2016/17 Record: 40-42 (9th in the Western Conference)
2017/18 Salaries: $95,087,125 (Under the Cap team) – full DEN salary cap situation – here.
Incoming Draft Picks: GSW ’18 2nd, POR/SAC (less favourable, SAC right to swap with POR) ’18 2nd, WAS ’19 2nd.
Outgoing Draft Picks: LAL ’18 2nd, MIL ’19 2nd (56-60).
The Nuggets offseason got off to a rocky start, pardon the pun. After reportedly shopping pick 13 for a star, they opted to trade the rights to Donovan Mitchell to Utah for former lottery pick Trey Lyles and pick #24. It looked like a dubious return at the time, and got worse when assumed target, wingspan wunderkind OG Anunoby, was snapped up at pick #23 by Toronto. Denver, seemingly startled, panic picked Tyler Lydon – another Power Forward to compete with Trey Lyles, Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur, Juan Hernangomez and Wilson Chandler, who all could see time at the four spot this season.
Then there was the failed Kevin Love trade, further frustrating the Nuggets FO and their fan base that has been starved for a star since Carmelo’s braided locks owned the Pepsi Center hardwood six years ago.
That crowded four man rotation was further cluttered (for the better) by the addition of All-Star Forward Paul Millsap, who is the big name Free Agent that the Nuggets have been chasing for years. Millsap figures to be the perfect accompaniment to franchise player Nikola Jokic, who for all his wondrous talents, is not a quality defender or enforcer on the front lines. Opponents shot 63.7% at the rim when Jokic was defending them in 2017, which for starting centers was second worst behind Zaza Pachulia. He’s a capable pick-and-roll defender, but rim protector he is not. He needs help.
It’s a good thing that Millsap immediately provides said help, ably acting as a rim protector, passing lane demon, and veteran physical presence. Millsap has long been an advanced stats darling for his defensive wizardry – equally comfortable switching on the pick-and-roll as he is banging in the post. He’s also a seriously talented and versatile offensive threat, with range out to three-point land (1.1 makes per game in 16/17) and a highly developed passing game (3.7 assists per game in 16/17). He’s the perfect front court partner to fellow passing dynamo Jokic.
His 18.1ppg would immediately replace the departed Danilo Gallinari as the highest scorer on the team, and he’s got the clutch gene – a guy you can throw the ball to and he can get it done. The best part? The contract is 2 years, $60 million with a team option on the 3rd year – the same offseason Jokic becomes a free agent, should they let him get that far (hint: they won’t). Denver has ultimate flexibility to build around their star big man.
The biggest question mark this season remains Denver’s Point Guard play. The Nuggets began last season with Emmanuel Mudiay at the position – the 7th overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft – however he struggled with ankle and back injuries, an anemic jump shot (despite that one game against Boston..!?) and struggled with turnovers. After the All-Star break, Mudiay played in just 11 games and averaged 15.3 minutes per game, from a combination of those injuries, poor play, and frankly – Murray and Nelson were just better.
While offseason reports state Mudiay has had a ‘terrific’ summer, it feels like Mudiay may be looking at a solid backup rotation role, rather than a starting spot. Mudiay is only 21 years old, and the jury is still out on his ability at the pro level, but he’s a physically imposing PG at 6’5″ and 200lbs. He could beat up on the second string point guards he will face as a back up guard, particularly if he can hone a midrange and post-game ala Shaun Livingston.
Given the personnel on this Nuggets roster, it is likely that they will run an unconventional ‘inverse’ offense this season. With a passer as gifted as Nikola Jokic as the focal point of the offense (6.1 assists per game post All-Star), and Paul Millsap a terrific playmaker himself, Denver must surround them with knock down shooters.
This is where last year’s lottery pick, Jamal Murray, comes to the fore. The knock on Murray at the 2016 NBA Draft was that he was a slightly undersized shooting guard (6’4″), and some punters were skeptical on his ability to run a team at the NBA level and develop those Point Guard instincts to be a true ‘combo’ guard. Essentially, he’s landed in the perfect spot to hone his skills. Defensively, he can cross match with plus-defender Gary Harris (who is basically Avery Bradley’s younger clone) to ensure he gets the ‘weaker’ defensive match-up, and offensively, he doesn’t have to feel the full pressure as a young player running an NBA offense when he has highly skilled passers like Jokic and Millsap running the show.
Murray hangs his hat on his supreme shot making ability and deep range, and he showed quite a bit of potential post All-Star break last season. In the final 26 games post All-Star break, Murray averaged 12.1ppg, 2.8rpg, 2.8apg, 1.0spg in 25 minutes per game. He made 1.7 threes per game on 34% – both figures that would be expected to increase as he continues to get used to the NBA game, additional minutes and responsibilities, and extended three point line. He figures to be the perfect fit alongside Jokic, provided he doesn’t fall into the dreaded sophomore slump that victimised Mudiay.
This is where Denver ownership and decision makers come in. Any time a star talent, particularly a guard, comes onto the trade or free agent market – Denver’s name is near the top of the list of suitors. This is due to the very tradeable contracts and draft picks they own, as well as having their franchise talent locked into a rookie minimum deal – the ultimate flexibility machine.
This offseason has been one of the craziest for Point Guard shuffling that the league has ever seen. On top of that, it remains one of the deepest positions in the league. How long until the next star demands a trade? Does Denver part with a star young talent (Murray?), a veteran (Faried?) and a 1st round pick or two to see how ‘Star PG X’ pairs with Jokic and Millsap? It has got to be tempting for President Tim Connelly and new GM Arturas Karnisovas.
The Nuggets have a ton of talent, good value contracts and quality depth. But in order to compete in the Western conference, they need to get a little nastier. While the up-and-down nature of their offense makes them fun to watch and a League Pass darling (7th in pace, 5th in Offensive rating) – it’s their horrendous defense that has held them back from making the next leap to actual NBA threat (29th in Defensive rating). There’s just no way you can be second last in the NBA on the defensive end and expect to make the playoffs.
The Nuggets have struck some Free Agent gold though, and Millsap should help them drastically on the defensive side of the court. If the Nuggets can maintain their sterling offensive production, but become a tougher and nastier defensive unit, there’s no reason to think that they can’t make their first playoff trip since the 2012-2013 season.
Projected Starting Five:
Projected Depth Chart:
Overall Offseason Grade: B+
2017/18 Prediction: 47-35
The Nuggets have a deep and talented roster, with some truly elite high end talents on the front line. Unfortunately for them – the West is stacked, so they’ll need to get off to a fast start and have good health to be able to make an impact. I’m picking Denver to be this years Utah Jazz, and back in the playoff picture – but they’re still a little ways off from true contention.
Player To Watch: Emmanuel Mudiay
In many ways, this is a make or break season for Emmanuel Mudiay. He either needs to prove to the Nuggets that he is improving his deficiencies and is a viable piece of this team going forward, or he needs to be able to prove it to another NBA team. The Nuggets have until the 31st October to decide on their team option for the 2018/19 season, and while for $4.2 million it seems a formality, NBA teams purse strings are starting to tighten. If the Nuggets feel they can get better production from a veteran minimum signing, Mudiay might be on the outs sooner rather than later.
Four Key Questions:
1. How much does Millsap have left in the tank?
There’s no doubt that Millsap is a big catch for the Nuggets, and he’s coming off a very solid season for the Hawks. However, on the gold pan-half-empty side, he’s 32 years old, turning 33 later in the season. Can he stay healthy and elevate the Nuggets to the next level? Or is he just a big name whose impact lessens in unfamiliar surroundings (e.g. Wade)?
2. Is Jamal Murray a starting calibre Point Guard?
The Nuggets are desperate for a solid point guard, with Mudiay not yet proving to be the answer at this stage of his career. Can Murray develop as the perfect PG to compliment Jokic? Or will he struggle with the additional responsibilities and leave the Nugz with more questions than answers in the backcourt?
3. What do the Nuggets do with Mason Plumlee?
The Nuggets paid a high price to acquire Mason Plumlee at the trade deadline, giving up Jusuf Nurkic and a first round pick. He had his moments last season for Denver, but looks set for a backup role this year – which can’t be ideal going into Free Agency in 2018. Does he become trade fodder down the track? Or can be carve out a niche backing up Jokic for 20 odd minutes a night?
4. Will the Nuggets miss Gallinari?
Gallinari was oft-injured, but highly talented and their primary wing scoring option. While Wilson Chandler stands to ably inherit the majority of his playing time, the Nuggets wing depth does look a little suspect. If injuries hit hard, will the Nuggets regret not showing Gallo the money? Or will it look like money well saved if Gallo goes down with another injury (or punches a guy)? Time will tell.