There always seemed to be an excuse. Injuries, cold shooting, bad defense have all plagued the Denver Nuggets and really kept them out of the elite tier of NBA teams. It almost seems like the last two years have been a waste of the once in a lifetime talent that is Nikola Jokic. It always seemed like this team was destined for a 1st or 2nd round(if they are lucky) exit. But, with a few players back from injury and being added through free agency this team might finally be worthy of the Jokers greatness.
For the first time in forever, the Nuggets are finally healthy. After missing Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. for prolonged injury stints it seems like the gang’s back together. Every championship team needs second and third stars, and Denver has finally gotten theirs back. Murray has been filling the role of secondary star but also primary guard to perfection, with his ability to move and shoot the three being perfect complements to Jokic. One of the most important aspects of Murray’s game, and why the Nuggets missed him so much, is his ability to take over a game. He has that ability to single handedly close out games, and that means everything, especially on nights when Jokic can’t carry the offense for 30-40 min. Porter Jr. is more of the wildcard in the equation. He has always been known as a spark plug kind of guy, with the ability to get hot and turn the entire game around but also go quiet and not even touch the ball for stretches of the game. This season, Porter Jr. has become a much more reliable playmaker with 16 ppg this season, and has helped really push this team into the conversation as one of the best offenses in the league. It seems like Porter Jr. is slowly maturing in his shot selection and playmaking, and having him play like this has been a major lift for the team.
For everything that I have said about the Nuggets returning stars, it still remains that this team only goes as far as Jokic. And this season, though it might just be repetitive at this point, Jokic is playing on an MVP level. AGAIN. Jokic just seems to be able to make every play on the court, from a no-look dime to a turnaround fadeaway, his bag is endless. But, like I said earlier, the team Jokic has around him this year might just be good enough to maximize the full talents of the Joker. This doesn’t fall to just the two stars Denver has gotten back, but the number of offseason additions and internal improvements have given this team an almost unrivaled depth.
The biggest piece of the puzzle apart from the big three has to be Bones Hyland. Drafted late in the first round last year out of VCU, Hyland quickly filled in the role of starting point guard with Murray’s injury. He showed flashes throughout the season, showing the ability to score at all three levels and a playmaking ability that improved throughout the season. This year, Mike Malone is using Hyland off the bench in a 6th man role. This plays directly to his strengths of scoring in bunches(13 ppg), and taking the pressure off the starting unit. For Denver, they never had a playmaker like this in the years before, and now the Nuggets can truly be comfortable with subbing off Murray or Jokic knowing that they can still have multiple playmakers on the floor.
Now you might be thinking I forgot about the dunk contest legend that is Aaron Gordan, but his importance to this team can’t be overstated. The players I have all been discussing bring something different to the table offensively, but each one is a mid-tier defender at best. Gordon has become one of the few players that fits the bill as a two-way player. Something that is becoming more and more valuable as teams look to build around their stars. Probably the biggest facet of his game is the cutting and slashing ability that he has. This creates a devastating two player game where Gordan always seems to find the right cut, and Jokic always seems to make the pass. While this is still a big part of his game, his 38% from three and 16ppg show that Gordon is really becoming a player who can knock it down from deep but still make his own shot when it is needed. Evolutions like this are what makes the Nuggets one of the best teams at not only finding talent, but developing that talent.
While it was mentioned above for a brief moment, that should not understate the importance of defense for the Nuggets. With so much offensive firepower, it isn’t necessary to be at the top of the league in defense, but it is important to stay in that upper half of teams. That is exactly where Denver is with the 14th ranked defense, and a sense that they can make this defense much tighter come playoff time. This is mainly due to the two acquisitions made over the offseason. Bringing in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope through trade and signing Bruce Brown immediately shore up defensive positions on the wing. These two along with rookie Christian Braun represent an overhaul of the defense that was the worst in last year’s postseason, giving up an average of 118 points. These are all solid 3-D players who, when paired with Gordan, Jokic, and Zeke Nnaji down low, represent a solid defense that can complement the Nuggets top flight offense.
For all the moves and improvements, the Nuggets success really comes down to health. This team can make it deep because it has the star power and depth to challenge any team. The problem is whether Porter Jr. and Murray can stay healthy, but if they do this Denver team is going to be a force in the West.
Top Image: Brett Siegel/Fastbreak