The Denver Nuggets narrowly missed out on the top playoff seed in the Western Conference last season, and they are adding two potential impact players to one of the youngest, deepest rosters in basketball. Where does that leave them entering the most wide-open season in nearly a decade? Here’s what to know, watch, and expect from the Nuggets as the 2019-20 NBA season fast approaches.
Denver has boasted one of the league’s most promising collections of young talent for years. That potential manifested itself on the court in 2018-19, when the Nuggets won 54 games and posted the eighth-best net rating in basketball. More impressive? They were one of just four teams to rank top-10 in both offensive rating and defensive rating.
Denver went 10-deep with viable NBA players a year ago, and Mike Malone will have an even more difficult time finding enough room in the rotation for those who deserve it this time around. Jerami Grant, acquired in a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder, immediately vaults ahead of Mason Plumlee as the Nuggets’ third big man, and Michael Porter Jr., rightfully so, will be given every opportunity early in the season to carve out a niche – even if he takes some time to acclimate to the speed and physicality of NBA action.
It’s a testament to Denver’s overall talent level that the backcourt isn’t considered its strength. Opinions differ on Jamal Murray’s current impact and long-term ceiling, but he’s already one of the league’s most dynamic shotmakers when he’s feeling it, and his awesome rapport with Nikola Jokic unlocks a lot of what makes the Nuggets’ offense special.
Gary Harris is rock solid on both ends – when healthy, at least – and still has some room to grow with the ball in his hands. Monte Morris established himself as a top-tier backup point guard last season, and Malik Beasley emerged as a rare three-level scorer off the bench. Will Barton underwhelmed for the most part, losing the starting spot he was promised over the summer to Torrey Craig, but he is still a quality backup with high-level ball skills who competes harder defensively than advertised.
But it’s Jokic who really makes this team special. He’s a top-10 player in the league right now, and will be even more imminently dangerous offensively once his long-range jumper starts falling with the frequency it should. Paul Millsap and Grant don’t have the reliable stretch to serve as perfect fits next to a playmaker of Jokic’s esteem, but they are worthy frontcourt partners for him nonetheless due to their defensive versatility and varied penchant for bucket-getting.
It will be interesting to see how Malone doles out minutes between Millsap, Grant, and Plumlee. The latter is clearly the worst player of that trio, but Plumlee has clear chemistry with Jokic in those odd double-center lineups, and his playmaking ability is key to maintaining Denver’s unique style of offense. What does that mean for Juan Hernangomez, who played well last season when called upon? He’ll be on the outside of the rotation looking in, prepared to step in at small forward or stretch 4 when opportunities related to injury or a need for spacing present themselves.
It’s time for the Nuggets to start thinking championships.
Time is still on their side. Jokic and the newly extended Murray are locked up through the 2022-23 season, and neither has begun their prime. Harris is around for the next three seasons at least, and Morris two. Beasley, Craig, and Hernangomez are all under team control, and Denver has Bird rights on Grant next summer. This team isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
The 2019-20 season promises to be the most exciting in recent memory. Six teams, including the Nuggets, look like legitimate title contenders, and a couple others could talk themselves into warranting that distinction. But none of them possess a better collection of high-end talent, playable depth, and continuity than Denver.
This season isn’t title or bust for the Nuggets. Anything less than a top-four playoff seed and a hard-fought second-round playoff series, though, would be sorely disappointing.
11/8 vs. Philadelphia 76ers – Could this be an early-season preview of June? Most assume otherwise, but both the Nuggets and the Sixers have the horses needed to play for a title. The matchups in this one will be fascinating.
12/25 vs. New Orleans Pelicans – Christmas serves the league’s annual showcase to a national audience. Most viewers will be tuning in to watch Zion Williamson, but it’s Jokic who’s far more likely to introduce himself to more casual viewers as one of the best players in the world.
2/28 at LA Clippers – Denver and LA might very well be the two best teams in the Western Conference, if not the NBA. This game doesn’t only stand to have playoff implications, but will prove a major test of the Clippers’ biggest deficiency: two-way effectiveness on the wing.
4/14 at Utah Jazz – The Jazz sit a rung below the Nuggets in the championship pecking order. But by the time the season finale arrives, don’t be surprised if this is a matchup between two non-Los Angeles powerhouses.
Projected Record: 59-23
Denver will have a top-three offense, and its defensive deficiencies – which Grant and another year of experience in Malone’s adjusted system will help curb – are more difficult to exploit in the regular season. As long as Jokic is healthy, expect the Nuggets to challenge for 60 wins and the No. 1 seed in the West.