After a heartbreaking 2018 campaign, the Nuggets look to make their mark in the West.
The Denver Nuggets might just win the award as the NBA’s most overlooked team.
Last season, they ended the season with a 46-36 record, only three games behind their division rival, the Portland Trail Blazers. The Blazers were the three seed in the playoffs, and the Nuggets got to watch them face the New Orleans Pelicans in the first round from their couches, having missed a playoff berth by just one game. Injuries derailed what could have been a memorable season in the Mile High City.
This season, the story will be different.
In June’s draft, the Nuggets had the last pick in the lottery. Missouri forward Michael Porter Jr., who played only three games in his lone season for the Tigers after suffering a spinal injury in the season opener, slid down the draft board and was snatched up by Denver. Porter Jr. was a five-star recruit coming out of high school and was projected to be a top three pick prior to his injury, so taking him with the 14th pick is a low risk, high reward move. He did not appear in any Summer League or preseason games for the Nuggets, and the timetable for his return is murky, but he will be a big contributor whenever he can return to action.
Going into free agency, the biggest need in Denver was locking up center Nikola Jokic long-term. Jokic averaged 18.5 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 6.1 assists per game last year, with his assist total being the best by a center since Wilt Chamberlain. The Nuggets offense runs through Jokic, so signing him to a long-term deal was priority one, and they got it done. Jokic agreed to a five year, $147 million deal. Denver also resigned wing Will Barton on a four year, $53 million deal.
The Nuggets traded Kenneth Faried and Darrell Arthur to the Brooklyn Nets and sent veteran Wilson Chandler to the Philadelphia 76ers. Faried is in the last year of a four year, $50 million deal, while Chandler was owed $12 million. Denver was over the salary cap after signing Jokic and Barton, so the moves were made solely to save money.
Denver was also able to add solid bench pieces. They agreed to a minimum deal with point guard Isaiah Thomas. Thomas finished fifth in MVP voting two seasons ago, but injuries derailed his 2018 campaign. The Nuggets also signed wing Torrey Craig, who was on a two-way contract with the team last season, to a multi-year deal. Craig only appeared in 39 games last year but will see a lot of action until Porter Jr. is fully healthy.
Denver proved with their offseason moves that defense is not their first priority. Jokic, as skilled as he is on offense, is a liability as a defender. The same goes for Thomas. But in the Western Conference, where teams like the Warriors and Lakers are able to score quickly on every possession, the lack of defense will prove to be detrimental. That being said, the offensive firepower that the Nuggets bring to the table will win them a lot of games.
While Jokic is far and away the best player on the Nuggets roster, possibly even a darkhorse MVP candidate, Denver has a number of other weapons.
The starting backcourt of Jamal Murray and Gary Harris is one of the best offensive duos in the NBA. Harris averaged 17.5 points on 40% three-point shooting last season, while Murray averaged 16.7 points while shooting 38% from deep. With Thomas coming off the bench when he is fully healthy, there is no shortage of scoring from either guard spot.
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Barton and Paul Millsap will be the starting forwards. Barton is coming off a season in which he tallied career highs in minutes (33.1), points per game (15.7), field goal percentage (45%), assists per game (4.1), player efficiency rating (16.2), and win shares (6.2). Millsap missed 44 games after tearing a ligament in his left wrist, but the former All-Star will look to bounce back this season.
Coming off the bench with Thomas will be Craig, Trey Lyles, Mason Plumlee, Malik Beasley, and Juan Hernangomez. If Thomas can come back and be the player he was two years ago in Boston, when he averaged 28.9 points and 5.9 assists, he can carry the bench unit. If he can’t return to form, the bench will be identical to last year when they finished 25th in the league in bench points per game.
The biggest question mark surrounding the Nuggets is injuries. Thomas and Millsap both missed serious time last year, and while Millsap’s injury shouldn’t hinder him this season, it is unclear if either guy can return to their peak form. No one knows exactly what Michael Porter Jr. will look like when he is fully healthy, either.
All in all, this season should be a success for the Nuggets. They narrowly missed the playoffs last year without one of their biggest pieces for the majority of the season. Now Millsap is back, Jokic, Harris, and Murray should continue to grow, and Thomas will be playing with a chip on his shoulder again once he gets back on the court. While their defense will be suspect at times, they will be toward the top of nearly all offensive statistics like they were last year. Expect this team to win between 46 and 48 wins this season, carried by the strength of their offense and their ability to run through Jokic.
This team should not be overlooked.
Edited by Brian Kang.
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