more fair to put his performance on his injury rather than a perceived lack of effort.
Monte Morris developing well in G-League
Ending on a good note, it’s been quite the year for the Nuggets in utilizing their two-way contracts. Everyone recognizes Torrey Craig, Summer League star turned key rotation player, by now. Monte Morris, on the other hand, has managed to stay out of the Nuggets fan spotlight while he continues to put up numbers in the G-League.
Morris has spent most of the year with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, while we anxiously await the Nuggets G-League squad. With the Vipers Morris has averaged 17.8 points per game while adding 6.5 assists and shooting 85 percent from the free throw line and 33 percent from three. When Morris was called up to the Nuggets for limited action he shined. Even with an extremely small sample size Morris proved he may soon be ready to fulfill his role as backup point guard. Per 36 minutes, Morris averaged a double-double with points and assists while making 4/6 of his shots and 2/2 from the line.
With Devin Harris becoming a free agent this summer the Nuggets will have to decide if they want to keep Harris or another veteran point guard around for another year or hand the backup keys to Morris. Given the goals of the Nuggets team to make a playoff push in the West, and the fact that Jamal Murray is still a young guard himself, I would expect the Nuggets do bring back a veteran. However, Monte Morris’ time is not as far away as some may think.
*Stats compiled from basketball reference, nba.com/stats, and RealGM.