When last seen, the Nuggets were … leaving the floor wiped out and dejected after falling to the Los Angeles Lakers in five games in the Western Conference finals. But, they were simultaneously hopeful about the future having witnessed Jamal Murray blossom into a full-blown star in the postseason while rookie Michael Porter Jr. stepped into a more prominent role where he should thrive for years to come. Denver became the first team in NBA postseason history to bounce back from two 3-1 deficits in the same playoffs with wins over Utah and the LA Clippers in the first two rounds. Doing so left the Nuggets sapped for their first conference finals run since the 2008-09 season. Denver’s surprising run in the NBA bubble set high expectations for 2020-21 for this young, ascending team that might be a serious contender for the next several years.
What’s new? The Draft seems to be where Denver has shined the most in recent years, grabbing Michael Porter Jr. — once projected as the potential No. 1 pick — 14th overall in 2018, then selecting Bol Bol in 2019 at No. 44. The Nuggets grabbed a couple more potential gems this year, taking Zeke Nnaji with the No. 22 pick and RJ Hampton at No. 24. Neither will likely make much impact as rookies with Hampton expected to back up Gary Harris and Nnaji sits behind Nikola Jokic and Isaiah Hartenstein. But both rookies could play more than expected due to the pandemic. Denver also grabbed veteran free agent JaMychal Green, who should contribute in the rotation immediately as a defender, as well as 29-year old rookie Facundo Campazzo, who averaged 10.1 points and 5.5 assists last season in the Euroleague for Real Madrid. The Nuggets lost some size in free agency, and coach Michael Malone has already said the staff might need to become more creative this offseason with the defensive schematics to compensate.
What’s missing: The Nuggets lost three of their best defenders Jerami Grant, Torrey Craig and Mason Plumlee through free agency and were unable to make up for those departures through free agency and the Draft. Adding Green helped some, but not enough. That’s why Malone is considering experimenting more with zone defenses with Bol Bol taking on a role as the backline to work as more of a shot blocker. Malone expressed confidence in the current incarnation of the Nuggets playing well defensively, despite all the losses. Malone pointed to Harris as one of the NBA’s better perimeter defenders, while also mentioning that Murray showed major signs of defensive improvement in the bubble.
POTENTIAL STARTING FIVE
Jamal Murray | 18.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 4.8 apg
The numbers above increased significantly last season in the postseason (26.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 6.6 apg) for a young star expected to bump up the production on defense.
Gary Harris| 10.4 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 2.1 apg
Efficiency and production have been down over the last few years due to injuries, leaving many to wonder whether he’ll return to form.
Michael Porter Jr. | 9.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 0.8 apg
Potentially the team’s third star with Nuggets president Tim Connelly saying he needs to “take the next step” this season.
Paul Millsap | 11.6 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 1.6 apg
Claiming he wasn’t himself in the NBA bubble, Millsap re-signed for one year hoping for redemption.
Nikola Jokic | 19.9 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 7.0 apg
First conference finals and 19-game postseason run provided “experience” that “is going to be the most important key” this season.
Will Barton | 15.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 3.7 apg
Still views himself as a starter after knee injury forced him out of the bubble.
Monte Morris | 9.0 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 3.5 apg
The organization rewarded reliability with a three-year extension worth $27 million.
JaMychal Green | 6.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 0.8 apg
Impressed by Denver’s tenacity fighting a 3-1 deficit, the former Clipper decided to sign on and assume some of Jerami Grant’s old role.
Denver Nuggets, last 5 seasons
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions
The 2020 bubble odyssey only enhanced Denver’s confidence and experience, and there’s a legitimate chance that Porter turns out to be the Nuggets’ third star. His next steps affect the prospects for several players this season, with Denver also looking to mitigate losses on the defensive end from the departures of Plumlee, Craig and Grant. Most pundits won’t favor the Nuggets in the ultra-competitive West, but it’s likely they’ll be right there in the mix when the dust clears if Porter shines in his new role, Jokic and Murray continue their production and key reserves such as Barton, Morris, and Green remain reliable contributors.
Predicted finish: 45-27.
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