It’s not often an NBA team’s postseason hopes are decided on the 82nd and final game of the season. It’s even more infrequent for that to happen to two different teams during the same season. It’s even rarer that those two teams end up going head-to-head with the winner clinching a spot in the playoffs. But that’s exactly what happened last season.
The Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets were scheduled to play each other in the final game of the regular season. It was a winner-takes-all situation. Both teams displayed matching records. The game even went to overtime, but only one team could advance. Minnesota was in. Denver was sent packing back to the mile high.
The Nuggets of last season had to win six straight games just to have a chance at that unfortunate overtime loss in the twin cities. Not even half a year later, the Nuggets are threatening to do much more than simply making the playoffs.
The core of the team has remained somewhat the same. Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris are all under 25 with endless possibilities as to what types of players they can become. It isn’t a matter of if they can or can’t make the leap to All-Stardom, but a matter of just how soon that could happen.
Jokic appears to not only be knocking on that door but on the brink of plowing through it and establishing himself as one of the best big men on the entire planet.
Harris is rapidly becoming a 3-and-D powerhouse, seemingly taking leap after leap as each month goes by.
Murray is poised to be on the best shooters in the league before he turns 23.
The youthful trio makes up a core that is built for the modern NBA. Size, defense, shooting, creativity. They excel in areas that are necessary when building a legitimate threat in the Western Conference.
But it doesn’t just stop with those three. What makes Denver so dangerous heading into the upcoming season is their endless stream of offensive weapons and the mystery surrounding their injured prospects. And that’s without mentioning a healthy Paul Millsap.
Notable offseason moves:
- Resigned Nikola Jokic to a five-year, $147 million max contract.
- Drafted Michael Porter Jr. (Missouri) with the 14th overall pick.
- Drafted Jarred Vanderbilt (Kentucky) with the 41st overall pick.
- Signed Will Barton and Torrey Craig to multi-year deals.
- Signed Isaiah Thomas to a one-year, minimum contract.
- Traded Wilson Chandler to the Philadelphia 76ers in a salary-dump move.
- Traded Kenneth Faried to the Brooklyn Nets in a salary-dump move.
Let’s dissect these moves with a bit more depth, starting with Jokic and how a full season with a healthy Millsap might shape out.
Jokic and his chemistry with Millsap
Giving Jokic a max deal was the easiest decision the Denver front office will ever have to make. He’s a budding superstar in the early stages of his career who has more than earned his right to a substantial contract. He is the Denver Nuggets and should be the face of the franchise for the next five or more seasons.
The Nuggets invested $90 million into Paul Millsap in the previous offseason, and the results that came out of his first season with Denver were overall positives. Despite missing more than half the season with an injured wrist, the chemistry he and Jokic have together was apparent as the Nuggets made their run down the stretch of the regular season.
The Nuggets went 13-8 once Millsap returned, and the way he and Jokic played together was only a tease of what’s to come. The team was a plus-5.7 with both Jokic and Millsap on the floor in the final 22 games of the regular season, according to NBA.com. They cover each other’s weaknesses in nearly every way. Jokic is the brute force inside who can score from literally anywhere on the court and has the feathery touch along with the elite vision of a point guard. Millsap is the dog on defense who can guard an array of players but can also score from multiple areas of the court. They both stretch the floor and open things up for their backcourt counterparts. They make for an elite frontcourt tandem that may very well be the best in the NBA now that DeMarcus Cousins is out of New Orleans.
Backing them up will be Mason Plumlee, who isn’t much of a threat on offense but is the type of player who can work well in nearly any scenario. He’s a good rebounder and an incredibly underrated passer who doesn’t need the ball to be effective. Whether it’s touch passes to Jokic or flying in for an offensive putback, Plumlee is an important key to the bench unit for Denver who can slide next to either Millsap or Jokic to sop up those reserve minutes.
Re-signing Barton and Craig
Re-signing both Barton and Craig were valuable team moves. While Barton’s contract of four years for $54 million might seem overwhelming at first glance, it’s a great keep for the team. Barton had his best season as a pro last season for Denver, playing in the sixth-man role for the majority of the season and infusing the bench units with bolts of scoring. Barton is getting paid to score the basketball, and it doesn’t need to go much deeper than that. He’ll turn 28 this season, and the Nuggets should be able to pry out some of his best years as a basketball player.
Craig, on the other hand, is sort of the anti-Barton, but in a good way. He can bring a bit of 3-and-D flare, but what makes him an intriguing prospect is the “D” part. He only played in 39 games last season for Denver but did more than enough on the defensive end of the court to warrant the two-year, $4 million deal he received. On a team that finished 25th in the NBA in defensive rating last season, Craig’s value should extend well beyond his contract as a stopper on the wing. Especially with Wilson Chandler being shipped to Philly and the question marks lingering over Michael Porter Jr.’s back (more on that shortly), Craig should see extended minutes and could be a critical rotational piece if he can become a consistent outside shooter.
Losing Chandler does hurt them on the wing, and there is still a void left there as Trey Lyles and Juancho Hernangomez – more big men than wings – will be likely replacements. Last season, Lyles was excellent in unexpected minutes and showed he could be an NBA rotation player in Millsap’s absence, but he’ll return to a bench role barring another unforeseen injury. Malik Beasley showed signs of potential last season as a wingman, but it wouldn’t be a shock if he saw even fewer minutes than his 9.4 per game with the now-loaded backcourt.
Lyles and Hernangomez will be expected to replace Faried’s production (or lack thereof) after the latter was shipped off to Brooklyn.
The injured rooks
Now onto the two prized – yet injured – rookies: Michael Porter Jr. and Jarred Vanderbilt.
Porter Jr. has long been identified as one of the best prospects for his age, often referred to as the best. A couple back surgeries later and after nearly missing the lottery, he’s now the biggest question mark of the 2018 draft. He’s as low-risk, high-reward as they come. If the back never fully recovers, and the Porter Jr. who was destroying YouTube hoop mixtapes and consistently ranking as the top high school player of his class returns to form, then the Nuggets have successfully stolen a top-three pick with the last selection in the lottery. If the back doesn’t ever recover, then they merely took a chance on a potential superstar with a late lottery pick – a much easier pill to swallow.
Jarred Vanderbilt is in a similar boat – just replace “back” with “foot”. Vanderbilt has been dealing with foot issues since high school and couldn’t escape them during his one year at Kentucky. He comes as an even lower-risk prospect than Porter Jr. Vanderbilt has a similar play style to Lamar Odom; he’s long and tall, plays like a point-forward and is a great rebounder. He doesn’t have the hype of Porter Jr., but if he returns to full strength, that is just another weapon the Nuggets can deploy from their already deep arsenal.
What can Isaiah Thomas bring?
It’s not quite the deal he was expecting only one year removed from averaging 28.9 points per game for the Boston Celtics, but Isaiah Thomas has found a suitable home in Denver. Never able to regain his footing in either Cleveland or Los Angeles following a well-documented hip injury, Thomas is looking to earn his swagger back, and the high-profile offense that head coach Mike Malone preaches is the perfect stepping stone.
He’ll back up Jamal Murray, understandably, and will still struggle to help his team on the defensive end. But what he can bring to the bench unit on offense should not be overlooked. If he can return to even half the player he was in Boston during the 2016-17 season, then Denver has acquired one hell of a burst of offensive energy. It’ll be quite the luxury to replace the sharpshooting Murray with another scoring savant in Thomas. The defense probably wasn’t going to sniff the top half of the league this season, so going all-in on the other end isn’t a bad investment, and it’s a cheap one at that. The Nuggets scored at least 130 points in eight games last season. It appears they’re going to try and triple that number this season.
They may give up 110 points more often than not, but it’s not going to matter when there are maybe two or three teams in the league that can even attempt to keep up with them.
The Denver Nuggets are going to have high expectations for the new season, but they’ve earned them. The defense will always be a cause for concern, and the lack of talent in that area is why they aren’t a Finals hopeful, but they are a constant scoring threat. They are a ticking time-bomb of offensive explosion. Bringing back the core from last season that finished sixth in offensive rating (112.5) and fifth in assists per game (25.1), plus having a healthy Millsap, is bound to result in an improved offensive attack. Throw in Thomas, and it could create a recipe for one of the most efficient offenses the NBA has ever seen.
The Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets still have a vice grip on the Western Conference, but after them, Denver is clearly in the mix. The Nuggets won 46 games last – the same number of games Millsap sat out. 50 wins and a top-four seed is not out of the realm of possibility. If anything, it’s going to be expected of them.
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