In professional basketball, there are a multitude of well-kept secrets awaiting exposure. For years, the everyday fan has been perplexed by such hardwood conundrums and conspiracies. Exactly how many tattoos does J.R. Smith have? Has Michael Kidd-Gilchrist ever seen a shooting specialist? Is Demarcus Cousins secretly a 10-year old girl trapped in the body of a basketball bulldozer?
While we may never acquire the truth with regards to those questions, a well-kept secret grander than the aforementioned inquiries has revealed itself. The Denver Nuggets are legit; and they’re coming for you, Western Conference.
Confused? You should be. Mile High basketball submerged into basketball irrelevance the moment Carmelo Anthony skipped town and proceeded to nuke a decade’s worth of competitive New York basketball. Justfully, four straight years of lottery draft picks and Northwest division purgatory doesn’t equate to relevancy and national media attention. Denver wasn’t particularly bad enough to warrant a splash of a draft pick, and weren’t good enough to crack the playoffs; a recipe for NBA (hell) mediocrity. Oh, how the times have changed.
Allow me to provide context. Three months into last season, the Nuggets found themselves occupying their typical basement seeding in the West. Doomed to another year in the lottery, coach Mike Malone gambled with his 21-year old Serbian slinger, Nikola Jokic, by starting him and centering the offense around him. Fast forward to season’s end, and Denver is on the hinges of the eighth seed, Jokic is an all-star backup and a top scoring offense in the association runs in Mile High. (If you want more on his breakout, check out my personal piece on Jokic’s breakout on my personal blog, Boy Meets Sports [Three cheers for shameless self-promotion!]) Post-All-star break, the Nuggets averaged over 114 points per game, good for league’s best. Ultimately, Denver posted top three league averages in points, rebounds and assists per game; the only other team to do so last season? Golden State.
For my developed prediction to be valid, it shouldn’t necessarily be limited to past statistics. Albeit Denver posted ludacris team numbers to begin the Jokic era (It’s official, he’s that level talent – No seriously, he’s a god), there is plenty more to get excited about come this year. Peer into the roster, and there’s a lot to like.
The Nuggets’ biggest strength remains their deep and talented front court, one which was bolstered by this off-season’s top free agent signee, Paul Millsap (Sorry, Gordon Hayward). Why? Denver managed to land Millsap despite only giving him three years as opposed to a prototypical four-year max. Not only that, but the fit is impeccable. Discounting LeBron James and Marc Gasol, Jokic and Millsap are the premier playmaking bigs in the NBA. Coach Malone should be salivating at the sight of these two sharing the floor, as pairing them creates an immediate danger to opposing defenses. No other frontcourt pairing in the league will be able to operate an offense quite like Millsap and the Joker. This unprecedented duo will have a tremendous impact on the remaining rotation. Furthermore, Denver’s frontcourt is rounded out by maximum-energy, rebounding machine Kenneth Faried and additional candidate for top passing big man,
Miles Marshall Mason Plumlee. I almost forgot, overshadowed breakout rotation stud Juancho Hernangomez is playing like Tim Duncan in EuroBasket right now (If you don’t know what EuroBasket is, go read a hockey article). Yes, EuroBasket is not an accurate representation, nor is Tim Duncan the proper comparison for Hernangomez, however his play is promising. Finally, Dorrell Arthur remains a steady glue-guy for Denver’s second unit.
Moving forward, Denver’s wings appear to be their greatest area of weakness. There is no deficiency in talent, rather a lack of depth, perpetrated by the loss of forever-injured Italian sharpshooter Danilo Gallinari by way of free agency. While Gallinari played infrequently, his starting spot gave opportunities for his future replacement, Will Barton to run rampant with the second unit. Barton is most known for his short-lived appearance in the 2016 dunk contest, but at 26, his freak athleticism and last season’s career-best 37% three-point clip fits him nicely into Denver’s pace and space offense. Denver’s primary wing, Wilson Chandler is a sneaky, ad-libbed scorer who is slow, yet long enough to will his way to the rim with unexpected success. While his three point shooting isn’t necessarily bad, he has cultivated a long career out of his under-the-radar offensive skillset. Beyond Chandler presents the most promising piece spotting up on the wing for Denver, Gary Harris. Despite being hobbled by injuries to begin his career, the 23-year old averaged almost 15 per contest last year while shooting 50% from the field and a whopping 42% from downtown; many pundits have labeled Harris as a potential breakout, and in some forums, all-star candidate. His exceptional shooting and cutting ability make his pairing with Jokic and Millsap appear heaven-sent. Did I mention the Nuggets signed Josh Childress from Ice Cube’s 3-on-3 league after a four year hiatus from the NBA? Nevermind.
Although the Nuggets are thinnest on the wing, the area surrounded by the most question marks is that of the backcourt. Jameer Nelson is 35, has lost the majority of his quickness, and only sports a decent shooting stroke as his last true NBA calling card. His supposed replacement, Emmanuel Mudiay (Denver’s highest lottery pick since Melo!) isn’t much better off. Despite a promising beginning to his career, Mudiay’s athleticism and ball skills have not proven to be enough to counteract his poor shooting and the fact that he is a turnover MACHINE. Sure, he shaved off one turnover per game last season, but his per 36 minutes average still sets him as a contender for league’s best (Or is it worst?). Many Nugget fans have placed their faith in Kitchener, Ontario native Jamal Murray to grow into Denver’s true point guard. His rookie season proved to be tumultuous, as he appeared to be living up to his 7th overall selection, but his statistics told a different story. Murray underwhelmed, shooting a mere 33% from long range, despite being labeled as the best pure shooter in his draft class. He couldn’t crack ten points per contest, however his athleticism, craftiness and finishing ability around the rim excites many; almost to the point of being the centerpiece in a proposed trade for Kevin Love that fell through during the off-season. That being said, it is yet to be seen if Murray posses the playmaking ability for a true point guard. At 6’4, with relatively (by Antetokounmpo standards) short arms, he’ll need his tolerable speed to make up for his awkward size at point guard. Remember, Murray did not spend much time at Kentucky running the point, buried behind current Suns guard Tyler Ulis and the Harrison twins (By the way, go check Kentucky’s roster from Murray’s final year, it’s insane, and could probably beat Brooklyn in a 7-game series). Murray seems like a more natural fit as a shooter/slashing shooting guard, but the emergence of Gary Harris and Denver’s necessity for quality point guards has forced him to evolve his game to fit both. Beyond Murray, unproven youngster Malik Beasley is the only other guard on the roster worthy of cracking the rotation. With such grand question marks to be answered for the looming season, how could it be that Denver will be contending in the west? Try this on for size. Although Denver lacks a clear lead guard, remember that their franchise cornerstone center doubles as an above-league-average guard. Having the rare luxury of a big man that can also run point has catapulted teams like the Milwaukee Bucks into contention in the Eastern conference, and will be able to partially cover for Denver’s backcourt deficiencies. Don’t forget that Jokic posted better PER ratings than Joel Embiid, Kyle Lowry, and STEPH CURRY last season, and managing Denver’s lead guard duties primarily in transition has been a cakewalk to this point for him.
Last season, the Denver Nuggets newfound success remained one of the league’s best kept secrets. Come this season, Jokic & Co are due for a breakout. Should you expect them to immediately dethrone the likes of Golden State, San Antonio and Houston from the west’s peak? No. For my Thrones people, Jokic is Dany, and his unsullied are currently in Meereen. They’re not quite prepared to challenge house Lannister yet. However, the remaining contenders in the West are interchangeable in playoff seeding, leaving room for Denver to sneak in and snag a playoff spot. Realistically, the West will uphold its dominance over the league, with 10 teams that could make the playoffs; Denver being the biggest potential spoiler of them all. This team has the proper blend of youth and veteran leadership to become sustainable contenders in the west for the foreseeable future. The blue and gold are poised for the rare jump from the lottery to getting bounced in six games by the Warriors in the playoffs.