Few teams have a better understanding of what it means to lose control of their playoff destiny than the Denver Nuggets. They lost their final game of the season to Minnesota, which kept Denver out of the postseason and let the Timberwolves in. But after an offseason of player retention (and a few roster gambles), the Nuggets have positioned themselves for a season of redemption … and perhaps more.
Denver wasted little time locking up star center Nikola Jokic and guard/forward Will Barton … Darrell Arthur and Kenneth Faried (Brooklyn) as well as Wilson Chandler (Philadelphia) were sent packing in trades for future draft picks and salary cap space … Isaiah Thomas was signed this summer and, in the Draft, Denver drafted former prep phenom Michael Porter Jr. at No. 14 overall
1. Starting strong will be key. The Nuggets play 10 of their first 15 games at home amid a slate of favorable matchups to open 2018-19. To close the season, they face several 2018 playoff teams -- Utah, Golden State, San Antonio and others. Essentially, they can’t afford to open the season 11-9 like they did a year ago.
2. Payoff for the paydays. Jokic, Barton, Paul Millsap and Gary Harris are either beginning or in the midst of their big contracts. As the key players for the Nuggets in 2018-19 (along with Jamal Murray), there can’t be many lapses in production if Denver is to end its five-season playoff drought.
3. Some defense would definitely help. Need proof “D” has been lacking for this squad? They haven’t finished top 10 in defensive rating since 2008-09. Denver ranked 27th in that category after the 2018 All-Star break, which played a big part in their failure to clinch a playoff spot.
MAN ON THE SPOT
Coach Michael Malone has steadily helped Denver improve in each of his three seasons on the job while developing Harris, Murray, Jokic and Barton into quality NBA players. The Nuggets’ roster revamp gives him a crew that suits his style and the modern NBA -- versatile big men, playmaking/scoring guards and talented youngsters. Now it’s on Malone to get everyone working together for Denver to realize its vast potential.
Nikola Jokic | 18.5 ppg | 10.7 rpg | 6.1 apg
Fulcrum of Nuggets’ offense must improve his pick-and-roll defense in 2018-19.
Paul Millsap | 14.6 ppg | 6.4 rpg | 2.8 apg
Injuries limited former All-Star to 44 games in his debut season with Denver.
Jamal Murray | 16.7 ppg | 3.7 rpg | 3.4 apg
Nuggets’ likely starting point guard showed improvement in limiting turnover issues.
Gary Harris | 17.5 ppg | 2.6 rpg | 2.9 apg
Denver was 15-8 last season when he scored 20 or more points.
Isaiah Thomas | 15.2 ppg | 2.1 rpg | 4.8 apg
Former Kia MVP contender out to prove he’s fully recovered from his hip injury.
Trey Lyles | 9.9 ppg | 4.8 rpg | 1.2 apg
A more-than-competent 3-point shooter (38.1 percent) with decent defensive chops, too.
Provided he is fully healthy, Millsap should spearhead the defensive focus Denver has lacked the last few seasons. Jokic should make the jump to All-Star this season … and perhaps one of Barton/Murray/Harris will make a case for a spot, too. The Nuggets’ mix of young, versatile players developing at a steady rate should pay off with a 50-win season and a serious run at the Northwest Division title.
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