Additions: Michael Porter Jr, Isaiah Thomas
Subtractions: Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur, Emmanuel Mudiay
Projected Starting Lineup:
PG: Jamal Murray
SG: Gary Harris
SF: Michael Porter Jr
PF: Paul Millsap
C: Nikola Jokic
Key Bench Players: Will Barton, Isaiah Thomas, Trey Lyles, Malik Beasley
The Denver Nuggets are always one of the hardest teams to predict. They have a strong young core in Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and now rookie Michael Porter Jr. They have talented veterans in Paul Millsap and newly acquired Isaiah Thomas. They have a sparkplug sixth man in Will Barton and a quality backup stretch-4 in Trey Lyles. Coach Mike Malone has talent at every position, but is it good enough to compete in the Western Conference?
There are six teams out west that seem to have a playoff spot locked down barring tragic in-season injuries: the Warriors, Rockets, Lakers, Thunder, Pelicans, and Jazz. Vying for the final two playoff seeds will be the Mavericks, Spurs, Trailblazers, Grizzlies, and the Denver Nuggets. I personally believe it will come down to the Mavs, Spurs, and Denver, leaving the Nuggets with small room for error. Out of those three teams, the Nuggets may be the most complete; the Mavs have some young players and a lackluster bench unit and the Spurs have Demar Derozan and LaMarcus Aldridge under head coach Gregg Popovich but lack the depth we have grown accustomed to in years past. The Nuggets have a real shot at making the postseason for the first time since the 2012-13 season and here’s why.
Nikola Jokic is a top three or four center behind Joel Embiid, DeMarcus Cousins, and maybe Karl-Anthony Towns. Offensively, Jokic is the Nuggets top playmaker, averaging just over 6 assists per game last season, along with his 18.5 points on 49.9/39.6/85.0 shooting and 10.7 rebounds. His one weakness: defense. Jokic ranked 164th in defensive win shares last season and 359th in defensive rating per NBA.com. It is hard to be a successful team when your starting center can not protect the rim. Point guard Jamal Murray may have had a breakout season in his sophomore season last year after putting up 16.7 points per game on 45.1/37.8/90.5 shooting along with 3.4 assists in a secondary playmaking role. With Jokic being the primary playmaker from the post, Murray can continue to do what he does best: score. At this stage of his career, Paul Millsap is still a Swiss Army knife for the Nuggets. He can score from all over the floor, rebound efficiently, provide playmaking, and versatility on the defensive end. The only problem was that Millsap only played in 38 games last year after a wrist injury. If he is healthy for a full season, he can only make the Nuggets better.
Are people still sleeping on shooting guard Gary Harris? If so, you have to stop right now. Heading into his fifth NBA season, Harris put up a career high 17.5 PPG while shooting 48.5/39.6/82.7 from the floor along with just under 3 assists and above-average defense on the wing. Per Synergy, Harris ranks in the 81st percentile in spot-up shooting and 83rd percentile as a cutter. He is vital to this offense because he does so much off-ball scoring that he does not need the ball in his hands for an entire possession to make an impact.
The most intriguing player on this entire roster is rookie Michael Porter Jr out of Mizzou, who only played three collegiate games before being drafted with the 14th overall pick in last June’s draft. The Nuggets got an absolute steal if MPJ can stay healthy, and according to reports, he feels no pain after a second surgery to repair a bulging disk in his back and is expected to return early in the season if not opening night. A five-star recruit and McDonald’s All American, Porter was continuously ranked in the top two alongside DeAndre Ayton in the class of 2017 recruiting class. At 6’10, Porter has the athleticism and versatility to play both forward positions and is armed with a lethal jumpshot, handles, and uncanny scoring ability. If he was healthy during the draft process, MPJ could have easily been a top three selection. The rookie drew comparison to Kevin Durant as a high school stud and the keywords “if healthy” can be the first viable number one option on the Nuggets since Carmelo Anthony for years to come. The Nuggets absolutely need Porter to be healthy if they want to make the playoffs, as they do not have many options at the 3 after trading Wilson Chandler to Philadelphia.
After resigning Will Barton to a multi-year deal, the Nuggets get back a valuable sixth man who can make spot starts in cases of injury. The guard put up just under 16 points and over 4 assists in 81 games last year while being an above average 3-point shooter at 37%. Joining Barton on the second unit are Isaiah Thomas and Trey Lyles. As we all know, Isaiah Thomas was an MVP candidate just two years ago after pouring in close to 29 PPG and 6 APG with Boston while leading them to the Eastern Conference Finals before losing to LeBron and the Cavs. IT did this while nursing a hip injury that ultimately led him to struggle last season with the Cavs and Lakers after offseason surgery. If he is feeling healthy, Thomas and Barton could be the best backup backcourt duo in the entire NBA and give starters Murray and Harris some quality rest. Trey Lyles is a tremendous backup big man as he can do a little bit of everything for this Denver second unit. A tremendous shooter after knocking down 38.1% of his threes and decent rebounder, Lyles is now the primary backup in the frontcourt after trading both Kenneth Faried and Darrell Arthur over the offseason. He should see an increase in minutes after averaging 19 minutes per game last season.
This is a very good Nuggets team if some of their offseason questions can be answered. Can Michael Porter Jr stay healthy after his return? Can Isaiah Thomas be a productive player after struggling with his hip injury last year? Can Jokic improve enough on the defensive end to be at least an average defender? MPJ is the most important piece of the puzzle as the Nuggets lack a legitimate number one option on offense. Both Jokic and Murray are incredible scorers but neither one of them can get a bucket at will like MPJ. Porter has the potential to be a top scorer not just for the team, but the entire NBA. If they can tie all of this together and stay healthy, Denver will be in good shape and will give a strong fight for the lower playoff seeds.
Picture Courtesy of Fansided “A Royal Pain” (Michael Porter Jr)
*For yesterday’s article on the Dallas Mavericks, click here.
Up next tomorrow: Detroit Pistons
University of South Carolina ’21