A heartbreaking loss to the Portland Trail Blazers ended the Denver Nuggets’ postseason run this past Sunday. Although the Nuggets scrapped their way to game 7 and Nikola Jokic had an impressive outing of his own, a monster performance by C.J. McCollum was just too much for the young Denver squad.
There is no doubt, though, that this team has plenty to be proud of. After falling just one game shy of making the playoffs the past two seasons, Denver steamrolled their way through the west this season to finish with the second seed and a 54-28 record.
This earned them their first postseason appearance since 2013- when Ty Lawson was the Nuggets’ leading scorer. It may not feel like that was long ago but noting that the current Denver roster features none of the names it did when they last saw the playoffs puts it in to perspective a bit.
It is obvious that this season was just a taste of what’s to come in terms of Mile High City’s success. However, there is a real chance that moving forward, this team isn’t just good, but can become the best team in the league.
Firstly, the core of this Nuggets team is still very young. In total, the 2018-19 Denver roster included 11 active players under 25 years old, most notably: Jamal Murray (22-years old), Gary Harris (24-years-old), Malik Beasley (22-years-old), Monte Morris (23-years-old), and franchise centerpiece Nikola Jokic (24-years-old). This abundance of youth had them listed as the fourth youngest roster in the league this season, with an average age of 24.7, even with veteran Paul Millsap on the team.
The fact that the team’s focal points of the future haven’t yet hit their prime, or even come close in some cases should generate plenty of optimism. Experience, like these young players saw in their 14 playoff games this postseason will only help them develop as competitors as they grow. While they may have some deficiencies, such as Murray’s inconsistencies or Jokic’s inability to make a defensive impact night in and night out, they have plenty of time to add to their game.
Another reason to expect a reinforced Denver Nuggets ahead of next season is a special addition they will be able to add to the rotation. In what could end up being the steal of the 2018 NBA Draft, Michael Porter Jr. fell all the way to the Nuggets at 14th after suffering a rough injury during his lone freshman season in college. Prior to this, Porter Jr. spent much of his high school career and time at Mizzou as a top prospect for that draft. Had he never been injured, there is a good chance he could have been the top overall pick.
It is impossible to say right now what kind of player Michael Porter Jr. will be. There is always the chance that he doesn’t add an extra layer of lethality to Denver. But, what if he does? Porter is slated to hit the court for the first time as a pro in this year’s summer league, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he showed out.
In the past, players like Blake Griffin and Ben Simmons have shown that a red shirt year can do wonders for a rookie in the NBA. The access to a year’s worth of pro-level resources like video teams and medical staffs, as well as just being a year older and likely in better shape, could make him a force to be reckoned with when he first hits the court. If his trajectory ends up anywhere close to his ceiling, the Nuggets will have not just another great young talent, but one that compliments the others they already have in place excellently.
Aside from the overwhelming youth and room for growth this team’s future has, there is another big reason to Denver could get a lot better very quickly. Heading into the 2019 offseason, the Nuggets currently have just under $18 million available in cap space. If this team wanted to free up enough room for a max contract, they are just a Mason Plumlee trade away.
Denver hasn’t traditionally been a top free agent destination, and this would also mean they likely wouldn’t be able to bring back Paul Millsap, but this young Western Conference two seed could have all the means to add a Kawhi Leonard or Jimmy Butler into the mix this summer.
Their ability to use to cap space to add high-end talent won’t last long, as Jamal Murray, and Torrey Craig will both probably cease to be cheap to keep around once their current contracts wrap up following the 2019-20 season. However, if they make use of it this offseason, even if they are able to land a name like Tobias Harris or Khris Middleton, this roster could be very scary heading into next season and for the unforeseeable future.