Denver Nuggets: How Far Can They Climb in the Western Conference?

The Denver Nuggets season came down to one game last season. It was the season finale at division rival Minnesota Timberwolves. The winner makes the playoffs, and the loser goes home. Denver lost in overtime, heartbreakingly.

They were 46-36 and missed the playoffs, illustrating how brutal the west is. Denver was three games away from the three seed. Still, close doesn’t cut it, and it was another year Denver was left out of the playoffs, their fifth year in the row missing the postseason.

Denver was talented, but a few things kept them from the postseason. One was injuries. Their star free agent signing Paul Millsap missed 44 games and struggled to click with Nikola Jokic early. Gary Harris in the middle of a career year got hurt just as Denver was finding their stride.

As usual Denver’s offense was elite finishing sixth in the league, it was their defense that was their downfall finishing 26th in the league. Now, they are facing a massive season in Denver, and the West is as brutal as ever.

So, how far can Denver climb?

What The Nuggets Did in the Offseason

Denver was busy this offseason. First, they extended swingman Will Barton. Barton is coming off a career year, and Denver rewards him with a four year $53 million deal. It a bit much for some, but Barton is good, and Denver couldn’t afford to lose him. Then in the draft, the Nuggets swang for the fence and drafted Michael Porter Jr.

Porter carries risk with severe back injuries, which is why he fell to 14th, but the talent is there. If he hits, Denver’s ceiling goes up exponentially for the next few seasons. If he can contribute anything this year, Denver’s already explosive offense got deadlier. He’s worth the risk for Denver. In the second round, Denver drafted Thomas Welsh a center from UCLA.

Denver also made a couple of shrewd trades to shed salary. First, they sent Wilson Chandler and a 2021 second round pick to the Philadelphia 76ers for cash considerations.

Then to avoid the luxury tax and give themselves more financial flexibility they traded Kenneth Faried, Darell Arthur, a protected first round pick and a 2020 second round pick to the Brooklyn Nets for Isaiah Whitehead. It was a salary dump, and it hurt to give up a first-round pick, but its protected, and Denver is trying to win now and to shed bad salary was worth it.

The key to the offseason though was signing star center Nikola Jokic to a five year $147 million deal. Jokic is a star and an elite center; he is worth the money. Finally, Denver was unable to retain back up point guard Devin Harris but replaced him with Isaiah Thomas.

They signed Thomas to the minimum in a brilliant low-risk high reward move. Thomas doesn’t help Denver’s defense, but if he is healthy Denver’s offense is going to be insanely explosive. It was a busy and a successful offseason for Denver, so what does it add it up to for the Nuggets?

Jokic & Millsap Can Build Chemistry Together

Last year Millsap was Denver’s star free agent signing, but he struggled early playing with Jokic, then got hurt, but when he came back, he and Jokic clicked. It wasn’t like they were awful in the first month of the season, there was just an adjustment period. In the stretch run, it was clear Millsap was more comfortable and healthier.

Both are skilled bigs who can shoot, pass, and post, have good midrange games, but they like to do the same things. Millsap is at his best in the post and running the floor in transition. Jokic is also at his best in the post, but he is a better shooter and therefore a more dangerous spot-up threat.

People are underrating how much another year of experience will help these two. Jokic will be better, Millsap may be a little past his prime, but he is still an outstanding player. If Millsap can stay healthy, this has a chance to be one of the best and versatile frontcourts in the league.

Their Offensive Pieces Are Scary

How about the rest of the squad, what made Denver so good on offense? It does all start with Jokic. He is the best passing big man in the game and makes Denver’s offense unique to guard. He makes players around him better, heck he even made it work with Mason Plumlee for a while in the twin towers lineup.

Jokic led all centers in RPM, he leads the team in net rating, assist percentage, rebound percentage, true shooting percentage, and player impact estimate. He is insanely good; he should finally make an all-star team this year and an All-NBA team. There aren’t many weaknesses in his offensive game. He is not the best athlete so he can struggle to finish around the rim and he turns the ball over a little too much, but that’s about it. By the way, expect him to be in the best shape of his life this season.

Jokic is an elite midrange shooter, a terrific three-point shooter, an excellent foul shooter, a monster in the post and a great offensive rebounder. What separates him is his passing. His 28.6 assist percentage ranks in the 98th percentile according to cleaningtheglass. He makes passes few others can see or have the courage to attempt.

Jokic and Millsap show their chemistry here. Jokic starts on the top right of the key, pump fakes to get by Steve Adams, takes two dribbles with his left to get Carmelo to commit. Once he does, he puts the ball back in his right only to last second go back to his left to fool Melo and drop off a bounce pass to Millsap for the dunk. Not great defense, but it shows the trickster Jokic can be.

Denver’s supporting cast has learned to play with him, as Jokic has learned how to fit with all of them. However, the other guys are no slouches. Let’s start with Gary Harris a solid scorer from everywhere on the floor, a good passer, a steals master and Denver’s best perimeter defender. Harris was third in defensive rating last year for the Nuggets, and the Nuggets missed him when he was hurt. A smart player who is still getting better and one of the most underrated players in the league.

Then there is Jamal Murray, and holy hell did he take a big jump last year. Murray has become explosive, an excellent ballhandler who can get scorching hot from deep. He is not the best playmaker, but that’s okay with Jokic running the offense. Murray is a scorer, who can get his shot when the play breaks down.

Murray and Jokic are a perfect fit posting a 114 offensive rating together last season. That is the best part about Murray’s game he can be useful with or without the ball. He is such a good shooter that he ranked in the 88th percentile on spot ups, due to his excellent three-point shooting and ability to put it on the floor. Watch this play.

Murray is excellent at moving without the ball and lethal on a broken play. Barton drives and misses the layup, and Plumlee gets the offensive rebound. Murray stays ready, and sure enough, Plumlee kicks it out to him. Murray gets the closing out to defender to bite, takes a dribble to his right and nails a deep three. He had 38 points in his game, and when he gets hot, he can put on a show.

At the three spot, Will Barton will likely get the call, and he is ready as he started 40 games last season. Some say he is better off the bench as a sixth man, but I think he can handle a starting role. He is a little undersized for the three, but Barton competes and is about an average defender. Barton struggles in pick and roll defense, but he has his strengths. He is a good shot blocker and rebounder for his position, plus doesn’t foul a lot.

On offense, he has become extremely valuable for the Nuggets. A great slasher who can get to the rim, a good three-point shooter so he can play off the ball, a low turnover player, and an above average passer. He is efficient, but my favorite part about Barton is his confidence. Barton is not scared of the moment and has what it takes to make big shots. Teams need players who aren’t their starts to have this kind of confidence sometimes. Watch this play!

Down two at OKC taking the ball out of bounds, the Nuggets go to Barton. Jokic goes to screen for Barton, which gets Adams, switched onto Barton. Barton then takes three hard dribbles to his right, goes behind the back and then spins so he can kiss it off the glass while Adams is contesting. This is a big-time move; Barton can flat out get buckets.

Barton, Harris, Murray, Millsap, and Jokic are one of the best offensive starting lineups in the league. Unfortunately, due to injuries, they got only 65 minutes together last year, but when they were on the floor together, they BLASTED people with a +32.7 net rating.

Off the bench, they will have two more potential shot creators in Michael Porter Jr and Isaiah Thomas. A reliable backup big in Mason Plumlee, plus two wing defenders who should be better in Malik Beasley and Torrey Craig and a bouncy stretch four who showed a lot of promise in Trey Lyles. There is no question Denver will be elite again offense; the question is can their defense improve enough?

Can Their Poor Defense Improve?

A lot went into Denver ranking 26th on defense last season. Their biggest problem was defending the three-point line, Denver ranked 28th in three-point defense last season. They weren’t much better at protecting the rim, ranking 21st. Combine that with the 21st ranked transition defense, and you have some serious problems. Denver did have some strengths, they are a solid rebounding team, and they don’t foul a lot, but their weaknesses are glaring.

A couple of things should help Denver’s defense this season. One a full season of Millsap. He is by far their best defender. A versatile defender, who can rack up steals, blocks and guard multiple positions. Denver gave up 108.5 points per game last season when Millsap played they only gave up 106.2. Not an enormous difference, but still noticeable.

Another year of experience for Murray and Barton should help as well. It was both the first season for them as full-time starters. Young players struggle on defense. I don’t think either will become elite or good defenders, but both can be solid with another year of experience.

Then there is Jokic. A better defender than given credit for. He had a 1.95 defensive RPM, was fourth on the team in defensive rating, and is a good defensive rebounder, a low foul player, and a sneaky steal artist. There are tools to work with. This year he should also be in the best shape of his life, which will help immensely. He will never be an elite rim protector or be able to switch out onto point guards, but he can be an above average and an anchor for a defense.

Denver doesn’t need to be a top five or even a top ten defense anyway; they can’t be a trainwreck. If they get into the 15 range on defense that should be fine paired with their elite offense. Improvement from within and a full season of Millsap should get them there.

*Isaiah Thomas does provide some hesitation, but he will be in a bench role and play fewer minutes. Still, Mike Malone needs to be careful on who he plays him with and general offense/defense balance.

Where Do They Rank in the West?

By my count, there are nine excellent teams in the West: Golden State, Houston, Utah, OKC, New Orleans, Denver, Minnesota, L.A Lakers and San Antonio. Plus a couple of frisky teams in Portland, L.A Clippers, and Memphis. One very good team at around 46 wins will miss the dance like Denver did last year. Denver should make it this year barring health. This is a legitimate 50 win team. I would say Golden State and Houston are clearly better and Utah and OKC are likely better due to superior defense.

It wouldn’t blow my mind if Denver ended up the three seed, but they are likely in the five through eight range. I think they are better than the Spurs and the Lakers even with LeBron. It is super close with Minnesota and New Orleans, but I will give the Nuggets the edge over the Wolves due to locker room issues, lack of shooting and depth.

The Pelicans have the best player in Anthony Davis, but I think the Nuggets are deeper and more explosive. Denver is a contender and a five seed in the west is doable. People are sleeping on the Nuggets right now, but they have several players hitting their prime and it all starts with Jokic whom I think is in for a special season. Regardless, of where they end up you’re going to watch these guys, they are 1st in my league pass power rankings!

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