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Season in Review: A Look at the Nuggets Best Season Since 2012-13

by Christopher Dempsey
Nuggets Insider
@chrisadempsey

In a cramped, smallish visitor’s locker room after the final game of the season at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Nuggets players and coaches expressed emotions ranging from disappointment to hope, all blended together like a smoothie.

Yes, the season ended too soon. The playoffs were a tantalizing fruit that was dangled in front of them, then snatched away in the end. But yes, there were also all kinds of things to like about a Nuggets team that put its most successful campaign in five years on the board.

The Nuggets finished 46-36, owned the NBA’s fourth-best home record (31-10), and had the league’s sixth-best record overall from Feb. 1 to the end of the season (21-10). They were one of the hottest teams down the stretch, going 8-3 in their final 11 games, including ripping off six straight wins to put all kinds of pressure on other teams in the Western Conference to keep winning be forced out of a spot in the top eight.

All season long, the Nuggets were one of the NBA’s most potent offensive teams, ranking in the top 10 in points (110.0), rebounds (44.5) and assists (25.1), and they had the sixth-best offensive rating (109.6) in the league.

“For us to go 46-36, we’re one of three teams in the NBA in the last three years that’s improved every season; that, to me is a major accomplishment,” Malone said. “The culture has improved. Our players have improved. We had 14 sellouts this year, compared to three last year. I think basketball became fun and exciting in Denver once again, and I think our fans were a big part of that. I understand the emotion, I understand the frustration. But we all share in that. And all I can tell you is this: We’re heading in the right direction. We’re getting better. We improved in a lot of areas this year.”

The building blocks of a season that could be remembered as the campaign that kicked off many future years of big-time winning, came in a number of areas.

THE RISE OF JAMAL MURRAY

By the end of the season, there was a case to be made that Jamal Murray, the Nuggets starting point guard, should be included in the conversation of the NBA’s most improved players. His raw numbers provided the foundation – going from 9.9 points per game as a rookie to 16.7 this season. It was just one category in across-the-board improvements in field goal percentage, 3-point percentage, free throw percentage, assists, rebounds and steals.

If you take Murray’s averages from Dec. 1 to the end of the season (60 games), they were All-Star worthy numbers: 17.8 points, 45.9 percent shooting, 41.3 percent from the 3-point line, 90.1 percent from the free throw line, 3.9 rebounds, 3.9 assists per game. Murray had a team-leading plus-minus of plus-9.7 in April.

And to think, he began training camp in a battle for the starting point guard spot. He ended it as the unquestioned starter, a player vital to any success the Nuggets were having, and a player the Nuggets view as a core player going forward.

“He is a guy that likes to be challenged,” said Nuggets president of basketball operations, Tim Connelly. “I think he is a guy that has a chance to be special.”

THE STEADY HAND OF GARY HARRIS

The magnitude of the moment rushed through Gary Harris in a euphoric surge of kinetic energy. On Feb. 1, he rose up and launched a buzzer-beating 3-pointer over the outstretched arms of Russell Westbrook to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in one of the biggest wins of the Nuggets’ season. When the ball swished through the net, the adrenaline-fueled Harris sprinted right off of the Pepsi Center court, through the back hallway, and into the locker room, where he was mobbed by celebrating teammates.

It was easily the most emotion he displayed all year long – or may ever been seen out of him ever again. You see, Harris works within the margins. Never too high. Never too low. But always right on time. He averaged a career-high 17.5 points per game. This is how it split: pre All-Star (17.5 points per game); post All-Star (17.4 points per game); at home (17.1); on the road (17.9). When Gary Harris stepped on the court, the Nuggets knew exactly what to expect. And added to the best offensive season of his career was his usual impactful brand of defense.

Harris was missed greatly when he was forced to sit out of 11 of the Nuggets’ last 13 games in the middle of one of the most competitive Western Conference playoff races ever.

“What a bad time to get hurt,” Malone said. “I felt so awful for Gary. The last two games, that wasn’t Gary Harris. We all could see that. And we could have used a healthy Gary Harris because he was great for us this year. Gary amazes because every year he gets better. That speaks to his work ethic, his dedication, his commitment.”

10 TRIPLE DOUBLES

By January, it became sport among some media members to guess whether Nikola Jokić, the Nuggets’ unquestioned lead player, would finish with more dunks or triple-doubles at the end of the season.

The final results: Triple-Doubles 10, Dunks 8

The real winner: Jokić.

By season’s end, he’d blossomed into everything the Nuggets want – and need – him to be. In the Nuggets’ last 11 games, Jokić averaged 24.2 points, 11.6 rebounds, 6.7 assists while shooting 51.2 percent from the field, 43.4 percent from the 3-point line and 87.5 percent from the free throw line. Jokic had two triple-doubles in that span and three games of at least 30 points. Simply, when the Nuggets needed him most during their playoff push, Jokic played his best basketball.

It put an exclamation point on what was arguably an All-NBA type of season. He averaged career highs in points (18.5), rebounds (10.7) and assists (6.1). The Nuggets were 14-8 when he scored at least 23 points in a game. They were 43-32 (.573) with him, and 3-4 (.428) without him. His value is undeniable.

Jokić was the engine that kept the Nuggets’ offense flowing, and he became even more of a matchup problem for opposing defenses this season. He has set himself up to take a star turn next season in eyes nationwide.

GETTING THROUGH THE INJURIES

Nov. 19, 2017 was a jarring day. The season, in effect was still just getting started, and Paul Millsap, the Nuggets’ prized free agent signee last summer, suffered what appeared to be an innocuous injury to his left wrist in a late-night game at the L.A. Lakers.

It was anything but.

Millsap ended up missing 44 straight games due to the wrist injury. His absence severely set back his ability to mesh with his new team, which had gotten off to a good start, and forced him to cram all of the learning and fitting in into the last 22 games of the season – while his wrist continued to heal.

Millsap’s saga was the most significant in what was a steady march of players in and out of the lineup all season long. Gary Harris missed 15 games due various injuries and one personal day. Nikola Jokić missed a week of action due to a sprained ankle. The Nuggets missed 137 games due to injuries as a team.

But that allowed others to step up. Will Barton became the Nuggets’ Swiss army knife, thriving whether he started or came off the bench or played any one of three positions – point guard, shooting guard and small forward. Barton averaged career highs in a multitude of categories.

The sharp-shooting Trey Lyles also capably helped fill the void. He played solid basketball, compiling per-36 averages of 18.7 points and 9.0 rebounds, which illustrated just how effective he was in compact spaces of playing time.

In all, the Nuggets’ ability to compile 46 wins was a combination of different players playing well when called upon, and coach Michael Malone’s ability to consistently hit on lineups that were able to see the team through more often than not.

HOPE FOR THE FUTURE

Connelly bottom-lined his view of the season and the future.

“This is the most confident I've felt in our core group since I've been here,” Connelly said. “I think we have the making of a team that can enjoy sustainably high-level success.”

Next season will be Jokić’s fourth in the NBA. He will have already seen every defense designed to slow him down. He will have been a part of two playoff races. He will know what it takes, energy-wise, to be the lead player in a team headed for big-time winning. Murray will start his second full season as the team’s starting point guard. Gary Harris has already blossomed into one of the NBA’s premier shooting guards.

Malone and his staff have taken a team that had won just 30 games in the season prior to their arrival, to one that has improved by 16 games in a three-year span.

“All in all, take (the final game) out of the equation I’m really pleased and proud of the job that we have done in our three years,” Malone said. “More importantly, I’ll look forward with great excitement and enthusiasm to what the future holds, because this is a young and exciting team that is only going to get better.”

Christopher Dempsey: christopher.dempsey@altitude.tv and @chrisadempsey on Twitter.

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