It’s clear Nikola Jokic looks to build on his first Kia MVP season. He’s putting in the offseason work, which Denver certainly needs, considering it will likely be without its second-best player, Jamal Murray, for an extended period as the guard recovers from a torn ACL suffered last April. Without Murray, the Nuggets need Michael Porter Jr. to take another strong step in his development and more substantial contributions from forward Aaron Gordon, who recently signed an extension worth more than $90 million after a 2020-21 season in which he shot a career-best 50% from the floor in 25 starts for Denver.
Despite Murray’s expected absence, the team maintained most of its continuity throughout the roster by re-signing Will Barton, Austin Rivers and JaMychal Green, in addition to bringing aboard veteran Jeff Green. Instead of panicking and signing a potential Murray replacement in the offseason, the brass has made it clear they expect to remain in title contention with the roster holdovers picking up the injured point guard’s production until he’s healthy enough to return.
As good as he is, Jokic can’t do it all alone. The Nuggets hope one or more co-stars will emerge that are capable of matching Murray’s production. But who? Murray averaged 21.2 points in 48 games last season before suffering his ACL injury, and he likely won’t be returning to action until the spring. Denver anticipates a combination of players such as Barton, Porter and Gordon to collectively replicate Murray’s production. The longest-tenured Nugget, Barton has finally enjoyed a full offseason to prepare and is fully recovered from the hamstring injury that hobbled him last postseason. As for Porter Jr., let’s not forget the rising third-year player’s increased contributions following Murray’s injury last season; averaging 23.2 points, connecting on 55% from the field and 44% from deep. Porter’s numbers should increase with him taking on the role early of go-to scorer behind Jokic. Gordon averaged 10.2 points in 25 games after joining Denver in March, but you can expect his output this upcoming season to move closer to his career average of 12.4 points.
The Nuggets prioritized bringing back their own free agents this offseason, a sign that president of basketball operations Tim Connelly and coach Michael Malone believe in this core group’s ability to keep the franchise in title contention at least for the next four or five years. Murray’s absence adds pressure for Jokic to increase his output, but it will also likely force Porter Jr. to take another leap in his rapid ascension. Denver is already battle tested in the playoffs without Murray and will finish the season among the top five in the West. The Nuggets didn’t use its star guard’s injury as an excuse last season for not reaching their goals, and expectations are even loftier for 2021-22. Predicted finish: 50-32.
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE
Monte Morris: Solid veteran takes care of the ball (averaged 0.7 turnovers last season) and hit 40% from 3 in the playoffs.
Will Barton: Healthy offseason and prominent role should lead to a resurgent 2021-2022.
Michael Porter Jr.: One of the favorites to win the Kia Most Improved Player Award this season.
Aaron Gordon: Probably best suited for his current role as an athletic contributor on offense and an anchor on defense.
Nikola Jokic: The most dangerous playmaking center in the NBA, Jokic will need to kick up the production even more to keep Denver contending.
Facundo Campazzo: Gritty defender gained plenty of experience as a starter last season and might unseat Morris in the starting five.
JaMychal Green: Versatile veteran will likely see time as a backup center and power forward that provides range from deep.
Jeff Green: New addition expected to back up Porter, but his defensive versatility gives Denver plenty of lineup options.
LAST 5 SEASONS
How the Nuggets have fared stats-wise over the last 5 seasons …
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions
STAT TO KNOW
16.8 — The Nuggets scored 16.8 more points per 100 possessions with Nikola Jokic on the floor (120.2) than they did with him off the floor (103.4). That was the biggest on-off differential for offensive efficiency (by a wide margin) among 233 players who played at least 1,000 minutes for a single team.
— John Schuhmann
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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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