The Nuggets came out of nowhere last year to take hold of the Western Conference early in the season, led by Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray the Nuggets went on to have one of the more inspiring seasons I’ve experienced to date. They finished as the 8th best defensive team in the league and ranked 2nd in assists per game, second only to the Golden State Warriors who coincidentally finished above the 2nd seeded Nuggets in the West.
The Nuggets fought tooth and nail throughout the playoffs, besting San Antonio in a 7 game series in round 1 before falling to the impressive Portland Trailblazers led by CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard. While they fell short of their ultimate goal of reaching the NBA finals, the Nuggets showed their teeth throughout their playoff run. Nikola Jokic led the team with a historic postseason run averaging 25 points, 13 rebounds and 8.4 assists on almost 27% usage. His partner in crime, Jamal Murray had a turbulent post season with extreme highs and long periods of sobering mediocrity, but the 22 year old guard managed to scrape together a more than respectable box score with averages of 21.3 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game in the playoffs.
In the offseason the Nuggets refused to stand pat and reloaded their roster with some under the radar additions: they traded for OKC’s Jerami Grant to add defensive length and another athlete on the wing, Michael Porter Jr is (hopefully) healthy and ready to add his dynamic scoring and shot creating ability to the mix. They also managed to steal Bol Bol late in the second round of the NBA draft. Bol is a unicorn and when utilised properly (and when healthy) could offer an interesting look as a backup centre should Mason Plumlee fall out of the rotation. Assuming Jokic, Murray and Gary Harris continue their upward trajectory and with the continued contributions of Paul Milsap, this Denver team could surprise many in a loaded Western Conference.
The Nuggets are contending with a new breed of superteam this coming season with the offseason moves of the Clippers, Lakers, Rockets and Trailblazers. But there is something to be said about continuity, something that the Nuggets have in spades. Expect the young core of Jokic, Murray and Harris to continue to expand their games and take on increased offensive roles. Denver’s peripheral contributors like Torrey Craig, Monte Morris and Malik Beasley should also continue to produce consistently, buoyed by their strong playoff performances.
With that being said, the Nuggets don’t have the element of surprise this year, despite that, I expect them to get better and to take full advantage of their team continuity. Whilst the West is the most competitive it has been in a long time; the Nuggets have all the opportunities to improve upon their last season record of 51-31.
Prediction: 55 – 27
Denver’s best player is undoubtedly Nikola Jokic, with averages of 20 points, 11 rebounds and 7 assists in his 3rd season, Jokic solidified himself as one of the league’s most dominant and versatile centres. His passing and ability to create offensively provided a fulcrum around which Denver orchestrated their offense. Their offensive scheme revolved around Jokic’s prowess in handoffs and “weave” sets which have become staples of the modern NBA. Jamal Murray is an honourable mention in this segment, his dynamic mix of shooting and playmaking complement Jokic perfectly; with both players being locked up in lucrative contracts, these two will likely become one of the more fearsome duos in the league.
Michael Porter Jr sat out the entire 2018/19 campaign with back issues, but the 14th overall pick has been cleared for contact drills and has been participating in 3 on 3 scrimmages (per The Athletic). Rumour had it that Porter Jr would participate in summer league but alas the rumour mill failed us again, though his 2019 season should start on opening night.
Porter’s mix of fluid scoring ability and length and athleticism make him a tantalising prospect if he can put it all together. There have been questions of character and obviously health, but if Porter Jr can put that aside and focus on contributing then he may well succeed as a tertiary scorer next to Jokic and Murray. This is all a big IF, but my gut tells me that Porter can provide a necessary scoring punch in his soon to be rookie campaign.
Mike Malone won the hearts of many NBA fans this past season with the Nuggets meteoric rise through the Western Conference. At the beginning of last season Malone was rumoured to be on the wrong side of management after the Nuggets young core had failed to produce a valuable season. With his firing imminent Malone drastically retooled the defence, raising it to elite levels. His continued use of Jokic and Murray in handoff and pick and roll scenarios has shaped the Nuggets offense, Malone consistently puts his players in position to score from their favoured spots (Jamal Murray, Subsection 1, Any 3 pointer ever).
Moving forward Malone could look to spice things up a bit. The Nuggets over reliance on Jokic to generate good shots for his guards proved to be their downfall against the Trailblazers; Malone could incorporate Jokic more as a screener rolling to the basket as opposed to in isolation where he was effective last year but struggled as the playoffs wore him down.
Malone has proven himself to be a great coach at the NBA level but the Nuggets need to continue to improve and get better in this coming season for their Head Coach to earn his big extension.