Changes are on the horizon for the Denver Nuggets.
Had COVID-19 not disrupted the NBA season along with the function of the rest of the planet over the past two months, it’s entirely possible that the Nuggets might have already been eliminated in a first-round matchup with the Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, or Oklahoma City Thunder.
It’s also entirely possible they would have surprised the Los Angeles Clippers by splitting the first two series games in Los Angeles and going up 3-1 in Denver this week. Both things were about equally likely, given that throughout the season Denver showed its best performances could beat almost anyone and the worst performances could lose to literally anyone in the league, including the Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers.
Denver’s rebuild has been steady and patient. Last season was the first time the Nuggets coaches or front office applied any expectations of a playoff appearance, which paid off when they landed the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference.
The Nuggets built a young core and re-signed their players to reasonable deals based on their value up until Jamal Murray’s contract last summer, which was built on his potential. Nikola Jokic established himself as the franchise cornerstone, and for a time, Gary Harris played as the second-best player on the team until his injury a year ago, which he’s struggled to recover from since. Will Barton has been both a versatile sixth man and a quality starter. They’ve added low-cost, high-efficiency bench players like Monte Morris and Torrey Craig.
The two major swings from the team were the $90 million contract for four-time All-Star free agent Paul Millsap, and Jerami Grant who they added for a first-round pick in a contract year.
The results have been phenomenal. Denver has 97-50 record over the past two regular seasons. They weren’t crushing the notoriously frugal Kroenke ownership group with exorbitant luxury taxes, they have a star in Jokic, they’ve been a team with a bright future for several years, and that hasn’t changed.
But nothing gold can stay, and very few teams stand the test of time from start to finish. Despite all the wins, it became apparent this season that something was missing from the Nuggets. The question is exactly what, and what it means for the future.
THE PLAYERS’ SIDE
The Nuggets have maintained throughout the season, with few exceptions, that they are fine. They opened the season talking about how they learned from last year’s run that you have to save your energy for the playoffs. Coach Michael Malone said at media day the team was planning for a “100-game” season instead of an 82-game season.
The players point to their record and their efforts to conserve energy as reasons to brush off concern. They knew they didn’t always play well, but it wasn’t a problem because they knew they could play well. The things to fix were in their control.
Malone often commented at the media-driven notion there were issues for a team with the record they held, even as he himself seemed angrier and tense throughout the season. This feeling persisted despite a contract extension Malone signed early in the season, an extension that caught a few media members (including this writer) by surprise.
So why did the feeling persist that things weren’t quite right?
Well, for starters, for the first three months of the season, through November, the Nuggets ranked 18th in offensive rating. Their defense (No. 1) carried them to start the year. Then after Dec. 1, they jumped to fourth in offense and 17th in defense. They weren’t the same team.
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets looks on in the huddle.
Then there’s the blowouts factor. Among the bound for the playoffs before the season’s suspension, the Nuggets were tied for 15th in number of double-digit wins on the season. Why does that matter? Those games are feel-good games. They prove you can absolutely dominate. The Nuggets instead would find narrow wins vs. good teams and narrow wins vs. bad teams.
They were also tied among playoff-bound teams for just ninth in fewest double-digit losses. They won small, they lost small; they tied for first in number of wins by three points or fewer.
So the Nuggets won, they just weren’t impressive. If you’re a three-time conference champion, you don’t need to worry about style points. When you’re a team trying to prove you belong among the contenders led by LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and James Harden, those style points become indicators of just how much power your roster packs.
There would also be a contention that injuries played a role. Harris missed a month of play. Murray missed over a week. Millsap missed several months with a knee injury.
The problem is that when the Nuggets were shorthanded, they played their best. In January, they rattled off wins that included an impressive back-to-back vs. the Jazz and Bucks with only seven active players. When their backs were to the wall, they played their best.
Those conditions provided the extra motivation that Denver seemed to lack throughout the season when fully healthy. If their best win was on the road vs. the mighty Bucks on a back-to-back after getting in at 4 a.m., their worst loss was getting routed by the Clippers who seemed to expose Denver as what their critics have claimed they are: a regular-season team.
That accusation stings doubly bad given the above context; they’re labeled as a regular-season team that wasn’t even all that great in the regular season beyond their record.
All of this leads to an undercurrent that the chemistry just wasn’t the same as it was last season, which isn’t surprising. Chemistry is fickle and changes year to year even with the same cast of characters. But that chemistry change has coincided with a career-worst season from Harris, with continuing injuries to Millsap at age 35, with a bench that has regressed, and an inconsistency from Jokic who remains the best center in the league, but only better in subtle key areas from last season.
More than anything, it leads to the idea that the time has come for the Nuggets to go for that “one more piece” many claim they are missing, before the stagnation leads to genuine rot in the core of the team’s culture.
Throughout the year, the team kicked the tires on a variety of trade proposals that would have constituted significant changes, according to multiple league sources. Discussions never reached enough traction to draw major attention at the time and were considered within the normal action of a front office taking and making the same calls that occur for most teams every year.
But the trade discussions primarily focused on wing upgrades, with players like Jrue Holiday and Zach LaVine, among others mentioned by sources outside of Denver.
Since those trades were discussed, a number of things have occurred, beyond the pandemic. The contract restrictions preventing a Bradley Beal trade expire after this season. Beal has maintained he wants to stay in Washington, and the latest reports have been that Washington intends to keep him.
Nuggets general manager Arturas Karnisovas joined the Bulls, increasing the ease of a potential trade with Chicago.
Whether it’s one of those players or another outside-the-box target, the Nuggets will be making and taking calls this summer. That happens every year, but their level of interest and ambition in upgrades is likely to be larger.
THE STARTERS OVER/UNDER PROP
On an episode of Locked on Nuggets this week, I put the over/under on returning starters for next season at 2.5, if everyone on the roster is fully healthy whenever the season begins.
Jokic is is a no-questions-asked lock.
Murray is an interesting discussion point. He’s on a max contact, but failed to make a real leap this season. His numbers are nearly identical to last season, with slightly better efficiency. Upon close examination, he was a better passer and defender this season, but it failed to register any tangible impacts.
However, the teams that would value Murray’s potential would blanch at his contract, and the teams that can afford his contract don’t have upgrades to offer the Nuggets.
So Murray seems likely to return as well.
Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Jamal Murray (27), Gary Harris #14 and Jerami Grant #9 of the Denver Nuggets.
The acquisition of Grant always outlined as a replacement program for Millsap. Millsap is likely to return on a cheaper deal as a reserve. He grew up in Denver and has put roots down. That’s not to say a compelling offer from a contender in LA can’t persuade him, but it seems unlikely. His remaining the starter also seems unlikely.
So two are back, at least one’s gone.
That leaves Harris and Will Barton.
Harris is the best value contract they can offer. A plus-defender who shot well before his core injuries, with two years left on his contract. He’s also been good for the locker room and culture. He’s a low maintenance hard worker who plays smart on both ends.
His efficiency dip and injury issues mean that a deal would require other pieces to secure a major upgrade. Notably, Denver picked up an extra first-round pick in the deadline trade of Juancho Hernangomez and Malik Beasley. So they can now offer a future protected first or first, and the Houston picks.
Barton is tricky. He and GM Tim Connelly are close, both having come from Baltimore. Barton has been the team’s heartbeat the past few seasons, and is well-liked in the locker room. He’s also having a terrific season, and carried them in the early months when Jokic was struggling.
Barton has also been the most critical of the team’s tendency to not show up throughout the year. He was the most critical of the team following the loss to the Clippers.
Barton might be necessary to include in a deal with Harris. If he’s not, there’s likely to be a conundrum for the Nuggets, which leads us to Michael Porter Jr.
THE MPJ QUESTION
Michael Porter Jr. is the most talented player on the Nuggets. That’s not hard to ascertain. He’s not the most skilled yet, because he hasn’t had time to refine those talents. Half the time he’s not certain of his assignment on either side of the ball.
But the kid’s natural scoring ability is crazy.
In January when he began to get consistent minutes, MPJ’s per-36 averages: 21 points, 11.8 rebounds on 52-48-81 splits. It was bananas.
The only thing holding him back right now is his own inexperience and health issues. Given natural growth and development, it’s reasonable to expect Porter to move into a starting role next season.
Not only does this create tension if Harris and Barton are still on roster as both deserve to start given their seniority, experience, and production, but inserting Porter and Grant into the starting lineup naturally changes the identity of the team.
With Murray, a taller and longer 2-guard acquired in trade, MPJ, Grant, and Jokic, you now have length and athleticism next to Murray and Jokic. It gives their transition game a boost, which has been a problem area this season even with Jokic’s signature outlets.
The Nuggets become more dangerous with a longer, more athletic roster. But to get there, they have to manage what is already a talented and productive group. that got them to this point.
CASE FOR THE OVER
The Nuggets have to actually pull off that trade, and there are a number of things standing in the way. Connelly has always preferred to let pitches sail by, waiting for the right moment and right deal to make big moves. His patience has been tortoise-like, even with moves like trading Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried through the years.
There has to be a deal that actually makes them better and it takes two to tango there. If none of those players or any other star 2-guards are available, Denver might be better off keeping the continuity together, hoping for improved chemistry with a revamped bench, and waiting for another opportunity down the line.
This is the key function: Harris is a good NBA player on a good contract, which both makes him the best player to trade for an upgrade and the hardest to let walk.
THE CASE FOR THE UNDER
But ultimately, there’s still a sense that Denver knows what it has with Porter Jr., and that the clock is already ticking on Nikola Jokic’s max extension. You can’t stagnate in the West, you have to look for ways to improve.
The Mavericks had tons of success in the mid-to-late 00’s with Josh Howard and Jerry Stackhouse, but ultimately moved towards Jason Kidd and Tyson Chandler, which helped them secure their first title.
Denver faces a similar situation on an accelerated timeline.
Nothing is certain in the NBA, especially in these times, but I would expect the Nuggets to look different whenever the 2019-20 NBA season begins.