2018-19 Denver Nuggets
Projected Record: 48-34 (6th in West)
2016: 46-36 (9th in West)
- Isaiah Thomas (Free Agency)
- Michael Porter Jr. (Pick #14)
- Jarred Vanderbilt (Pick #41)
- Thomas Welsh (Pick #58)
- Kenneth Faried
- Darrell Arthur
- Wilson Chandler
- Isaiah Whitehead
- Starting lineup can match up with anybody
- Extremely high-octane offense
- Roster is still imbalanced
- Defense ranked 26th last season — and got worse
Sometimes, the Nuggets feel like less than the sum of their parts.
Logically, this is a franchise that missed the playoffs by only one game in one of the most competitive conferences the NBA has ever seen. They were closer to third place (three games) than they were to 10th (four), while getting only 38 games out of prized free agent acquisition Paul Millsap. The endlessly entertaining Nikola Jokic is now locked up long-term, Gary Harris has settled in as one of the league’s premier two-way guards and Jamal Murray looked to be taking serious steps towards bona fide stardom. All the usual signs point to this team being great this season, even as tough as their competition looks to be.
And yet, I still struggle to believe in them. It may not be entirely rational on my part, but it still feels like there’s something missing in Denver.
Maybe what’s missing is, I don’t know, any wing players at all? Will Barton — all 175 pounds of him — is slated to start at the three for Denver this season, and the only true “small forward” on the roster, rookie Michael Porter Jr., likely won’t even appear for the team this season, thanks to a spine made out of paper mache and dreams. If Porter doesn’t play, the rotation currently consists of something like five guards and six bigs, with not a wing to be found. Elsewhere in this preview, I joked about enjoying the weirdness of the New Orleans Pelicans’ roster, but even they still have two useful forwards in Darius Miller and Solomon Hill who will provide some size on the wings. I’m not a complete hypocrite! Just a partial one.
To give Denver some credit, at least they finally relieved their logjam of power forwards when they shipped Kenneth Faried and Darrell Arthur off to Brooklyn. The frontcourt should see a more comfortable fit now that it doesn’t comprise three-quarters of the roster, and youngster Trey Lyles in particular will be able to enjoy a healthy bump in playing time. Perhaps even Tyler Lydon will return from the Bermuda Triangle in time to hit some threes and spread the floor.
Even the Faried trade, though, was the result of bad process. Good front offices do not need to trade away first-round picks to erase their own mistakes. Competitive front offices are seldom cutting salary just so their owner can avoid a first-time luxury tax. Both of these things will hurt in both the short- and long-term, especially as departed forward Wilson Chandler contributes to a 76ers team hoping to contend.
As you can see, even despite these issues, I have Denver making the playoffs pretty comfortably. I have been a Paul Millsap Truther for years — he’s awesome — and I’m confident his return to health will elevate this team to a new level. I’m also high on the buy-low signing of Isaiah Thomas, who — if he can get healthy — will serve as valuable point guard depth behind Murray. Lyles can definitely play, Mason Plumlee is actually a little underrated, and this team has the top-end talent to succeed. Their star should rise as the team who eliminated them last season, the Timberwolves, collapse.
Still, with all the weird flaws on this roster, 48 wins and a six-seed still kind of feels like it could go down as wasted potential. There’s a Denver Nuggets team in an alternate dimension run by a more effective front office that is contending for a top-three seed right now, I just know it.
Most Valuable Player: Nikola Jokic
A good way to start a fight on Twitter (apart from just sending a tweet about anything, of course) is to ask a basketball fan what they think of Nikola Jokic. Things will get ugly real fast.
Much like the Mavericks’ young phenom, Luka Dončić, Jokic has become something of a linchpin for the “eye test vs. advanced stats” conflict. He looks like a center from the 1960s imported straight into the modern league, and he doesn’t necessarily take over games in the way we tend to expect from an NBA superstar, but advanced metrics paint him as one of the best players in the league. Defensiveness from each side have elevated him into one of the most polarizing players in the game.
I try not to be the pedantic “my takes are always the most reasonable middle-ground!” type of analyst, but I truly do sit square in the middle of the Jokic debate. It’s clear that he’s a completely unique and unprecedented type of NBA star; he’s arguably the best passer of any frontcourt player in the NBA, creating looks for his teammates in places the average player might not even imagine — he reminds me a little of Manu Ginobili in that regard, strangely. He’s also an elite three-point shooter, especially for a true center.
And yet, Jokic doesn’t quite check off every box for me yet. Even the most optimistic of outlooks on his defensive performance is “he’s alright!” I lean closer to the lower end; he’s just not a particularly noteworthy athlete, doesn’t protect the rim and can’t hold his own in space. He’s also proven to be an awkward fit next to many other bigs; lineups with both Jokic and Mason Plumlee have not particularly impressed, though they’ve outpaced what he did with Plumlee’s predecessor, Jusuf Nurkic. There’s a seeming hesitance to Jokic as a scorer, as if passes out of his own opportunities a little too often instead of looking for his own shot — though he seem to blossom into a legitimate 20 points per game scorer after February.
The Nuggets rewarded Jokic with a five-year, $148 million contract this offseason, and it was well-deserved. He is their best player, by far, and the Nuggets will go as far as he can lead them this season. For a second-round pick who was largely an afterthought, Jokic is already one of the NBA’s great success stories — but for a player now looking to build his legacy, Jokic will need to reach the next level of greatness this season.
X Factor(s): Isaiah Thomas
Isaiah Thomas is the NBA player whose career most directly resembles a sports movie. With any luck, this season will be the comeback story.
The Nuggets are taking a chance on a bounce-back season from Thomas, and it’s a good risk to take. Thomas suffered one of the more unfortunate injuries in the league late in the 2016-17 season, a tear in his hip that would finally sideline him in the Eastern Conference Finals. This became the launching point for his tumultuous campaign last year — even after returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ lineup, he was never fully healthy, and he was one of the worst regular players in the NBA after that point.
Thomas’ natural limitations matter quite a bit more when he’s not completely healthy. On offense, he compensates for his size with remarkable quickness and craftiness — he looks like a small child in comparison to most NBA players, but he weaves through crowds in remarkable fashion all the same. With the hip injury, that agility was crippled; he couldn’t create separation from defenders and nobody respected him off the dribble as a result. Defensively, he’ll never be better than terrible, but at least he’s able to give effort when healthy. Take away even that, and things get bleak in a hurry.
The Nuggets are a natural fit for Thomas in his quest to return to NBA relevance. They’re an offensive-minded team with a significant dearth of actual point guards, and defenses won’t have the luxury of keying in on him, considering how many other scoring threats will be on the court alongside him. One thing Thomas will have to adjust to, however: he won’t be a top scoring option on this team. Will he be open to a lesser offensive role than he might think he’s suited for?
As a Celtics fan, I can’t overstate how much I enjoyed Isaiah Thomas’ time in Boston. His 53-point game in the Eastern Conference Semifinals on his late sister’s birthday is one of the most remarkable accomplishments I’ve ever seen in my time following the NBA. I know that I will be rooting for him through every step of his comeback.
Don’t Forget About: Trey Lyles
The Nuggets have received quite a bit of criticism for trading away Donovan Mitchell in last year’s draft, but I’ll say this in their defense: Mitchell was far from a slam-dunk selection at the time (and may not have become Donovan Mitchell in Denver’s crowded guard rotation) and they got a fine player in return in Trey Lyles.
Now that Denver has finally, mercifully relieved themselves of their many power forwards, Lyles should settle in as the primary backup to Paul Millsap on the depth chart — and subsequently, finally see more than 20 minutes per game for the first time in his NBA career. This is very good news for Denver, as he’s a significantly better player than the Kenneth Faried/Darrell Arthur/Juan Hernangomez group that vultured minutes from him — and each other — throughout the year.
In essence, Lyles is the ideal offensive glue guy. There’s really nothing he’s particularly bad at, if you’re asking him to be the fifth or sixth option in an offense. He shot 38% from behind the three-point line last season, and excels as a catch-and-shoot option in drive-and-kick situations or out of the pick-and-pop, but he’s also effective driving to the basket or posting up. You don’t have to put the ball in his hands particularly often for him to find ways to contribute, which will prove to be tremendously valuable alongside the Nuggets’ established core.
Max Carlin, The Step Back + Hoops Habit (@mcarlinwustl)
If you don’t care about meaningful contention, the Nuggets had a great offseason. They retained two starters, including superstar center Nikola Jokic. They saved owner Stan Kroenke several boatloads of money. They took risks on formerly-elite prospects with health concerns that enabled discount shopping.
If you do care about long-term and legitimate contention, the Nuggets’ offseason was a disaster. They paid Will Barton $53 million over four years with a player option. They dumped a starter in Wilson Chandler to skirt a luxury tax bill. They paid a first-round pick to get out of the tax entirely when they had no basketball reason to do so (they would not have been in danger of incurring repeater tax penalties in the future). They drafted a player in the lottery who may never see serious minutes on an NBA court.
Since the Nuggets’ season ended in heartbreaking fashion in a de facto playoff game on the last day of the season, the Nuggets have gotten worse. Chandler, who played 2,346 minutes last season, leaves a gaping hole on the wing, and the Nuggets have no real way to fill it. Denver intends to start Barton at the 3 now, and Barton—if he actually plays his minutes at the 3—will struggle mightily to contain the league’s premier wings (though Denver’s presumed 2018-19 starting lineup of Barton, Jokic, Paul Millsap, Jamal Murray, and Gary Harris was outrageously good last year).
Behind Barton, it’s unclear where Denver’s wing minutes come from. Re-signed Torrey Craig will certainly occupy some, but his effectiveness will be entirely reliant on his remarkably inconsistent 3-point shooting. When Denver got really desperate last year, they deployed Juan Hernangomez on the wing, but Hernangomez floats in positionless limbo, and not in the good way.
he Nuggets are not a deep team. Their short- and long-term upside was hampered this offseason. Nonetheless, elite talent wins in the NBA, and the Nuggets have it. Murray is an emerging star, a potentially game-breaking shooter who’s developing into a three-level scorer. Harris and Millsap are rocks. Jokic is a basketball genius, utterly unique, beautifully dominant. If they can cobble together 48 minutes of nearly-competent wing play in 2018-19, they will be damn good. With improved health, Denver should be a playoff team in 2018-19.