Yes, it’s true: Denver is still trying to recapture the wonder years when they were led by George Karl and Masai Ujiri. It hasn’t been easy or pretty trying replacing the coach and general manager that oversaw 50-win teams, and last season the Nuggets won only 33 games, the third straight season in the 30-win stage. Yet, Mike Malone is demonstrating that he was a smart hire as coach, and there’s a healthy balance of holdover veterans from the previous regime plus promising young newcomers. It appears the Nuggets are finally headed in the right direction after a brief stagnation stretch. They need a star to lead them. Is he on the roster yet?
Denver fortified its roster with multiple first-round picks in the 2016 Draft, taking Kentucky sniper Jamal Murray and highly regarded forward Juan Hernangomez, who hails from Spain … Murray becomes the third guard drafted in as many years by the Nuggets and could form a rotation with Emmanuel Mudiay and Gary Harris
The Nuggets are understandably expecting a leap from Nikola Jokic. The big fella shined at the Rio Olympics and dropped 25 on the gold-winning US squad while leading Serbia to silver. He improved steadily during his rookie season, was an All-Rookie First Team choice and could be this team’s starting center for a long time.
Emmanuel Mudiay struggled with the jumper, hitting only 36.4 percent and playmaking was inconsistent as well. But the Nuggets are encouraged by his command with the dribble and decision making.
Will Barton is coming off a breakout season where he averaged 14.4 points and gave glimpses of being a go-to player. Will he get even more touches and responsibility in the offense, or will Denver lean to others?
MAN ON THE SPOT
Danilo Gallinari has endured more than almost any NBA player over the last four seasons to return strongly from knee injuries. He averaged a career-best 19.5 points last season before being felled for good by a bum ankle shortly after the All-Star break. He’s solid as a leading scorer because he has range and can get to the free throw line, but can he stay healthy?
Danilo Gallinari | 19.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 2.5 apg
Has returned form injuries as a bonafide scoring threat
Kenneth Faried | 12.5 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 1.2 apg
Lacks shooting range but rebounds and defends superbly
Nikola Jokic | 10.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 0.6 bpg
Could be the team’s best young player, consistent down low
Emmanuel Mudiay | 12.8 ppg, 5.5 apg, 3.4 rpg
Point guard of the present and future needs to show consistency
Gary Harris | 12.3 ppg, 2.9 apg 1.9 rpg
Starting guard came into his own and could make another leap
Will Barton | 14.4 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 2.5 apg
Instant offense swingman is more scorer than shooter.
Jusuf Nurkic | 8.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 0.8 bpg
Big man adds depth to the power positions and is just 22.
Wilson Chandler | Missed 2015-16
Missed all of last season following hip surgery, but is a scoring threat.
THE BOTTOM LINE
This team has a reasonably high upside because most factors are in its favor. Gallinari is healthy and productive. Harris and Mudiay are growing together. Faried is a solid pro, Barton is emerging and Murray might be good enough to help Denver’s shooting. In all, the Nuggets are banking on their young players to show growth and their veterans to lead. It’s a combination that should pull the Nuggets from the bottom in the West, but maybe not into playoff contention unless other teams (like the Memphis Grizzlies) falter. The playoffs are a good and semi-realistic goal but another year collecting a lottery pick wouldn’t be a serious setback, either.
Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him onTwitter.
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