May 19, 2020, 1:08 pm
After a lot of discussion on their potentially bright future, the Nuggets finally delivered on that long promised “potential” and established themselves as legitimate contenders in the 2018-2019 campaign. They ultimately came just short of living up to the high expectations a second-seeded team in the West as the Blazers bumped them after an agonizing seven-game series in the second round of the playoffs.
It might not have been the storybook season that fans had hoped for, but the Nuggets clearly moved from the territory of an over-performing young squad into that of a legitimate contender. With progression comes expectations, and the Nuggets having very little roster turnover between the 2018 and 2019 seasons set a high bar for the team.
Sitting at 43-22, the Nuggets are on track to meet or potentially even exceed their record from last year. However, momentum is not in their favor as they entered the NBA hiatus on a skid, with questions around their ability to make a deep playoff run beginning to swirl. There are legitimate questions around the rotation, particularly out on the wing with a stable of Will Barton, Torrey Craig and Michael Porter Jr. all fighting for minutes. After playing for Serbia in the FIBA World Cup, Nikola Jokic showed up to camp a bit overinflated, needed some time to play himself into shape, and has since looked reluctant at times to seize the mantle of franchise player. Jamal Murray has failed to take the next step after receiving a max contract, starting an uncomfortable discussion on the financial flexibility of the team moving forward.
These are all reasons to pump the brakes on what was a ton of optimism around the Nuggets heading into this season, but we also need to be careful not to dismiss a young team dealing with the expectation of a deep playoff run for the first time as overrated. There is still plenty of optimism warranted around a team that is still maturing, with the promise of additional growth from Murray, a breakout from Porter, and Jokic embracing the role of a franchise centerpiece.
Fantasy managers are well aware of Nikola Jokic’s persistent early-season struggles. Whatever the reason, whether it is fitness-related or mental slumps, the unfortunate reality is that all too often, as goes Jokic, so go the Nuggets. A 43-22 record heading into the stretch is nothing to complain about for a team that just two years back was one win short of the eight seed. However, if you look beyond just the record itself there are some flashing red lights that don’t exactly inspire confidence that this team can go all the way with the Lakers and Clippers standing above them in the West.
Some of that can be pinned on injuries, as the Nuggets have only had their day-one starting lineup fully available for a handful of games this season as Jamal Murray, Paul Millsap and Gary Harris have all missed significant chunks of time, but that doesn’t tell the entire story.
Good teams win games that they should win, and all too often the Nuggets tend to lay an egg against bottom dweller opponents. Taking a look at the first ten games of the season, the Nuggets started off 7-3. Not too shabby! If we zoom in a bit closer though, those three losses came at the hands of the Mavericks, Pelicans and Hawks. Good teams also manage to win tough games on the road, a place where the Nuggets have really struggled this season. Their first big test on the road did not yield an inspiring outcome as they dropped four of five contests away to the Kings, Celtics, Nets and Sixers.
These two consistency struggles combined as the Nuggets lost six of their last ten games on the road and paused the season on a sour note after dropping three of their last five games to the Cavaliers, Warriors and Mavericks. The ability to focus in and win very winnable games has been a problem for the Nuggets for more than just this season. A string of losses to sub .500 teams in late March and April was largely to blame for the team slipping just below the eight seed a few years back, and a limp to finish line last season nearly cost them the two seed.
However things turn out this year, inconsistent and lackadaisical performances are pervasive issues that are most often observable in their star player. Perhaps this pause in the season will allow the team to show up fresh and focused, or perhaps it will only allow Jokic to show up out of shape for a crucial stretch of games. As noted above, as goes Jokic, so go the Nuggets in many cases. How he responds to this situation should play resume will likely tell us a lot about what to expect in the playoffs.
Jamal Murray’s Contract
In a massive sign of confidence, the Nuggets extended Jamal Murray on a five-year, $170 million max deal. Murray’s potential has never been in question, but his track record and inconsistency have led some to wonder if he will ever get over the hump and become a reliable number-two star next to Jokic. A huge playoff performance could drastically alter how his 2019-2020 season is viewed in retrospect, but evaluating what we have seen so far, it looks far more like a plateau than a breakout consistent with the expectations his new contract will bring.
On a per 36-minute basis, Murray is only averaging 0.5 more points and hitting 0.1 fewer threes per game on the exact same number of attempts from deep. His steal rate is up a bit and his assist rate (5.3 per 36) exactly mirrors last season. Those looking for significant progression or regression from Murray this season compared to last will find hardly any.
That said, perhaps the most notable change is Murray’s efficiency struggles from deep. A highly effective deep ball unlocks and entirely new element of his game, and going 34.5 percent from deep on 5.5 attempts per game just isn’t going to get it done.
Looking at season-long numbers doesn’t yield much in terms of progression, but zooming in on his play in the final month before play stopped, there are some positive indicators of Murray’s game progressing to another level. In February, Murray converted 40.7 percent of his 6.6 attempts from deep and upped his overall efficiency from the floor to 53.9 percent while averaging 23.6 points per game. That type of production has to be what the Nuggets are betting on seeing more of out of their newest max player.
In a less than glamorous market, the Nuggets might not have had an option but to max Murray to keep him around long-term, but it was a significant choice that will have ripple effects on the team’s financial flexibility moving forward. Only the benefit of hindsight will allow us to grade value of that contract, but it will undoubtedly be a significant part of the narrative if the Nuggets flounder and fail to live up to increasingly lofty expectations.
Bye-Bye Beasley and Juancho
Often it is the departure of an iconic player, the retirement of a long-tenured coach, or the drafting of a potential superstar that defines an “era” for teams. However, I would make the case that the Nuggets sending out Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez at the trade deadline was the end of an era for the Nuggets. Probably one of the most genuinely fun eras in recent memory, sandwiched between the misery of the Brian Shaw Nuggets and the newly found anxiety that comes with being a team that is no longer a “sleeper,” but is instead expected to win.
The Beasley/Juancho era to me is one of pure unbridled optimism, not yet weighed down with the burden of expectation. In this time a pudgy second-rounder from Serbia shocked the league and blossomed into an All-Star; Jamal Murray began to deliver on the promise that Emmanuel Mudiay couldn’t; a draft night trade sent Donovan Mitchell out for Trey Lyles and Tyler Lydon (big oops); and my all-time favorite Juancho highlight occurred. Juancho and Beasley were fan favorites for a reason, and while it may not have been explicitly apparent, a large part of that was what they represented to the team and the growing international fan base – endless optimism.
This trade undoubtedly marks the beginning of the the Jokic Era. Who knows what the “Jokic Era” holds in store for the Nuggets. What is clear is that it comes with a new set of expectations and a reminder that building a championship caliber team demands that tough decisions be made. With higher expectations comes the reality that overachieving becomes much, much harder. When eras end it is hard not to feel a bit sad or reminiscent, but the hope is that this next era presents more promise than ever of seeing a Western Conference Championship and maybe, just maybe, the first ever NBA Championship in Denver.
Michael Porter Jr.
After what felt like an eternity of hype and uncertainty, Michael Porter Jr. finally made his NBA debut on a Halloween matchup against the Pelicans. It was an impressive offensive performance, as the rookie forward went off for 15 points on 5-of-8 shooting and one triple in 20 minutes of action. There were also some head-scratching moments on the other end of the floor. In retrospect, this debut was a microcosm of what was to become an up and down season for Porter.
On one hand, he clearly has the potential to become an elite offensive talent at the NBA level, like best-offensive-weapon-on-a-playoff-team elite. He is an efficient scorer from all three levels, shooting nearly 50 percent from the field and going 42 percent from deep. Without Malik Beasley on the roster now, the Nuggets need someone to step up as a hyper-efficient deep ball threat. Porter clearly has the potential to become that (and much, much more) as he knocked down 57% of his corner threes, and was hyper efficient from deep as a catch-and-shoot option.
However, if Porter is going to come even close to hitting his ceiling, he will need to improve significantly on the defensive side of things. It wasn’t necessarily for a lack of effort, which is encouraging, but Porter looked completely lost at times and would miss rotations, be caught totally flat footed, or get prone to ball watching. Despite his shortcomings, he was impressive on the glass, posting a huge 24.3 defensive rebound percentage and solid 8.8 offensive rebound percentage. He may never be a lock-down defender, but a lot of his mistakes are fixable and should be ironed out with more NBA reps and coaching.
From a fantasy perspective, I’m bullish on MPJ as an eventual top-50 player based solely on his efficient scoring and rebounding potential. If some of his potential as a rim protector is realized and he becomes a more disruptive defender on the wing, there is a decent chance of him hitting the top-30 mark. Regardless of whether the Nuggets bring back Paul Millsap and Torrey Craig in free agency, look for Porter to play a larger role next season as some of his defensive lapses are minimized and the need for more consistent spacing in the starting five is apparent.
The trade deadline made clear what has been somewhat of an elephant in the room this season: the Nuggets team that suits up for the 2020-2021 season will likely look quite a bit different than this current team. Nothing as earth shattering as the team facing the prospect of Jokic or Murray departing in free agency, but all of the roster depth that the Nuggets created is speeding directly at the brick wall that is the salary cap.
The departure of fan favorites Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez at the deadline was the first domino of what will likely be many to fall as the Nuggets face the prospect of losing Paul Millsap, Mason Plumlee, Torrey Craig, P.J. Dozier, Noah Vonleh, and Jerami Grant (should he decline his $9.3 million player option).
Outside of Millsap and Craig, none of the players potentially heading elsewhere consistently find themselves in the Nuggets’ starting five, but Plumlee in particular gives the Nuggets a ton of flexibility off the bench in his ability to fill in as a big man Jokic-ball surrogate in the second unit and is an underrated defensive presence down low. With Murray’s new deal officially hitting the books in 2020-2021, the Nuggets suddenly find themselves in a far more cap-constrained position than they have been in years.
There is money available with Millsap’s deal coming off the books, but will Millsap be willing to take a team-friendly deal that allows the Nuggets to re-sign Grant to a longer term deal and likely replace Millsap in the starting lineup? Will Plumlee be able to resist the allure of more money than the Nuggets can reasonably spend, or the possibility of stepping out of Jokic’s shadow and returning to a starting role elsewhere? Regardless of the answer to these questions, it is clear that the Nuggets’ reserve corps will likely look quite a bit different for the first time in quite some time.