Preview: Denver Nuggets

2017-18 Denver Nuggets


Projected Record: 47-35 (6th in West)

Over/Under: 45.5

2016: 40-42 (9th in West)


Key Additions:

  • F Paul Millsap
  • F Trey Lyles
  • F Tyler Lydon
  • G Monte Morris

Key Subtractions:

  • F Danilo Gallinari
  • C Roy Hibbert

Summary

Strengths:

  • Deep, versatile frontcourt
  • High offensive ceiling
  • Youth

Weaknesses:

  • Thin at point guard
  • Not enough minutes for bigs
  • Most primary backups are very young
  • Defense still questionable

My Nuggets prediction was initially closer to the 50- or 52-win level, but the more I’ve looked at this roster, the less confident I’ve become. Landing Paul Millsap in free agency was a huge win for this team that should propel them into the playoffs, but I have questions about the construction of this roster that led me to scale that prediction back just a bit.

I’m surprised the Millsap acquisition didn’t lead to a subsequent Kenneth Faried trade, honestly. Faried is still a useful big, especially on the glass, but the Nuggets have so many players at that position now that it’s hard to draw up adequate minutes for them all – especially with the acquisition of Trey Lyles from the Jazz. Darrell Arthur shot a ridiculous 45% from three in half a season’s worth of work last year, and Lyles and Juancho Hernangomez can both stretch the floor as well, with Mason Plumlee serving as Jokic’s primary backup. Where does Faried fit? It feels like he could have contributed more to this team as a trade piece for player like, say, Avery Bradley than he will as one who needs minutes on the court this season.

The Nuggets just have almost no viable point guards, and while I understand that Jokic will fill the offensive responsibilities of a point guard while he’s on the court, I think many have underestimated how awkward this will make Denver’s rotation. Staggering Jokic and Millsap to ensure one of the two is always on the court doesn’t have quite the same effect as staggering players like Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum or James Harden and Chris Paul, because Millsap and Jokic don’t fill similar roles – Millsap can’t be asked to facilitate an entire offense the way Jokic can. He’s a good passer, but he’s not that good.

The only legitimate point guards on this roster, then, are Jameer Nelson and Emmanuel Mudiay, and Mudiay has thus far been as bad an NBA player as Nelson is an old one. Nelson is capable, perhaps a little underrated, but last season was the first time since 2010 he’s managed to play more than 68 games in a season – and only the fourth time in his 13 year career. If Nelson misses time, is the offense really going to flow through Mudiay for those stretches where Jokic needs to rest? Can the Nuggets survive that?

[Post-Writing Edit: Adrian Wojnarowski is reporting that the Nuggets are likely to waive Nelson in order to sign Richard Jefferson. Richard Jefferson is a decent fit! Dumping Nelson… seems like a mistake. Hope you guys really like Emmanuel Mudiay, I guess.]

The other point of concern I have with this year’s Nuggets is on the defensive end, where they just lack a whole lot of standout performers. Millsap is great there, and Gary Harris is a tough presence on the perimeter, but that’s about all there is. It would be nice to see Jokic develop more on the defensive end, but he’s never going to be a rim protector, which is a role that nobody on this roster really fills. The Nuggets also have only one true small forward – Wilson Chandler – who is now 30 years old, a year removed from a significant injury, and has never been known as a particularly skilled defender to begin with.


Most Valuable Player: Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap

In the second half of last season, Nikola Jokic emerged as one of the league’s most unique potential stars – an offense-minded point center and one of the best-passing bigs in basketball. He and Jusuf Nurkic had never quite clicked as a duo, and Nurkic’s trade to Portland signaled that the Nuggets were all-in on the value Jokic could provide them. From that point on, they ran a wide-open offense in which Jokic was the de facto point guard, and blew teams away on the offensive end – while hemorrhaging points on defense.

Enter Millsap: quietly one of the NBA’s most effective defenders. After a free agent courtship with a number of teams, Millsap settled on Denver and solidified what should be one of the NBA’s most interesting frontcourts. The two should play well off each other: Jokic’s passing will create a lot of opportunities for Millsap, while Millsap’s defensive chops should keep Jokic away from more difficult defensive assignments. I have questions about the rest of Denver’s depth, but these two should be one of the NBA’s very best frontcourt tandems this year.

X Factor: Jamal Murray

There are a number of young players on this Denver roster that will need to contribute if the Nuggets want to make an impact in the playoffs, but perhaps none need to do so more than 20-year-old Jamal Murray, who seems like a uniquely ideal fit as the Nuggets’ “point guard” in the starting lineup along Jokic, who will do all the actual point-guard-y things for this offense. Murray has the potential to be an instant-offense player, and I’d like him more in a bench role, but the Nuggets need Jameer Nelson to take the reigns of the offense when Jokic isn’t out there. If Murray can step up his game a solid amount this season, it makes Denver’s rotation much easier to manage.


Conclusion

The 2016-17 Nuggets will be a flawed but extremely fun basketball team. They have the unique ability to stretch the floor at every position while running their offense through essentially a 6’10” point guard, and they’ll be a difficult offense to contain for anybody in the league. Jokic and Harris are an especially fun tandem, as Jokic is the perfect player to set up Harris’s off-ball cutting and spot-up shooting. Signing Paul Millsap was a coup that should make this team a playoff lock, even in the Western Conference.

The roster is weird, though; they have too many power forwards and lack much size on the wings, and Jameer Nelson might be the only point guard worth playing on the roster. They were one of the worst defensive teams in basketball last season, and while Millsap will help nudge them closer to “below-average,” they’ll still need contributions from players who either aren’t exactly known for their defensive performance (Will Barton, Wilson Chandler, Mason Plumlee), or from players who might still be a little too young to defend at a high level in the NBA (Jamal Murray, Emmanuel Mudiay, Juancho Hernangomez).

Sending away Kenneth Faried or another power forward at the trade deadline for wing and/or point guard depth could be just what the doctor ordered. In the meantime, though, the Nuggets look like a fun but flawed team that might be a couple steps away from legitimate contention.

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s