May 28, 2018, 1:45 pm
The Nuggets entered the season with just as many questions as optimism. Could a run-and-gun team with a nearly league-worst defense make a splash in the crowded Western Conference playoff race? How far would the offseason acquisition of Paul Millsap go towards addressing said defensive issues? What happens when a doughy European big man becomes the face of an NBA franchise? Despite all those questions and more, many pegged the team to make serious noise this season and take a big step forward with its young core and new veteran All-Star leadership. The Nuggets ultimately failed to live up to expectations, but showed continued signs of promise and progression in a season of consistent turbulence. Hoop-Ball’s Post-Mortem series looks at all of the high’s and low’s this past season in the Mile High City.
The offseason leading into the 2017 season was one of the more active in recent memory for the Nuggets. They re-signed Mason Plumlee (3 yr/$41M) and Gary Harris (4 yr/$74M), traded down in the draft and acquired Trey Lyles and Tyler Lydon, parted ways with Danilo Gallinari, and brought on All-Star talent in Paul Millsap (3 yr/$91.5M).
Optimism was high following the 2016-2017 season where Nikola Jokic emerged as the budding building block of the franchise, Gary Harris and Jamal Murray showed promise to develop into a formidable backcourt duo and the team boasted an elite offensive attack. Despite some lingering questions about the team’s subpar defense, with Millsap now in the picture the stars finally appeared to be aligning for the team to make a leap forward back into playoff contention after missing the postseason for four consecutive seasons.
Despite the high expectations, the newly bolstered roster failed to gain much momentum early on as the Nuggets dropped three of their first four contests on the season. The slow start didn’t last long however, as the team went on to win eight of their next 12 outings. It wasn’t perfect; Nikola Jokic appeared passive and uninvolved at times; the defense – while improved – was still an issue; and the second unit struggled, but at least the product on the court resulted in wins.
Things were looking up in Nuggets country, and then everything changed in an instant as Paul Millsap tore a ligament in his left wrist, sidelining him for a significant portion of the season. Millsap’s defensive presence became apparent in his absence as the team’s defensive rating jumped from 105.2 to 107.4 in the first month following his injury. While neither of those defensive ratings suggest that the team entirely addressed its issues on the defensive side of the floor, they were at least both an improvement from the Nuggets’ nearly league-worst 110.5 rating in 2016.
Without Millsap, the Nuggets essentially course corrected back to the “Jokic-ball” gun-slinging play style as the team’s offensive rating jumped from a mediocre 103.8 to 107.9 following the month after Millsap’s injury. While fun to watch, the Nuggets’ deficiencies were still in plain sight as the team progressed at a two steps forward, one step back pace. Even after Millsap returned in February, the team never appeared to be firing on all cylinders.
Despite the bumps in the road, the Nuggets still managed to consistently stay above the .500 mark and keep their name in the mix in the crowded Western Conference playoff picture until a string of losses to the Rockets, Clippers, Mavericks and Lakers all but trounced any hopes of a postseason appearance. That is, until the team then went on a six game winning run leading up to the regular season winner-take-all finale against the Timberwolves. Ultimately, the overtime matchup against the Wolves proved too much for the Nuggets as they spent a fifth consecutive season outside of the playoffs.
This season marked head coach Michael Malone’s third year with the team. Despite the steady improvement in the team’s record under his watch, Malone’s consistently inconsistent rotations and general player utilization were a frequent subject of criticism. Throughout the season, the general narrative in the Nuggets’ media orbit was that Malone was coaching for his job, and anything short of a playoff berth would spell the end of his tenure in Denver.
It is hard to say whether Malone’s job was ever truly in danger this season, but the team’s stellar late-season run and (almost) magical playoff comeback seemingly gave the front office enough confidence in Malone to confirm that he will returning as the Nuggets’ head coach in the 2018 season.
It is worth remembering that Malone was initially brought on in large part to bolster the Nuggets’ laughably poor defense. Three years later, the metrics indicate that the team has shown little-to-no improvement on the defensive side of the ball. In that regard the tenure of Michael Malone has to be regarded as a failure; however, it is hard to argue that Malone was given the unenviable task of fitting a square peg in a round hole defensively given the roster that the front office assembled.
Maybe all of this talk about defense is wasted breath. Nikola Jokic is one of the most uniquely talented big men to play in the NBA, and when the game plan works to accentuate his skill set, more often than not the Nuggets seem to win games. Maybe it is not built for playoff success, but that is a problem Malone must deal with only if the Jokic-led Nuggets are able to make it there in the first place.
ADP: 13/11 (ESPN/Yahoo) | Total Value: 9/9 (8/9-cat) | Per-Game Value: 11/13 (8/9-cat) | Games Played: 75
2017-18 averages: 75 G | 73 GS | 32.5 MP | 18.5PTS | 1.5 3PM | 10.7 REB | 6.1 AST | 1.2 STL | 0.8 BLK | 2.8 TOV | .500 FG% | .850 FT% |
Coming off a breakout 2016-2017 campaign, expectations were high for Jokic this season. He was now solidly entrenched as the go-to playmaker and seemed poised to build on his role of maestro for the Nuggets’ high-octane offensive attack. Jokic largely delivered on those expectations, but not without a few bumps in the road as the team struggled at times to integrate newly signed All-Star forward Paul Millsap into the offensive flow.
Early in the season, Jokic seemed disengaged and overly passive at times on offense, deferring to Millsap on many occasions. However, that “second-fiddle” mentality was far from consistent – demonstrated best by an early season scoring line of zero points on 0-of-3 shooting in 31 minutes followed by a 29-point performance on 14 shots the next evening.
Over the first 16 games of the season (before Paul Millsap went down with a wrist injury), Jokic posted a relatively modest usage rate of 21.7 percent – good for third-highest on the team behind Jamal Murray (24.2) and Paul Millsap (23.9). Over Millsap’s 44 game absence, Jokic’s usage rate jumped up to a team best 24.9 percent. In the 22 games following Millsap’s return, Jokic maintained a team high 24.5 percent usage rate, while Millsap posted a 20.5 percent usage rate.
Usage is far from a perfect stat when looking to translate minutes on the floor to fantasy production. This is especially true for a player like Jokic whose value comes largely from highly efficient shooting and bevy of counting stats outside points. However, it does demonstrate that the Nuggets struggled early on to integrate Millsap into the offensive scheme designed to leverage Jokic’s unique talents.
Despite some of the early struggles, look no further than the final two months of the season as cause for optimism for Jokic’s fantasy outlook. Even with Millsap back in the rotation, Jokic managed to post top-5 fantasy value in that stretch as the Nuggets narrowly missed the playoffs following a win streak that was not quite enough. The chemistry and offensive flow should only improve next season, making yet another top-10 finish likely for the Joker.
ADP: 97/89 (ESPN/Yahoo) | Total Value: 44/39 (8/9-cat) | Per-Game Value: 39/34 (8/9-cat) | Games Played: 67
2017-18 averages: 67 G | 65 GS | 34.4 MP | 17.5 PTS | 2.3 3PM | 2.6 REB | 2.9 AST | 1.8 STL | 0.2 BLK | 1.8 TOV | .485 FG% | .827 FT% |
We were all over Gary Harris prior to the season, so hopefully Hoop-Ball faithful got their fair share of the Gare-Bear on draft day because he absolutely crushed his ADP on the way to a top-40 finish. The good news first – Harris improved statistical production in nearly every category this season (efficiency took a slight dip on more shots from deep) and took yet another leap forward following what was already a breakout 2016-2017 campaign. He is undoubtedly locked in as a key asset moving forward for the Nuggets, and nothing about his statistical production this year really stands out as an outlier as long as the minutes are there.
Now on to the bad news – this marks the second year in a row that Harris has missed at least 15 games with injury. While he was healthier overall this season than in 2016, an 11 game absence down the fantasy playoff stretch (knee) may have left owners with a poor taste. While two seasons may not be quite enough evidence to deem him injury prone at this point, but it seems to be one of the only things that could stop Harris from enjoying another season as an early-to-mid round fantasy asset.
ADP: 36/41 (ESPN/Yahoo) | Total Value: 226/226 (8/9-cat) | Per-Game Value: 71/80 (8/9-cat) | Games Played: 38
2017-18 averages: 38 G | 37 GS | 30.1 MP | 14.6 PTS | 1.0 3PM | 6.4 REB | 2.7 AST | 1.0 STL | 1.2 BLK | 1.9 TOV | .463 FG% | .696 FT% |
The offseason acquisition of Paul Millsap was celebrated as one of the highest profile free agent signings in the Nuggets’ history as a mid-market team in NBA flyover country. It seemed like a perfect fit. Millsap (who grew up in Denver) was going to go a long way in filling the Nuggets’ gaping holes on defense and bring a playoff-tested veteran presence to a young locker room seemingly on the cusp of greatness, but often lacking discipline and consistency. As history has shown, even the best laid plans often go awry, and Millsap’s season with Nuggets is no exception.
When healthy, it was a rocky season for Millsap at best, but it is hard to say how much of that can be attributed to growing pains integrating with a new team and lingering issues with his wrist in the month of action following his return. Millsap’s fantasy projections for next season remain a bit of an unknown for those reasons, but he certainly has a lot of room to turn in a better performance than this season on both a total and per game basis. The days of Millsap as an early-round asset may have passed, but if he slips to the mid-to-late rounds in fantasy drafts, it may be worth the gamble given his historic upside.
ADP: 110/121 (ESPN/Yahoo) | Total Value: 37/38 (8/9-cat) | Per-Game Value: 58/58 (8/9-cat) | Games Played: 81
2017-18 averages: 81 G | 80 GS | 30.1 MP | 16.7 PTS | 2.0 3PM | 3.7 REB | 3.4 AST | 1.0 STL | 0.3 BLK | 2.1 TOV | .451 FG% | .905 FT% |
Murray was one of the most hyped-up “sleeper picks” around fantasy draft season. The early returns from Murray were rough as he struggled to find any consistency shooting the ball and developments as a facilitator and defender were slow to come. However, steady improvement from the second-year guard ultimately rewarded those who took the mid-to-late round plunge as he finished the season just outside of the top-50 on an expanded stat set.
As long as the Nuggets utilize Nikola Jokic as the primary gatekeeper of the offensive attack, Murray will never likely be a contender to average big assist numbers. He can certainly improve on the 3.4 assists per game he averaged this season, but if owners are expecting Murray to develop the stat set of a high assist point guard anytime soon they may be disappointed. However, with continued improvement on the defensive end and even marginal gains in efficiency from the floor Murray should have no problem turning in a top-75 campaign next season with the potential for a top-50 finish.
ADP: 123/132 (ESPN/Yahoo) | Total Value: 34/33 (8/9-cat) | Per-Game Value: 53/52 (8/9-cat) | Games Played: 81
2017-18 averages: 81 G | 40 GS | 33.1 MP | 15.7 PTS | 1.9 3PM | 5.0 REB | 4.1 AST | 1.0 STL | 0.6 BLK | 1.8 TOV | .452 FG% | .805 FT% |
You would be hard pressed to find a more polarizing player amongst Nuggets fans this year than Will Barton. Despite enjoying the best season of his career statistically, Barton’s sometimes ball-stopping playstyle and late-game heroics often earned him the scorn of fans accustomed to the pass-heavy, free flowing “Jokic-ball” offense. While there may be some valid reasons for frustration – when it is bad for Barton, it is visibly very bad – the numbers indicate that the fan angst directed at him may have been misplaced at times.
Barton posted career-high numbers nearly across the board, which isn’t necessarily surprising given vastly expanded playing time this season compared to his career spent as a reserve player. However, he also enjoyed the most efficient year form the field in his career despite a career-high 5.2 attempts beyond the arc per game. Advanced metrics are equally kind to Barton. He posted a career high 2.0 VORP (-2.0 is a hypothetical “average” player), 16.2 Player Efficiency Rating (15 is league average) 1.0 Box score plus/minus (third best on the team), 6.2 win-shares (second best on the team behind Jokic’s 10.7) and a career high 18.5 assist percentage. All of that came as Barton held only the seventh-highest usage rating on the team behind Emmanuel Mudiay (pre-trade), Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Paul Millsap, Trey Lyles and Gary Harris – not exactly the picture of a ball hog.
Narrative and advanced metrics aside, Barton had a tremendous year as a fantasy asset. Increased playing time and gains in efficiency saw him jump from a fringe top-100 player into a solidified mid-round option. Nothing about his production this year is eminently unrepeatable next season as long as the minutes are there. However, Barton’s status as an unrestricted free agent leaves considerable question marks around his fantasy potential for next season. With a long-term deal for Jokic the undoubted priority for the Nuggets this offseason, the team may be hard pressed to find the money to keep Barton as he enters free agency. Until we see where Barton lands following free agency it is hard to peg his potential for next season, but he remains a likely top-100 player next season until further notice, though expectations of another top-50 year may be overly optimistic.
ADP: 85/114 (ESPN/Yahoo) | Total Value: 143/134 (8/9-cat) | Per-Game Value: 167/156 (8/9-cat) | Games Played: 74
2017-18 averages: 74 G | 71 GS | 31.6 MP | 10.0 PTS | 1.2 3PM | 5.4 REB | 2.2 AST | 0.6 STL | 0.5 BLK | 1.2 TOV | .445 FG% | .772 FT% |
Chandler failed to meet expectations this year following two consecutive seasons as a top-100 player. He frequently appeared timid and out of step on offense, as evidenced by his career-low 14.3 usage rate. His shooting efficiency remained on par with his career average, his rebound, assist and steal rate stayed relatively flat as well, he just simply didn’t look to shoot the ball at only 8.5 attempts from the field per game and 1.5 attempts at the line. Chandler has a $12.8 million player option for the 2018 season, so it seems likely that he will suit up again for the Nuggets next season barring a trade. If that is the case expect another season likely spent outside of the top-100 with a healthy Paul Millsap and an offensive attack increasingly led by Jokic, Murray and Harris.
ADP: NA/NA (ESPN/Yahoo) | Total Value: 175/162 (8/9-cat) | Per-Game Value: 205/182 (8/9-cat) | Games Played: 73
2017-18 averages: 73 G | 2 GS | 19.0 MP | 9.9 PTS | 1.1 3PM | 4.7 REB | 1.2 AST | 0.4 STL | 0.5 BLK | 0.8 TOV | .491 FG% | .706 FT% |
Trey Lyles was acquired in the now infamous draft day trade that essentially netted the Nuggets Tyler Lydon and Trey Lyles in exchange for Donovan Mitchell. Hindsight being what it is, it is hard not to view Lyles as a disappointing return in exchange for the potential Rookie of the Year, but there was a lot to like this season from the third-year forward. An early-season injury to Paul Millsap opened up considerable opportunity for Lyles to see more run, and he did not fail to seize the opportunity. In Millsap’s 44 game absence, Lyles was a top-100 player, scoring 13 points per game on 50 percent shooting with 1.6 triples, 6.0 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.6 steals and 0.5 blocks in 25 minutes per game. The high-efficiency shooting from Lyles was the biggest surprise given the volume of shots he takes from deep and his poor shooting while in Utah.
His utility as a top-100 player abruptly ended when Millsap returned to action, which gives us an indication of his fantasy prospects next season with a healthy Nuggets squad. The story for Lyles is the same as most other reserve big men for the Nuggets. Until they manage to clear out the logjam, there simply won’t be enough minutes available for fantasy relevance outside of deep leagues and streaming situations.
ADP: 112/136 (ESPN/Yahoo) | Total Value: 186/194 (8/9-cat) | Per-Game Value: 227/245 (8/9-cat) | Games Played: 74
2017-18 averages: 74 G | 26 GS | 19.5 MP | 7.1 PTS | 0.0 3PM | 5.4 REB | 1.9 AST | 0.7 STL | 1.1 BLK | 1.4 TOV | .601 FG% | .458 FT% |
In his first full season with the Nuggets, Plumlee was a valuable defensive anchor down low, albeit in a highly limited role. With the offseason acquisition of Paul Millsap it was fairly easy to see the writing on the wall for the end of Plumlee as a top-150 fantasy asset, but things were worse from a fantasy perspective than even some of the more dire preseason predictions for him. For the first time since his rookie season with the Nets, Plumlee did not play more than 20 minutes per game. That meant that despite gains in efficiency and block rate, he still failed to crack the top-250 following two years in a row as a top-150 player. The good news is that the team needs Plumlee on the floor to fill in defensive cracks down low, but even in a marginally increased role, it is hard to see him getting enough minutes to move beyond a streaming candidate for blocks.
ADP: 140/137 (ESPN/Yahoo) | Total Value: 349/347 (8/9-cat) | Per-Game Value: 324/317 (8/9-cat) | Games Played: 32
2017-18 averages: 32 G | 7 GS | 14.0 MP | 5.7 PTS | 0.0 3PM | 4.7 REB | 0.5 AST | 0.4 STL | 0.4 BLK | 0.7 TOV | .514 FG% | .706 FT% |
Faried entered the year with just as many question marks around his role in the rotation as any other Nuggets big man not named Jokic or Millsap. Early season returns seemed to validate the notion that the frontcourt rotation was going to be messy and often unpredictable for owners outside of the two starters. Then Paul Millsap went down and the window seemed to be wide open for Faried to make a return to the top-100.
Faried was given a fair shot at the starting four spot while Millsap was out, but ultimately it was Trey Lyles who became the primary benefactor of Millsap’s extended absence while Faried fell out of the rotation from mid-December on. He is far from the most tradeable asset as he stands to make $13.7 million in 2018, so it is hard to see The Manimal suiting up elsewhere next season unless the Nuggets are willing to attach draft assets or a young prospect to a deal for Faried. It is fine to consider him as a late round flier given his top-100 history, but if Denver doesn’t make moves to clear logjam at the four this offseason it is hard to see him faring much better next season.
ADP: NA/NA (ESPN/Yahoo) | Total Value: 219/222 (8/9-cat) | Per-Game Value: 254/262 (8/9-cat) | Games Played: 71
2017-18 averages: 71 G | 1 GS | 18.9 MP | 8.4 PTS | 1.1 3PM | 1.8 REB | 2.1 AST | 0.7 STL | 0.2 BLK | 1.1 TOV | .412 FG% | .835 FT% |
Harris was brought on at the trade deadline to provide the Nuggets with a steady veteran hand at the point behind youngster Jamal Murray as the team optimistically geared up for a potential playoff run. At 35 years old, there is no denying that the most productive years of his career are in the rear-view mirror, but Harris still was able to provide top-275 value in 19 minutes per game. He may not have been worth rostering outside of very deep leagues, but the 2.1 assists per game and 0.7 steals made him an under-the-radar, but useful streaming option. Harris enters the offseason an unrestricted free agent, but if he ends up back in Denver on a new deal we can probably expect more of the same from the veteran guard.
ADP: NA/NA (ESPN/Yahoo) | Total Value: 355/349 (8/9-cat) | Per-Game Value: 379/361 (8/9-cat) | Games Played: 39
2017-18 averages: 39 G | 5 GS | 16.1 MP | 4.2 PTS | 0.4 3PM | 3.3 REB | 0.6 AST | 0.3 STL | 0.4 BLK | 0.5 TOV | .453 FG% | .629 FT% |
The Nuggets made good use of the Association’s new two-way contract model this season with the offseason signing of Torrey Craig. In his 45 days allowed to be spent with the team, Craig was able to play meaningful minutes as a much-needed defensive stopper on the wing at times. While his impact didn’t always show up on the stat-sheet, the front office and coaching staff have praised Craig’s tenacity and energy on the floor. Despite the praise, Craig has not yet been offered a guaranteed contract with the team so his status for next season remains uncertain. His upside is limited by his lackluster per minute fantasy production, but in a consistent role, he could have some streaming appeal next season in deeper leagues.
ADP: NA/NA (ESPN/Yahoo) | Total Value: 404/402 (8/9-cat) | Per-Game Value: 425/416 (8/9-cat) | Games Played: 25
2017-18 averages: 25 G | 3 GS | 11.1 MP | 3.3 PTS | 0.6 3PM | 2.2 REB | 0.5 AST | 0.2 STL | 0.1 BLK | 0.4 TOV | .387 FG% | .833 FT% |
It was a lost year for Hernangomez as he dealt with an early bout of mono, only to be definitively leapfrogged on the depth chart by Trey Lyles while Paul Millsap was sidelined recovering from a wrist injury. It is no secret that the Nuggets have an ugly logjam at the four. Paul Millsap, Trey Lyles, Kenneth Faried, Tyler Lydon, Wilson Chandler and Darrell Arthur (it is likely Chandler and Arthur both accept player options for next season) are all likely to be on the books for the Nuggets next season barring any offseason action. Despite nearly half of the roster consisting of fours, they have yet to find a consistent answer at small forward yet. If Will Barton is lured away from Denver in free agency with a big offer, the Hernangomez may be in a good position to see significant minutes on the wing if his defense shows progression.
His fantasy stat set is appealing as a potential nightly triple-one money counter threat, but he needs to take a big leap forward in his third year to realize that potential. Depending on how the offseason shakes out, Hernangomez may be a decent late-round lottery ticket flier, but keep your expectations tempered.
ADP: NA/NA (ESPN/Yahoo) | Total Value: 367/368 (8/9-cat) | Per-Game Value: 456/454 (8/9-cat) | Games Played: 62
2017-18 averages: 62 G | 0 GS | 9.6 MP | 3.2 PTS | 0.5 3PM | 1.2 REB | 0.5 AST | 0.2 STL | 0.1 BLK | 0.4 TOV | .410 FG% | .667 FT%|
Beasley wasn’t able to carve out a consistent role in the rotation outside of largely garbage time minutes, and was effectively a DNP-CD most nights down the final stretch. Beasley’s role next season will largely depend on what happens in Will Barton’s unrestricted free agency this summer. If Barton ends up signing elsewhere, Beasley could stand to see more minutes come his way. Beasley has shown flashes as a spark-plug off the bench who can put up points in a hurry when hot, but his stat set needs some work before he becomes anything other than a streamer for threes in super deep leagues or an end of bench dynasty stash. However, keep an eye on him as a deep league sleeper candidate if Barton is out of the picture next season.
The Nuggets failed to make the playoffs after a nail-biting run of games down the stretch for the second consecutive year, but optimism surrounding the young core of Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris and Jamal Murray is still warranted. Despite some strong individual defenders on the roster in Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee, team defense remains a concern moving forward. The Nuggets have an embarrassment of riches at the four, but remain incredibly thin on the wing, as it is eminently apparent that Wilson Chandler (who functions better as a four himself) is not the long-term answer.
They could go a long way towards addressing both of those needs by securing a defensive stopper on the wing through the draft. The Nuggets enter the 2018 season largely in the same position they entered this one – seemingly on the verge of becoming a fixture for years in the western conference playoff picture, but somehow just always a day late and dollar short to the big dance. Maybe time is the answer, maybe it is personnel, but optimism will quickly fade to disillusionment if the team fails to a step forward yet again in 2018.