Once again, the Denver Nuggets face an offseason with yet another vexing point guard situation on their hands. Seemingly since the day the Ty Lawson era came to a (somewhat) merciful end in Denver, the squad has encountered issues at the one. Whether the starter or the bench man running the point was struggling, the Nuggets stumbled to overcome the problems the position has posed over the last couple of seasons.
While transcendent center Nikola Jokić’s elite-level passing and general offensive brilliance masks many of the team’s concerns, a viable one-two punch from the lead guard position would unquestionably elevate this team’s potential. Unfortunately, the team’s problems at the position are compounded by the fact that they’ve considerably invested in it, spending multiple top-seven picks on ball-dominant guards Emmanuel Mudiay and Jamal Murray in recent years. While Murray may end up developing into a wonderful point guard in time, he still needs to work on his game to reach his full potential, and the Mudiay situation quickly became a fiasco that may have ultimately cost the Nuggets a spot in the playoffs last season.
As the Nuggets “are focused on” — shouts to Woj — the offseason, the team’s less-than-ideal point guard situation needs improvement. Only Murray and the untested Monte Morris remain on the roster, and the squad’s primary ball-handler off the bench, Will Barton, is facing unrestricted free agency.
How We Got Here
In the wake of the front office’s decision to cut Jameer Nelson just before the season, essentially handing the backup point guard role to Mudiay, Denver’s bench unit labored to find a rhythm all season long. Consequently, the Mile High crew allowed 5.2 points per 100 possessions more with the Joker off the floor — and Mudiay’s on/off numbers were even more glaring.
A portion of the unit’s struggles stemmed from the lack of a formidable point guard coupled with the team’s reliance on Barton to plug so many different leaks with his incredibly versatile skill set, which ultimately disrupted the bench’s productivity.
With no experienced options behind Mudiay, Denver maneuvered to improve not only their point guard situation, but their bench as well. Tim Connelly and co. dealt Mudiay to the Knicks in a three-team deal, netting reserve point guard Devin Harris from Dallas in return. But because Harris was playing out of position in Rick Carlisle’s interesting three-point guard offense, he took a bit of time to assimilate to the Nuggets’ offense, further hobbling the Nuggets’ bench.
Overall, Harris averaged 8.2 points and 2.5 assists, and he was second on the team in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.48) in his 27 games with the Nuggets. Once Harris got comfortable with the offense and began to play without thinking, he was highly effective. Unfortunately, he is an unrestricted free agent this summer.
With the NBA Draft having come and passed — and the front office electing not to select a ball-handling guard with one of their three picks — only a few viable solutions to the Denver Nuggets’ point guard situation remain. Let’s discuss:
Murray certainly made significant strides in his sophomore campaign, averaging 16.7 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game while shooting 37.8 percent from 3-point range. The Canadian standout has appeared in all but one game for the Nuggets during his two seasons, exhibiting quite the durability.
He set a new career high in points, assists and rebounds per game as well as field goal percentage (45.1) and 3-point field goal percentage (37.8). He also set upped his career scoring mark, scoring 38 points against the Portland Trail Blazers on Jan. 22, shooting 14-of-19 from the floor, 4-of-6 from the perimeter and hitting all six of his free throws.
After the transaction that sent the struggling Mudiay to New York, the “Blue Arrow” averaged 4.1 assists per contest over the course of Denver’s final 28 games, and he appeared to make notable strides in a positive direction throughout the course of the season.
Last offseason, Murray was recovering from surgery to repair core muscle-related injuries, impacting his ability to fully dedicate to working on his game. This offseason, however, Murray will be able to develop his game in general, particularly pick-and-roll decision-making, ball-handling and distribution in addition to his lateral foot speed. For the Nuggets’ point guard situation to reach the next level, it may require Murray becoming a monster in the gym this offseason. Imagine the former Kentucky standout being able to log 40-plus minutes a night — that would certainly give the team some flexibility when it comes to the reserve unit.
Speaking of the reserves, if the season tipped off today, the only point guard on the roster behind Murray is the second-year man out of Iowa State, Morris. While he only logged 25 minutes last season, Morris flashed some potential in a game against the Rockets in February, scoring 10 points with six assists and three steals.
Despite the promise Morris exhibited in limited minutes, his spot on the roster is far from cemented, and he needs to dedicate himself to improving this offseason so that he can occupy that reserve point guard role when Murray is on the bench. Thus far, the reports are quite encouraging.
Per Mile High Sports’ T.J. McBride, the young guard “will sometimes get three separate workouts completed in the span of one 24-hour period.” Morris’ incredible drive and work ethic appears to be paying dividends already in this, what is likely the most important offseason of his life to this point.
Morris’ is two-way contract is up at the end of this season, making him a restricted free agent. As such, Morris needs to rapidly prove himself or he risks putting his NBA career in jeopardy. He’ll be one of the go-to players on the summer league team, and according to Altitude’s Christopher Dempsey, coach Malone wants Morris to “lead the summer league in assists.” If Morris can fill the role of a backup point guard that the Nuggets can depend upon for steady minutes, the outlook on the Nuggets’ PG situation immediately improves.
A Free Agent
Considering Murray’s shortcomings and Barton’s potential departure, the Nuggets would be wise to pursue a reserve point guard who is both a positive defensive player and an efficient, consistent shot-creator — either for himself or his teammates — in free agency. Unfortunately, outside of Barton, the Nuggets’ bench is severely lacking prowess in these areas. As the interest of other teams around the league in Barton grows, it becomes increasingly unlikely the squad will be able to retain his services.
As such, the team ought to consider some of the following guards in free agency.
- Chris Paul — Perhaps the Point God will actually talk with the Nugs this offseason after foregoing his plans to do so just one year ago. While age and injury history are concerns, Paul remains the best of the bunch and will likely demand a salary well out of the Nuggets’ range. It would take significant salary cap maneuvering to bring Paul to Denver, so I wouldn’t hold my breath.
- Tyreke Evans — If Barton elects to leave during free agency, why not turn to a player the Thrill is often compared to? While he’s not a true point guard, Evans is coming off a career year, serving as one of just three players to average at least 19.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg and 5.0 apg last season while shooting over 39 percent from three. Evans brings stellar shooting and solid play-making skills for a player his size, but he may be out of the Nuggets’ price range as well.
- Marcus Smart* — Although Smart never developed into the offensive player the Celtics envisioned, he has proved indispensable nonetheless due to his rugged defense. While Smart would look sharp in the Nuggets’ new uniforms, as a restricted free agent, it’s unlikely the Nuggets will be able to pony up enough cash to steal the defensive ace from Boston.
- Fred Van Vleet* — Another restricted option, the Raptors’ Van Vleet led the NBA’s best second unit. Despite finishing third in voting for the NBA’s Sixth Man Award, Van Vleet’s physical limitations may not allow him to be a full-time starter, but he is, at the very least, a high-quality backup Denver should take a look at.
- Rajon Rondo — The return of “Playoff Rondo” saw the veteran guard register a terrific postseason, helping the New Orleans Pelicans sweep the Portland Trail Blazers in their first-round matchup. While age is an issue, few players are better passers or more effective running the pick-and-roll, and when engaged, Rondo’s length at the position make him a more-than-capable defender.
- Additional options include Devin Harris, Seth Curry, Elfrid Payton*, Shabazz Napier*, Dante Exum*, Isaiah Thomas, Shane Larkin and Yogi Ferrell*.
* = restricted free agent
In the end, the Nuggets have a bright future and should contend for the playoffs regardless of who the second point guard is. In due time, we will certainly be made aware of the team’s plans to address their issues at the position. Denver’s resistance to selecting a young guard in the draft increases the likelihood that some combination of the three solutions laid out above is the direction the franchise is leaning.
By the time training camp rolls around, we should know whether Murray has become a physical specimen capable of logging massive minutes, Morris has taken the next step and developed into a trusted option at the reserve point guard position or if the team signed a player who is set to run the point in a backup capacity. No matter what happens, the Nuggets appear poised to make yet another playoff run in the stacked Western Conference. Let’s just hope the point guard situation doesn’t hamstring their effort once again.