2019–2020 NBA Season Previews: Denver Nuggets
Head Coach: Mike Malone
Last Season: 54–28, 2nd in Western Conference
- PG: Jamal Murray
- SG: Gary Harris
- SF: Will Barton
- PF: Paul Millsap
- C: Nikola Jokic
Additions: Bol Bol (R), Vlatko Cancar (R), P.J. Dozier, Jerami Grant.
Losses: Brandon Goodwin, Tyler Lydon, Trey Lyles, Isaiah Thomas, Thomas Welsh.
While many expected the Denver Nuggets to make a leap and reach the playoffs last year, few foresaw Denver taking the second spot in the Western Conference. The Nuggets won 54 games last season, reached the playoffs for the first time since 2013, and came just one win away from reaching the Western Conference Finals for the first time since the Carmelo Anthony era back in 2009.
A big reason for the Nuggets success last season was the continued emergence of star center Nikola Jokic. The All-NBA First Team center averaged 20.1 points, 10.8 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game during the regular season, and upped those averages to 25.1, 13.0 and 8.4 in the playoffs.
Jokic may be the most unique big man in the history of the NBA, and that stems mostly from his passing ability. Jokic ranked in the 100th percentile in passer rating and 98th in creation for his teammates. At this point, it wouldn’t be presumptuous to call Jokic an all-time level playmaker. He especially excels in the pick-and-roll in the half court offense and there is no pass he can’t make. The “Joker” anticipates cuts extremely well and often makes passes before the opening is even there. He sees the floor well and uses his intelligence to make passes most point guards can’t achieve.
In the last 50 years only four times has a center had 15 assists in a game, and all four times it has been Jokic. He holds the fastest triple double in NBA history at 14 minutes and is also just the second player in NBA history after Larry Bird to accumulate 3,000 points, 2,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists in his first three seasons. Not bad for a guy who was drafted during a Taco Bell commercial.
While he’s a phenomenal passer, Jokic is also an elite scorer. The 7-foot Serbian ranked in the 91st percentile last season in scoring rate and can put the ball in the basket from anywhere on the court. He has a strong post game, is crafty with his use of pump fakes, spins and hooks, and can knock down 3-pointers consistently. Jokic’s percentage did drop from 39% to 30% from downtown last season, but is still a threat to knock down a long distance shot at anytime.
While Jokic’s lack of athleticism doesn’t effect him on offense, the same can’t be said for his defense. Jokic’s weak horizontal movement, agility and vertical leap make him vulnerable at times against the pick-and-roll and at the rim. He does rotate well and has good instincts on the defensive end, but struggles to rack up steals or blocks. He is still a positive on the defensive end however, as he posted a 1.5 Defensive PIPM last year.
As long as Nikola Jokic is in the lineup for the Nuggets, they should be in contention. Jokic is one of the top ten players in the NBA and arguably the most efficient big man on the planet.
Another young player who has made great strides over the years for the Nuggets is their point guard, Jamal Murray. Murray had his best season as a pro last year, as the former Kentucky Wildcat averaged a career-best 18.2 points and 4.8 assists per game on 36.7% shooting from deep. Only Magic Johnson in 1980, Kobe Bryant in 2000, and LeBron James in 2006 matched Murray’s 18.2 points, 4.8 assists, and 53.8 True Shooting % at Age 21 or younger on a team with a winning record. These numbers led the Nuggets to sign their Canadian guard to a five-year, $170 million contract extension in June.
Murray has always been a score-first guard, and he continued to showcase those abilities last season. The “Blue Arrow” ranked in the 78th percentile in points per 100 possessions while finishing 44th out of 120 guards in 3-point percentage and 30th out of 120 guards in free throw percentage (84.8%). Murray was most effective in the two-man game with Jokic, as he would either find Jokic for a basket or pull up from mid-range. While the mid-range is widely regarded as inefficient, Murray ranked ninth out of 35 players in field goal percentage out of players who took 150 shots or more from that distance. Murray is an effective shooter off the dribble and can knock down shots from all over the court.
Another area Murray improved last season was his playmaking, something he was criticized for not doing enough in college and his first few seasons in the NBA. His assists per 100 possessions jumped by two from 5.3 to 7.3 last season, which can be tied to his increased chemistry with Jokic in the pick-and-roll. He still has room to improve from a passing standpoint, but that should happen over time as Murray is already making strides as a facilitator.
While Murray is solid offensively, his defense leaves much to be desired, and the Blazers and Spurs took advantage of that in last year’s playoffs. Murray’s defensive woes were magnified throughout the postseason last year, with the biggest examples coming from Rodney Hood and Derrick White’s performances against him. In game three of the first round last year, White torched Murray for 36 points on 15 of 21 shooting. Hood followed suit for the Blazers in the second round, as he shot 9 of 13 while he was guarded by Murray in the series.
Murray’s biggest defensive issue at this point is that he often fails to stay with his man. It seems Murray lacks defensive fundamentals and positioning ability, as he often loses track of where he is on the court while at defense. This in turn allows his man to get open and get good looks at the basket. Last season, Murray posted a Defensive PIPM of just -0.9. If he wants to make the jump to stardom and become the second big piece next to Jokic, he will have to improve his defense going forward.
While he may not be the player he once was, Paul Millsap continued to prove why he is one of the better two-way players in the game last season. After missing most of the 2017–18 season due to injury, Millsap returned last season with a bang and the Nuggets record improved because of it. The four-time All-Star averaged 12.6 points and 7.2 rebounds per game and was the best defender on the Nuggets.
Millsap may be one of if not the most underappreciated players in the entire NBA. Last season, Millsap ranked 16th in Real Plus-Minus, falling in between Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving. While Jokic and Murray are the stars, Millsap is the dirty work guy who brings the team together and keeps them moving. Looking past his numbers, Millsap is a quintessential professional and an exceptional leader that any team would desire. He wastes no time or steps on the court either, as he scores and defends with high efficiency and does not gloat about it either.
While Millsap made a big impact at the power forward spot, the other forward position left much to be desired for the Nuggets. After missing nearly the first half of the season due to injury, Will Barton returned to the starting lineup and struggled for Denver. The former Memphis Tiger averaged 11.5 points per game on just 40.2% shooting, his worst mark since his rookie season. The injuries clearly affected Barton as his points, assists, steals and blocks per 100 possessions all went down from the 2017–18 season.
While he’s projected to be the starter and was paid like one in the summer of 2018, I wouldn't be surprised if Barton was moved to the bench to try to provide a spark on offense for the second unit. Monte Morris and Malik Beasley did a good job of running the offense off the bench last year. The two guards used their athleticism to their advantage to pick up transition buckets, and transition and spotting up are areas that Barton thrives in. Torrey Craig didn’t do much better than Barton last season offensively, as he averaged just under six points a game. Regardless, Barton moving to the bench would be based more off of fit rather than ability.
The only two major additions the Nuggets made this offseason were acquiring forward Jerami Grant from the Thunder in a trade and trading for rookie Bol Bol on draft night with the Heat.
While Russell Westbrook and Paul George’s trades stole the headlines for the Thunder, Grant was quietly moved to Denver for a first-round pick. Grant is coming off his best season as he averaged career-highs of 13.6 points per game and 39.2% shooting from 3-point range. Grant will provide depth at the power forward position behind Millsap, as the Portland native brings with him good defense, high energy and athleticism, and an ability to get to the rack on offense that compliments his developing 3-pointer.
Around a year ago, Bol Bol looked like a surefire lottery pick in the 2019 Draft. The son of late Manute Bol, Bol Bol played extremely well in nine games for the Oregon Ducks. The 7-foot-3 Sudan native averaged 21 points per game while shooting over 50% from downtown.
Bol is one of the most intriguing prospects I’ve ever seen. He is a good shot blocker and anticipates plays well on defense. Offensively, however, is where Bol is unique, as he is a 7-foot-3 center who can handle the ball well, shoot off the dribble and pullup from well beyond the 3-point line. He also has good footwork and touch in the post.
From a weakness standpoint, many red flags have been raised about whether or not Bol can handle the physicality of the NBA. While Bol was listed as 235 pounds, he weighed in at just 208 at the NBA Draft Combine this past summer. Offensively, his efficiency could suffer in the NBA as he could be forced to take awkward leaners and fadeaways due to his lack of strength. His defense may take a step back as well as Bol is not quick or explosive. This could especially come back to bite him in pick-and-roll situations.
Regardless of what happens, Bol is a low-risk option for the Nuggets. Getting a player of Bol’s talent in the second round could be a steal for Denver.
X-Factor: Gary Harris
Last season was somewhat of a disappointment for Gary Harris. The Nuggets shooting guard’s numbers took a dip as he shot just 42.4% from the field and 33.9% from deep, the lowest totals since his rookie year. The fact that Harris was battling injuries throughout the season didn’t help his cause either.
Harris’ biggest issues last season were his inability to knock down floaters and his lack of off-ball movement. Harris relied far too heavily on his floater last season and shot just 32.3% on his attempts from three to 10 feet, which was 121st out of 133 players who took the same amount of shots from that range. The five-year veteran also cut to the basket just 24 times on the season, which won’t cut it moving forward.
Harris is still an elite defender and hassled every guard he faced in last year’s playoffs. In the 2019 postseason, no player that Harris guarded shot higher than 45% as he held DeMar DeRozan to 35.5%, Derrick White to 23.1% and Damian Lillard to 41%.
While Harris is great on defense, the Nuggets need him to step up on the offensive end. Denver still does not have a solidified third scorer, and Harris seems to be the most likely candidate to fill the vacancy.
What should we expect from Michael Porter Jr.?
Two years ago, Michael Porter Jr., was a consensus number one pick for the 2018 NBA Draft as he entered his freshman season at Missouri. Fast forward to 2019 and Porter is now somewhat of a forgotten entity, as he’s played just three games since 2017 due to a back surgery and knee problems.
Porter was selected with the 14th pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, but sat out all last season due to injury. Coming into this year, Porter is expected to be healthy despite missing all of the summer league due to a knee injury.
Given how wide open the small forward spot on this team appears to be, Porter has a chance to overtake the position eventually. Porter is a three-level scorer who excels at isolation and can create his own shot from anywhere on the floor. He’ll more than likely struggle out of the gate though since he will have to adjust to the physicality and speed of the NBA while also being cautious about his health. The 6-foot-11 smooth athletic wing should get his chance to prove his worth this season as he will be a apart of the Nuggets rotation. While his defense and playmaking have been questioned, Porter should still prove to be a useful scorer for Mike Malone off the bench.
Will the Nuggets make the finals?
The Nuggets had a great season last year, and can very easily take the number one seed going into the playoffs. That being said, given how much money Denver has committed to Jokic and Murray, they weren’t able to make any substantial pickups this past offseason. Both the LA squads and Houston improved over the summer, so things won’t be easy for Denver.
The Nuggets are still one of the deeper teams in the league, and as long as they have a top 10 player in the league in Nikola Jokic, they should be in contention. The biggest question at this point for the Nuggets is which player will step up and become the go-to scorer in crunch time to get this team over the hump.
The Nuggets essentially have the same squad as last year, so we should expect the same production. The Nuggets win total should be in the mid to high 50s. Despite the quality of talent this team has, getting past the second round of the playoffs will be much easier said than done in the Western Conference.