The Denver Nuggets barely missed the playoffs last season, but are poised to be championship contenders this year.
Last season, the Denver Nuggets were in the worst position an NBA team can be in: the middle of the pack. They missed the playoffs on the last game of their season, giving them a low lottery pick and no chance to win the championship. The good thing is they won’t be in this position for long.
Despite having to fight for seeding in an unbelievably stacked Western Conference next season with yet another superstar in Lebron James transferring from the East to the West, the Nuggets have the firepower to not only make the playoffs, but thrive in them. Led and epitomized by 7-foot wunderkind Nikola Jokic, their offense features a virtually unattainable amount of versatility for almost every other team in the league (although Golden State might have something to say about that). Capitalizing on this flexibility will allow the Nuggets to solidify home court advantage in the Western Conference Playoffs this year.
Jokic, the European big man, just signed a 5-year max extension during the offseason. Although he may not be the biggest name in the NBA just yet, his surprisingly stellar shooting for a center and uncanny passing ability is what allows the Nuggets’ offense to run so smoothly. Jokic effectively acts as the offense’s point center, as he handles the ball often, although in an unselfish and efficient manner.
Last season, Jokic finished with 6.2 assists per game, which was good for 13th in the NBA and the most among centers. Additionally, he shot almost 50% from the field overall, 40% from beyond the three-point line, and 86% from the free throw line. These marks are considered extremely efficient by the elite status of the 50-40-90 club, a goal that can be reachable for Jokic as early as next season. And to fully understand how special of a player Jokic could become, consider he’s only 23 years old, and his points per game, assists per game, and rebounds per game have all increased for each season he’s played in the NBA.
The yin to Jokic’s yang is power forward Paul Millsap. While defense is certainly not Jokic’s strong suit, it is a defining part of Millsap’s game, as he has averaged at least one steal and block per game for his entire NBA career. Further complementing the uber talented Jokic with his excellent passing, Millsap serves as an athletic finisher, allowing the two to team up and form an extremely formidable pairing. The Nuggets probably would have been more of a contender last year if it weren’t for these two missing a combined 51 games due to injuries.
Unlike the dynamic duo of Jokic and Millsap, shooting guard Gary Harris will be asked to fulfill a specific, key role every night, and has already proven he is capable of doing just that. Harris is positioned in the Klay Thompson role for the Nuggets as a three-point marksman and overly capable defender, despite not having quite the shooting ability and scoring talent of the Warrior.
Courtesy of Nbasavant.com
Like Jokic, Harris is only 23 years old, and his scoring average has increased every season he’s been in the NBA. Plus, he acts as a perfect player for the modern NBA, as he could easily fit into the Rockets’ three or layup philosophy. Much like Thompson, Harris not only shoots well from deep, but also scores efficiently in the restricted area, making almost 70% of his shots from there last season. He is also a pesky defender, as he averaged 1.8 steals per game last season, which was good for seventh in the NBA.
The Nuggets have two additional versatile contributors in their starting lineup in Jamal Murray and Will Barton. Barton came off the bench last year, averaging about 16 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists per game, which would be solid marks for an above average starting small forward, let alone one who played in a bench role. Like Harris, he also serves as a talented defender and efficient three-point shooter in the Nuggets’ lineup, which garnered him some consideration for the Sixth Man of the Year Award last season.
Although Murray only averaged about 3.5 assists per game last season as the team’s starting point guard, he was (and is) not tasked with being the offense’s facilitator, as that role belongs to Jokic. He is an athletic scorer that made about 38% of his threes last year, proving he’s yet another multi-skilled player in this offense.
Soobum Im, USA TODAY Sports
The Nuggets’ bench is a much more risky endeavor, however. It is headlined by two players who were plagued by injuries last season in point guard Isaiah Thomas and rookie small forward Michael Porter Jr, who the Nuggets selected with their first round pick this year.
Although Thomas is slowly making his way back from hip surgery, the best season of his career was only two years ago. In 2017 with the Celtics, Thomas finished third in the NBA in points per game while averaging about 6 assists per game. Coming off the bench for the Nuggets, Thomas won’t have to fill the commanding shoes he did for the Celtics that year, and can instead be tasked with leading a Nuggets second unit that will be missing Barton, last season’s bench star.
While we have at least seen Thomas produce in the NBA, Porter Jr. is more of a mystery. He has not yet played in an NBA game, and only participated in three games for Missouri last season due to back problems that required surgery. However, if Porter Jr. can return in a healthy fashion, he can carry out the role Jayson Tatum was asked to fill for the Celtics last season: a talented rookie on a contending team that does not need him to be a star yet. And while it remains to be seen how talented and effective Porter Jr. actually will be, he was one of, if not the, top prospect heading into the 2018 NBA Draft before his injury, providing an extremely high ceiling for the Nuggets from a bench player.
Clearly, the Denver Nuggets have all the pieces to contend for a championship next season and beyond. Jokic, Millsap, Harris, and Barton are all under contract for at least the next two seasons, and many of these rotation players are still very young and growing. However, it is not about whether the Nuggets have the talent on their roster to compete for a championship - they clearly do - but rather if they can stay healthy, which is something we have yet to see from them.
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