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The Denver Nuggets haven’t won a playoff series in 9 years. This struggle dates back to the Carmelo Anthony era. The good news for Nuggets fans is that their time is coming.
The Nuggets have made mediocre picks in the draft over the last couple years, but they found a second-round gem in Nikola Jokic. Gary Harris has improved his offensive game and Jamal Murray has shown he can play with the best at the young age of 21. Paul Millsap’s presence in the locker room will be valuable to this squad, the 4x all-star has a lot of post-season experience from his days with Atlanta, including a run to the eastern conference finals in 2015. Isaiah Thomas also has post-season experience and was signed for cheap. No doubt Thomas just finished a less-than-desirable season, but he can obviously play, the man almost took the Celtics to the finals a year ago. For IT this offseason is about finding the right fit, which Nuggets could be. Denver also snagged Michael Porter Jr. with the 14th pick, I wouldn’t expect to see him too much this season. If Porter Jr. can stay healthy Denver will be reaping the rewards for years to come. The Nuggets have assembled quite the collection of offensive weapons let’s see how it breaks down by position.
Expect the backcourt to be a three-man rotation with Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and Isaiah Thomas. Harris could even slide over to SF for stretches if Coach Mike Malone wants all three of them on the court at once. Depending on how they handle Thomas’ hip, look for Murray and Harris to start and IT to come off the bench as a combo guard to provide instant offense. Thomas may not be excited about coming off the bench, but he has done it before and a sixth-man role allows him to focus on what he does best, get buckets. Murray and Harris have both made noticeable improvement to their game and of course the Nuggets want them to keep progressing. Don’t expect to see many players, outside of these three, in the backcourt.
Jamal Murray averaged 16.7 points, 3.4 assist, and 3.7 rebounds a game at the age of 21. His play making leaves a little to be desired, but he is still young, typically takes a couple years for scoring guards to add the floor general aspect. Nikola Jokic also passes very well out of the post, taking some of the playmaking pressure off Murray’s shoulders. Murray can take his game to whatever level he wants, tons of potential. Murray has a tight handle and knock-down 3-point shot, he won’t be the most athletic guy on the floor, but he will surprise people if they overlook him. Murray has shown great improvement over his NBA career and also had some memorable games. One being, Murray scored 38 points on Portland including a go-ahead 3 with less than a minute left. Murray is on the right track, it’s unfortunate how hard it is to make the all-star team as a guard in the west, but he’ll get there, he’s got it in him.
Gary Harris just had a great season; averaged 17.5 points, 2.6 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game last year and shot 40% from 3-point range. Harris, originally tagged as a “3-and-D” guy, has proven his offensive capabilities while still guarding the best player in the backcourt on the opposing team. Harris will still improve as a player, but due to his role (for next season) his numbers may not reflect the improvement. Adding Thomas will take some of his shots, and as both Jokic and Murray improve they will take some of his shots as well. This is not the end of the world for Harris, nor does it diminish his value. Harris played great off the ball last year, whether spotting up for three or getting to the basket on a timely back cut. Harris will also prove his value on the defensive end of the court.
This time last year Isaiah Thomas was an MVP candidate and well on this way to a $150 million contract extension. One hip injury and two trades later, Thomas signs a one-year contract with the Denver Nuggets for $2.2 million. Thomas will most likely come off the best, which will be an interesting change considering he was the star in Boston. Thomas’ role coming off the bench will be mutually beneficial. The Nuggets add great bench scoring and Thomas will be able to come in with the second unit and run the ship. Thomas may not be starting, but the backcourt will be a three-man rotation, four if you count Will Barton who may get the occasional rotation and SG. Thomas is only on a one-year deal so he will most likely be on his way out after this year. If all goes well for IT teams will be willing to pay for him, not the $150 million, but more than Denver will be able to pay considering they have Murray, Harris, and Jokic locked up for the next couple years each. Isaiah Thomas in Denver will certainly be an experiment, but I have faith. Thomas has been a journeyman of the NBA and produced everywhere he’s been and this last season performance can’t be viewed to critically, considering the injury and the two trades.
Will Barton will be getting most of the minutes at SF and Paul Millsap at PF. Barton was in and out of the starting lineup last year, but played well in both situations. Millsap at PF will be a great veteran anchor for this team. Can score with his back to the basket, face-up, and hit open jump shots. Millsap has been great on defense his entire career and rebounds just about as well as any other PF. Trey Lyles will rotate in at both SF and PF. So far in his career Lyles has been a “tweener,” slightly undersized for the post and his feet are a little slow for the wing. As the NBA moves towards “position-less basketball,” where players at any position can be expected to have any skill set, he will find a niche on this Nuggets team. The long-term plan is for Michael Porter Jr. to take over the SF role, this could be by the end of the season, or two seasons from now.
Nikola Jokic was a second-round pick and has become one of the NBA’s brightest stars. With impressive passing and ball control for a center, Jokic has become a triple-double machine. Last season, Jokic led the Nuggets in points per game (18.5), assists per game (6.1), and rebounds per game (10.7), all while shooting 50% from the field and 39.6% for 3-point range. Jokic’s stat line is obviously impressive, and he’s only 23. When Anthony Davis was 23 he averaged 24-10-2. Jokic isn’t the next Anthony Davis, Davis can score easier, plays unbelievable defense, but doesn’t has the feel for the passing game Jokic has. Comparing Jokic and Davis at age 23 is a point of reference to Jokic’s potential. Jokic has become an all-star caliber player and hopefully continues to grow into an All-NBA player.
Denver has solid talent across their starting lineup. They could improve their bench, even with the Isaiah Thomas pickup, in the west you need eight guys who can be trusted. Nikola Jokic has become a star, the Nuggets need either Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, or Michael Porter Jr. to become a star on the perimeter to match Jokic’s dominance in the post. The future is bright, this young core will go through battles, the western conference is as strong as it has ever been.