Nuggets

Biggest Questions for the Nuggets Heading Into Orlando

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Remember when you would go to the middle school dance and finally start talking to your crush in person? You did not expect to be in this position so quickly, but you know that whatever is going on is good. Naturally, you try to play it cool and try not to mess anything up or make yourself look stupid. At some point though, you know you are going to have to take that next step.

That is the best way I can describe the Denver Nuggets ahead of the season restart. The Nuggets are going to be exciting and relevant for years to come. They boast one of the deepest rosters in the league which operates alongside the dynamic, young duo of Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic. Should teams be afraid to lineup against them?

Star Power

Murray and Jokic are a tantalizing pair and deadly in the pick-and-roll game. A now vacuum-sealed Jokic is one of the best playmaking big men that the NBA has seen in a long time. Murray can fill it up from anywhere on the court and has become more disciplined (in his play) every season since he’s been in the league.

 

When you have a team like Denver, which is young and inexperienced, it is easy to point out its flaws, and the Nuggets have been dealing with this issue for several seasons now. Are these two ever going to be enough?

Jokic is clearly the star of this team and the organization is being built around his talents. Regardless, we have seen that the NBA is straying away from big-man-oriented teams. The Golden State Warriors proved that guards and shooting can win championships. That is where Murray needs to step up.

We will get to the Nuggets’ other pieces later because Murray is a catalyst for the direction of the franchise. His performance, in a sense, dictates how far Denver goes in the playoffs this year.

Murray proved he was a capable playoff performer last year against San Antonio and Portland. He also showed inconsistencies in his efficiency while providing lackluster defense, however. Murray seemed to stagnant this season, not improving statistically from his impressive 2018-19 campaign.

This postseason will be crucial for Murray, and hopefully he can prove that he can hold his own on both ends of the floor, not just on offense. Many fans might be skeptical of the five-year, $170 million extension the University of Kentucky product received, but Murray should be poised to prove that he is worth every penny.

Rotation

The NBA playoffs are an entirely different animal than the regular season. The regular season allows for more opportunities to be creative and flexible with lineups and positional tinkering. The Nuggets are a very deep team, as they had nine players average at least 17 minutes a game this season. That is excluding Michael Porter Jr., Bol Bol and newly-signed scorcher Troy Daniels.

The starting five is all but solidified with Jerami Grant as their key bench piece. Teams tend to limit their rotations when the playoffs come, settling for a 7-8 man rotation rather than a 9-10 man one. Mike Malone is a fantastic coach, but he needs to play chess here, not checkers. Easier said than done, I know, especially when you consider the current roster.

Will Barton put together a solid season, but you have to keep in mind that he disappeared in last years playoffs, shooting a forgettable 35 percent from the field and 27 percent from three. Where Barton thrives on offense, Gary Harris does his work on defense. Harris is a reliable defensive player who helps make up for Murray’s porous defense.

Yet Harris’ offensive production was almost nonexistent this season, and that’s the problem. The Nuggets have guys that can do a great job in their roles, but they don’t have enough consistent fire power aside from Jokic.

Can Paul Millsap transform into his old Hawks-self in this awkward bubble? Who is going to score when Jokic or Murray are out of the game? Are they going to stick with Torrey Craig as a wing defender, or will Malone give Michael Porter Jr. those minutes? Can you rely on Troy Daniels to come in and make shots?

Those questions will be answered as Malone figures out whom he can trust. But there are just too many questions that make me hesitate to put my own trust in the Nuggets to take the next step, at least for this season.

Offseason Implications

Will I be disappointed if the Nuggets do not make it to at least the second round? Yes, but also no. It is endearing in a way, and you have to respect the Nuggets organization for not making any rash moves this season– for having trust in their guys to be better than last year.

This restart may have substantial implications for how this team is built next season. In other words, the honeymoon might be over with some of these guys they momentarily fell in love with.

Of course I am talking about Harris and Barton. Even Bol Bol could be someone who gets moved as collateral. For weeks, it seemed like a trade centered around Harris for Jrue Holiday was all but delivered. Jrue is essentially Harris with more versatility, consistency on offense and better defense.

Frankly, it is not a secret that Denver should and will be looking to lock down a third guy to run alongside The Blue Arrow and The Joker. Whether or not they get a third star like a Holiday, CJ McCollum or even a Bradley Beal could depend on if they choose to throw in MPJ.

This could be too much of an ask for the Nuggets. They could very well just hand him the reigns at power forward when Millsap leaves.

Perhaps Malone finds himself on the hot seat depending on the teams success. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they have got it figured out and they will shock the world and win it all. Still, they do not match up well against either of the Los Angeles juggernauts, the Bucks, Raptors and even the Houston Rockets. The Nuggets have a bright future ahead of them, but I suspect they will make a move sooner, rather than later.

The middle school dance is almost over, and they have already played “Rocketeer” by Far East Movement. Denver has high hopes and it should strive to contend, but there could be some turbulence in the Mile High city this offseason if the bubble pops too soon in Orlando.

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About Jack Minello

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