In what seemed like an NBA gone mad over free-agent movement and frenzied trading this offseason, the Denver Nuggets were content to fiddle around the edges while keeping their core intact. In fact, of all the alleged contenders, these guys probably are No. 1 in continuity, a rapidly undervalued element that leads to on-court familiarity, the ability to instinctively cover for teammates’ lapses and the best sort of familial chemistry. Denver’s only real shopping came in the form of former Thunder forward Jerami Grant, at the cost of a future pick.
> 30 Teams in 30 Days: Denver Nuggets
Without any Draft picks of their own in June, the Nuggets landed Bol Bol, former NBA center Manute Bol’s son, in a side deal with Miami … Grant was available thanks to OKC’s abrupt decision to rebuild in the wake of Paul George’s departure … Denver also kept the band together by picking up the $30.5 million option on the final year of veteran forward Paul Millsap’s deal.
1. Conditioning is a key. The Nuggets always have an advantage at their high altitude home, one that showed up in a league-best 34-7 record at home. But coach Michael Malone noticed some of his players dragging when their 82-game season turned into 96 games due to two seven-game playoff series. Better individual pacing and a more strategic deployment of minutes -- the roster is deep enough for that -- are needed so the Nuggets can go to three rounds or four next spring.
2. More tweaks on defense. The Nuggets cleaned up a glaring problem with their 3-point defense from 2017-18, improving from the league’s bottom to its top. In fact, they allowed just 30% shooting in the fourth quarter. But limiting opponents’ scoring in the paint is the next frontier; Denver was middle-of-the-pack in that space.
3. Find Jokic a trainer he loves. As good as the Nuggets’ slick-passing, team-first big man is now, imagine how effective he might be if he were, uhm, less upholstered. No one needs him to become chiseled, but carrying around a little less weight -- or healthier size, if you will -- might enable him to use his dazzling skills more effectively, while giving better than he gets in the beatdown department.
MAN ON THE SPOT
It’s been 16 months since the Nuggets selected the lanky Michael Porter Jr. in the 2018 draft, stopping a slide through the lottery triggered by concerns about Porter’s back. He has spent more time rehabbing from surgeries than playing competitive basketball, but reports in the offseason sounded encouraging. Denver will proceed cautiously, but if Porter demonstrates he can withstand NBA rigors, he could give them a bonus player later this season.
Nikola Jokic | 20.1 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 7.3 apg
Nuggets were 10-1 when the Kia MVP candidate had 20-plus points, 11-plus rebounds, 9-plus assists.
Paul Millsap | 12.6 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 2.0 apg
Team’s oldest player (34) still efficient as minutes decline.
Will Barton | 11.5 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 2.9 apg
Valued Sixth Man could plug starting small forward spot to open the season.
Jamal Murray | 18.2 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 4.8 apg
Now it’s time for consistency for potential All-Star.
Gary Harris | 12.9 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 2.2 apg
Four different injuries limited him to 57 games, hurt production.
Jerami Grant | 13.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 1.0 apg
Defensive versatility makes him a strong backup to Millsap/Jokic.
Torrey Craig | 5.7 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.0 apg
Playoff showing gives him shot to start at small forward.
Monte Morris | 10.4 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 3.6 apg
Surprising results as backup PG, with 5.7/1 turnover ratio.
THE BOTTOM LINE
This will be Malone’s fifth season as coach, and he and the organization have been devoted to the old-fashioned approach of step-by-step improvement. The Nuggets have gone from 30 victories in 2014-15 to 33, then to 40, 46 and last season’s 54. Those incremental gains are hard, but they want to do it again. Knowing how valuable home court can be in the playoffs -- particularly that mile-high home court -- the Nuggets will have an eye on winning the Western Conference. Who’s to say they can’t?
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