The Denver Nuggets put the NBA on notice in 2016-17 boasting the league’s fifth best offense and narrowly missing the postseason. Nikola Jokic didn’t become a household name, but he established himself as one of the best bigs in the league — and a litmus test on NBA Twitter as Denver’s future.
Gary Harris emerged as one of the better young guards in the league; remember, his return from injury coincided with Denver’s offensive leap.
The Nuggets decided it was time to make a playoff push, and did so by signing All-Star forward Paul Millsap over the summer. His defensive versatility, inside-out bucket-getting, and veteran leadership was supposed to push Denver over the playoff hump. It probably would have if not for the wrist injury that sidelined Millsap for a chunk of the season.
Much like their 2016-17 campaign, the Nuggets lit up the scoreboard while getting torched defensively. Jokic had another great year; Harris made a mini-leap amid nagging injuries; Jamal Murray overtook Andrew Wiggins as Canada’s most promising young offensive star. Yet, the Nuggets couldn’t snag a playoff spot because of their defense, untimely injuries, and some baffling losses down the stretch.
Even with a disappointing end to the season, it’s hard not to be excited if you’re a Nuggets fan. They won 46 games behind one of the better young cores in the league and they’re only going to get better. A positive summer, and better health in the regular season, could realistically put them in 50-win territory.
6. How much of a gut punch was it for Denver to barely miss out on a playoff berth?
The loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves on the final day of the 2017-18 NBA season was a brutal gut punch, but one that was desperately needed to push the Denver Nuggets into their next stage of development.
The Nuggets seemingly gained notoriety overnight thanks to the emergence of Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris, and Jamal Murray. That young core is incredibly talented but they suddenly needed a lesson in how to win consistently — not just show up to play their best basketball when it is an absolute necessity.
Missing the playoffs by one single game in back-to-back years will hopefully be a wake-up call that the young Nuggets squad cannot just get by on talent and a relentless offensive onslaught.
Falling back into the NBA Draft Lottery in such a heart-wrenching way has seemingly opened the eyes of many of the younger Denver players. The hunger and the chip on their collective shoulder seems more menacing and motivating than ever before. If the Nuggets truly did learn to take every game seriously after the loss in Minnesota, then that misstep could be the start of something truly great in the Mile High City.
5. Kenneth Faried’s name is being floated out in trade rumors .. again. Is this the summer it finally gets done?
This will be an important topic of conversation up until the 2018 NBA Draft on June 21. It directly relates to how the Nuggets will approach the draft, armed with the 14th, 43rd, and 58th picks, and how much flexibility Denver will have once free agency begins on July 1.
Personally, I do think this is the year Denver moves on from Kenneth Faried.
Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported the Nuggets have explored attaching Faried’s contract with the 14th pick to clean up the cap sheet and my sources have also expressed the same sentiment to me. In addition to the willingness of Denver to use their first-round pick to move off of Faried, Nuggets’ president of basketball operations also would not rule out using the stretch provision either when pressed about it. Faried is in the final year of his contract, making him more easily traded than years prior, and Denver will be giving Jokic his max contact this offseason making financial flexibility a necessity. It seems the stars have finally aligned.
After one of the strangest career arcs I have personally seen, I expect the dysfunctional marriage between Faried and the Nuggets to finally coming to a merciful end.
4. Will Barton was both one of Denver’s best/only shot creators, and someone who tanked their defense. He’s a free agent this summer — would you like to see him back, or would you rather see Denver draft or sign a replacement?
I think Denver needs to bring Will Barton back and that if they don’t, there could be a sizable step backwards. He was the emotional leader of the locker room, a veteran presence who massively impacted the development of both Murray and Gary Harris while also playing three different positions as a starter or off of the bench. Essentially, Barton filled almost every gap on the roster.
When the Nuggets needed a ball handler, he was there. When the Nuggets needed someone to make plays for others, Barton proceeded to put up the second-best assist to turnover ratio and the second-best assist percentage on the roster. When the Nuggets needed volume scoring, he can score on or off the ball. He took over five 3-pointers per game this past season and nailed 37 percent of them. He is a fearless slasher and can create his own shot in isolation as well. Whatever the Nuggets needed on offense, Barton was there.
Defensively, Barton struggled. He was unable to keep guards out of the paint and was just as culpable for the defensive inefficiencies as any other guard on the roster, but without much money to spend during free agency, it seems highly unlikely that Denver will be able to find such an important locker room personality that brings so much versatility to the offensive side of the ball.
If Denver can move off of Faried’s contract, or Wilson Chandler opts out of his final year of his deal, I would expect Barton back in the fold. If not, it’s hard to see the Nuggets head into free agency with the same roster, give Jokic a max deal, and then proceed to go even further into the tax to retain Barton.
3. Is there anyone you’re keyed in on at No. 14 in the draft, or do you want to see Denver make a trade?
I do not have a dog in the fight when it comes to trading or using the 14th pick just because there are so many moving parts with the Nuggets right now. While clearing one of Faried, Chandler, or Darrell Arthur from the cap sheet would be very helpful, they do not necessarily need to be moved on draft night.
With that being said, there are a couple of players I really like in the late lottery, but the majority of them need to fall in some capacity to reach Denver. Of players near the 14th pick, I like both Mikal and Miles Bridges, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, De’Anthony Melton, and Zhaire Smith.
There are also a few other players who will likely be selected after the lottery that could still help Denver if the Nuggets’ front office felt like trading back or just reaching for a player that they like. Troy Brown Jr., Keita Bates-Diop, Josh Okogie, Elie Okobo, Aaron Holiday, and Kevin Huerter should all be available by the time Denver is on the clock with the 14th pick and all bring skills to the table that could help Denver right out of the gate.
2. Denver has a pair of second round picks (43, 58). Who are some sleepers you’d like to see them target?
The second round of the 2018 NBA Draft has a lot of hidden talent in it. Denver has needs help on the wing and they need a backup point guard. All of that can be found from the 43rd pick and on.
If you’re looking for point of attack defense, Jevon Carter could be available around the 43rd pick. Jalen Brunson, who could be selected anywhere from the end of the first round to the end of the second round, can come in and run a functional offense right off of the bat while not making typical rookie mistakes. Trevon Duval has the speed and aggression to break down defenses with the ball in his hands. All of those guards bring a different set of skills to the table, but all could contribute from day one.
When it comes to wings, there are interesting options. Dzanan Musa is a smooth shooting 6-foot-9 wing who can really stretch the floor. Melvin Frazier can defend and play multiple positions and is adding a three-point shot to his game. Rodions Kurucs, after a bad year for FC Barcelona Lassa, has fallen into the second round after being pegged as a first round prospect last year. The 6-foot-9 Latvian has legitimate guard skills, can shoot the ball from distance, and has functional athletic ability. He needs to bulk up, but he would also bring great versatility considering where he will likely be picked.
There is plenty of talent for Tim Connelly and Arturas Karnisovas to find in the second round.
1. Are their any attainable wings that interest you in this year’s free agency class?
Denver would need to open up quite a bit of money to be able to be active in free agency. Wing players who fit the positionless and switchable style of the NBA are a rare luxury that cost a pretty penny to acquire, so Denver would have to pull off some serious magic to open up enough money to sign one of them.
There are three players I think could be interesting options; Rodney Hood, Jerami Grant, and Trevor Ariza.
Hood’s value bottomed out after his time in Cleveland and he will be a restricted free agent this year. While he was underwhelming in the playoffs, having a 6-foot-9 small forward with that kind of length could be a big upgrade for Denver on the wing; especially at a discount.
Trevor Ariza is another interesting option. He will be an unrestricted free agent many teams will likley reach out to because of his length, versatility, and his complete understanding of his role. His defensive chops would immediately help Denver and he would be a welcomed veteran leader in the locker room.
My favorite potential signing would be to bring in Jerami Grant. His smothering length, freakish athleticism, and rare combination of shot blocking and three-point shooting make him an ideal fit alongside Jokic. Plus, Grant is still just 24 years old. He had a ways to go as a shooter still, but his archetype of player is such a rare combination.