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The case for Denver Nuggets skepticism

Caedmon

Sept. 17, 2019

The Denver Nuggets broke out last season as a lovable collection of complementary misfits. On their way to the second-most wins in franchise history, the Nuggets dazzled with unpredictable, synchronized ball and player movement that made it seem like no group enjoyed each other’s help more than they did.
Denver made a massive leap on defense, handled lengthy injuries to Will Barton , Gary Harris , and Michael Porter Jr. with poise, and watched their franchise player go from cult hero to household name. And yet, I never believed they were anything more than a karaoke contender. After a summer in which they doubled down on the roster that got them there (a sensical trade for Jerami Grant notwithstanding), maxed out Jamal Murray before they had to/should have, and watched the rest of the league sharpen its teeth into a row of steak knives, I remain dubious.
As we approach a season that will either solidify or damage Denver’s status, most Las Vegas sportsbooks have set their win total between 50 and 53 . ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus projections believe they’ll finish second in the Western Conference , behind the Houston Rockets . I’m skeptical. Months removed from their first playoff appearance in six years, Denver’s season holds the texture of a rorschach test. Was it a step forward, a squandered opportunity, or even a complete aberration—the feel-good story that came together too fast? This year, the Nuggets will either build on their growth or slink back towards mediocrity.
The former’s case isn’t hard to make. There is something to be said about the importance of continuity, and no team is more invested in sustaining it than Denver . All ten of their minutes leaders from 2018-19 are back. Nikola Jokic is 24 years old. Murray is 22 years old. Harris turned 25 last weekend.
But there are several reasons to think the Nuggets are due for the type of lapse that tends to bite up-and-coming teams in the backside right when they think they’ve turned a corner. Before diving into the specific issues that may keep this team farther from a title than last year’s showing might suggest — including Jokic ’s defense, Murray’s volatility, and Paul Millsap ’s age — let’s first look at a few statistical regressions they’re about to confront.
The Nuggets had more clutch wins than any other team last season. They came out on top in a league-high 67.4 percent of all games that entered the final five minutes with a scoring margin of five points or fewer. This isn’t a reliable recipe from year to year, and, surprisingly, Denver’s success was bound by an NBA-best 95.5 defensive rating — the same side of the floor where most of my own doubt lingers. Sustaining that edge-of-your-seat success in 2020 won’t be easy, and it’s only reasonable to believe a few more of those close games will end in disappointment.
The Nuggets also had some luck in one area that has traditionally been their Achilles’ heel. Last season their opponents shot a league-low 34.4 percent from three. In the previous three seasons they were lit up, finishing 29th, 27th, and 28th in opposing three-point percentage. (Only the Boston Celtics allowed a lower percentage on “open” attempts in 2018-19.) From there, it’s no surprise to see that Denver’s opponents shot a league-low 20.2 percent from deep in the clutch, too. In other words, the Nuggets finished third in win differential for reasons that don’t signal a long, smooth ascent. None of these numbers are indicative of infrastructural problems, but the margins out West are paper thin. If they dip as teams like the Clippers , Lakers , Rockets, Jazz, Spurs, Pelicans, etc. rise, it could be a problem.
But more important big-picture dilemmas exist, the most notable being Jokic’s defense. In his first playoffs, Jokic’s offense was almost identical to his regular season: he was exceptional. But reasons for worry poked their head up on the other end. Jokic isn’t a hopeless defender — think of his struggle as more of a glass ceiling than impenetrable force field — but right now his physical limitations prevent Denver from adapting on the fly how most champions can. The Nuggets had the postseason’s third-worst defense, and in the regular season it crumpled whenever Jokic was on the floor without Millsap . To be fair, Denver’s defense also struggled when Millsap played without Jokic; Grant ’s presence beside each one while the other is resting may be the solution. But regardless of who else is on the floor, the best offenses will hunt Jokic in myriad ways throughout the fourth quarters that really matter.
In the second round, Portland did a great job using Jokic’s man to set off-ball screens, involving him in less predictable ways that attacked his mind as much as his pudgy frame. His head was on a constant swivel, and in their biggest possession of the season — down one with 20 seconds left in a do-or-die Game 7 — the Nuggets took the floor with Jokic on the bench. (He fouled out of Games 5 and 6, too.)
The Spurs were more concentrated in their gameplan, running simple high pick-and-rolls with DeMar DeRozan and Jokic’s man during important stretches of their first-round series. Jokic struggles here, but not devastatingly so. He knows how to take up space, gamble with cause, and can even slide his feet with enough retractable speed to smother guards at the rim. Now he needs to prove he can do it on a consistent basis against the best players in the league, over and over again.
Criticism of Jokic is fair. He’s not perfect. But without him this organization wouldn’t be worth the time it takes to research and write a column about whether they deserve to be viewed as a contender. His progress will dictate Denver’s future. To an almost equal degree, the same can be said about Murray. His future is blinding, but whenever I watch Murray play I see a teenager trying to handle a zippy Lamborghini Countach on his way home from a road test that he barely passed. Shepherding a team this talented through four playoff rounds takes a level of stoicism and sophistication Murray doesn’t have. That’s not his fault, of course. He’s young, and Denver’s offense was lush with him as an active participant last season.
But if winning it all is the goal in 2020, Murray is not ready for the vital role they need him to fill. Maybe that changes in 2021 or 2022. His steep learning curve suggests it may. But the league-wide window to win it all is now . Who knows what the NBA’s hierarchy will look like in two years?
While Murray creeps towards what he’ll eventually be, the Nuggets are built to feed off someone who’s already there. To have him be the second offensive option is too much of a wild card. (This take might be too hot for public consumption but I don’t think Jamal Murray is even the NBA’s best young guard named Murray .)
It’s fine to debate the topic but to me Murray is more of an asset than the indispensable building block Denver evidently sees, and I wonder how far they would’ve gone last year with a steadier hand. Murray’s game has a higher ceiling than Mike Conley ’s ever did, but it’s fun to think about Conley sliding in beside Jokic as Denver’s primary caretaker. Going forward, if the Boston Celtics and Nuggets both struggle to reach their own expectations before the trade deadline, a Kemba Walker for Murray swap makes some sense for both sides, too. More realistically, I wouldn’t hesitate to include Murray in a Godfather offer for Bradley Beal. Do that and Denver is feared instead of captivating — 10 percent less jittery.
Again, I realize how harsh all this sounds. At 21, Murray averaged 18 points, five assists, and four rebounds on a team that won one more game than Damian Lillard ’s Blazers and James Harden ’s Rockets. But sometimes it’s unclear why we feel the way we do about certain players; my hesitation to buy in might simply boil down to the fact that in three NBA seasons Murray’s three-point percentage is 36.2. On par, that’s not bad, but for someone who doesn’t get to the line, takes more long twos than he should, and made over 40 percent of his threes in college, it’s not great.
Murray wasn’t my cup of tea before the Nuggets offered him a maximum contract extension, and if Denver’s bet on what he can be doesn’t pan out like they anticipate it will, pivoting won’t be easy. This team is getting expensive while bleeding trade assets. They owe a top-10 protected 2020 first-round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder and Porter Jr. is a total unknown. Millsap turns 35 in February and replacing him (or keeping him) won’t be cheap.
At this point, their path to max cap room doesn’t really exist until the final year of Jokic’s contract, when replenishing around him and Murray after Harris hits free agency may be a possibility. But that much patience can leave them susceptible to Jokic’s departure. Tomorrow is promised to no team, and unless Tim Connelly spurned his hometown Washington Wizards to play wait-and-see, serious moves may be necessary.
The Nuggets aren’t dumb, though, as is evident by the path they took to get where they are. Before the 2014-15 season I wrote a piece about Denver’s incoherent path back to relevance. The Nuggets had just missed the playoffs for the first time in ten years, Kenneth Faried and Ty Lawson were their two best players, and Brian Shaw was about to explore a rap career. Despite drafting Jokic in June, the organization was blind. A few years later they might be more watchable than anybody else. They’ve won with flair, youth, and unique talent, sure, but of even more importance: Denver has slowed down over the last few years, ambling into a style of play that’s less gimmicky and more a reflection of what must be done if truly serious about a lengthy playoff run. There’s confidence in that stylistic adjustment. The Nuggets are no longer dependent on the Mile High air’s energy-sapping power. They want every arena to feel like home.
Long-term plans have become a fool’s errand, but if Denver’s is to preserve what it currently is for as long as it possibly can, to believe this core can mimic the same home-grown charm that popped up in the Bay Area half a decade ago, nobody will oppose. There’s nothing wrong with winning 50 games every year and then crossing your fingers when the weather turns warm.
But in NBA lingo, for those who want to win the whole thing, internal improvement is increasingly synonymous with stagnation . Risk is a means for survival as much as growth. Murray isn’t Steph Curry, Harris isn’t Klay Thompson , and Millsap isn’t as young or as cheap as Andre Iguodala was when he first decided to climb aboard something special. In the immediate future, they must learn to live with Jokic’s defensive shortcomings — blemishes that will never eclipse all the mind-numbing positives he brings to the table — hope Murray’s fourth season yields an All-Star appearance and that Millsap stays healthy.
Murray’s max extension limits their flexibility, both on the trade market and in free agency next summer, when Millsap’s contract expires and Malik Beasley (who is good!) needs a second contract. In the meantime, questions abound for a team that enters 2020 having to prove itself in a way other playoff locks do not. Maybe they explode and make everything I just wrote look foolish, but waiting a whole year to find out could be more costly than it currently seems. The journey from good to great is so difficult, especially when more can go wrong than go right.
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