2021-22 record: 48-34
Key additions: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope & Ish Smith (trade), DeAndre Jordan & Bruce Brown (free agency), Christian Braun (2022 draft)
Key subtractions: Monte Morris, Will Barton, JaMychal Green (trade), Austin Rivers (free agency), GM Tim Connelly
Last season: Gutted by the injury losses of their second- and third-best players, the Nuggets nonetheless won 48 games and took a game in the first round against the eventual champion Warriors. This was accomplished, of course, with a historic season by Nikola Jokic, who cemented his place one day in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame with a second straight Kia MVP award. Jokic led the Nuggets in every important statistical category in what was a legendary one-man performance. He’s still in his prime at age 27, and with Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. slated to return in 2022-23, the Nuggets entered the offseason feeling frisky about their outlook and future.
Summer summary: He is, for now anyway, the answer to an ever-changing question — who’s the highest paid player in NBA history? Just five years ago few if anyone would guess that a pudgy, former second-round pick would claim that financial crown.
But this summer the Nuggets did the inevitable and backed up the Brinks for Jokic, who scored a five-year, $270 million supermax extension. It was money well spent, because Jokic is not only coming off a pair of MVP seasons, but has proven to be dependable and sturdy and still evolving as a player. There are few weaknesses in the game of the 7-foot center, who is blessed with court vision, passing ability, dribbling, shooting range, low-post moves and a decent presence as a rim protector on defense. Seriously, what’s not to admire?
The Nuggets were gifted with Jokic because a sharp-eyed executive (Connelly) saw some promise with the 41st pick in 2013 and used it to take the unknown Serbian. Connelly left for Minnesota this summer, but he did a thorough job in building a team that reached the 2020 Western Conference finals and the team still boasts two stars and solid role players.
The Nuggets promoted his assistant, Calvin Booth, who was proactive in his first summer sitting in the big chair. He sent a pair of important rotation players, Morris and Barton, to Washington mainly to get Caldwell-Pope, a tough defender armed with a reliable 3-point shot. Caldewell-Pope brings championship experience, having won a title with the 2020 Lakers, and a defensive mindset that’ll be needed in Denver. With Murray coming off knee surgery, Caldwell-Pope will accept the tougher defensive backcourt assignments.
The Nuggets also received Smith in the trade and the well-traveled veteran point guard is wise and trustworthy with the ball, and an upgrade from Rivers.
Denver drafted Braun at No. 21 and the 6-foot-6 guard brings size, but unless he is unexpectedly solid from the start, he’ll probably spend much of his rookie season on the bench or in the NBA G League.
But let’s get to the real issue of the offseason: How’s the healing process with Murray and Porter, who haven’t shared the same court since April of 2021?
Porter is the bigger concern only because he dealt with a recurring back issue that required a second procedure. He’s been dogged by his back since his lone season at Missouri when he lasted just three games, which caused him to fall to Denver at No. 14 in the 2018 draft. Keep in mind, also, that the Nuggets gave him a rookie max extension, so there’s plenty at stake here with his well-being.
The signals this summer regarding Porter were cloudy and there are indications he will have minutes restrictions initially. The last time he was healthy in 2020-21, he averaged 19 points per game and shot 54.2% overall (and 44.5% on 3-pointers).
Murray last played in an NBA game on April 12, 2021 and, last season, the Nuggets quickly dismissed any chance of him returning for their first-round series with the Golden State Warriors because his long-term health was more important. He has ramped up more than Porter, though, and is scheduled to scrimmage at training camp and, barring any setbacks, should be ready when 2022-23 tips off.
And that, really, is what the Nuggets were banking on this summer, more than any trade or draft or free agent signing. Jokic was an amazing solo act last season, one of the better ones in recent NBA history. But he wants, and needs, company this upcoming season.
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