Published On: Mon, Apr 16th, 2018

Better Luck Next Year: Denver Nuggets edition

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As NBA teams are officially eliminated from title contention, theScore NBA freelance writer Andrew Unterberger takes a look back at the highs and lows of their season, along with the biggest questions ahead of 2018-19. The 14th and final lottery edition focuses on the Denver Nuggets.

The Good

Nikola Jokic, full unicorn. Denver’s preternaturally gifted big man put up otherworldly numbers in 2016-17, but only started 59 games, having split time with Jusuf Nurkic, before he was traded to Portland. Haters could question whether Jokic could manage similar dominance for a full 82, but he left no doubt that his production the season prior was no small-sample fluke. The center posted 19-11-6 on 50 percent shooting (and 40 percent from three). He was especially brilliant down the stretch, posting 26-13-8 in the season’s final eight games. How to build a defense around the not-particularly-mobile pivot remains something of a mystery, but offensively, he’s now in a class of his own.

The end-of-season win streak. The Nuggets looked pretty dead in the water at 40-35 with only playoff-hunt teams remaining on their schedule. But thanks in large part to a scorching Jokic, they reeled off six Ws in a row to put themselves in the position for a win-and-in game to end the season.

Jamal Murray and Gary Harris, backcourt of the future. You don’t hear Murray and Harris mentioned often as one of the NBA’s best backcourts, but give it time. They both averaged around 17 a game, were deadly behind the arc with over 320 combined threes, and were each capable of exploding for 40 on a given night. Neither has been particularly inspiring as a playmaker, but that’s what the team has Jokic for. If they continue to grow into their Damian LillardC.J. McCollum-type potential, along with Jokic, they could make Denver the NBA’s most imposing offensive team in short order.

Trey Lyles’ breakout. Not that it was enough to make fans forget what the team gave up to get him. but Trey Lyles finally made good on his potential for a full season off the bench. He averaged career highs in both production and efficiency in most relevant categories, including a PER (17.9) nearly double his last season in Utah (9.9). He’ll likely stay bench-ridden for as long as Jokic and Paul Millsap are roaming the Pepsi Center floor, but his frontcourt versatility could still prove invaluable as a reserve, and he’s an interesting trade chip in the meantime.

Holding the Warriors to 81. For at least one game, these Nuggets were late-’90s Eastern Conference-worthy on defense, holding the Golden State Warriors to 81 points on just 38 percent shooting in a double-digit win in December. Perhaps it wasn’t that impressive given the Warriors’ relative dysfunction and inability to stay healthy this season – Steph Curry missed the game – but it did snap an 11-game Dubs winning streak. Denver added some validation when they beat a full-strength GSW 115-108 later in the season.

The Bad

Enver Nuggets. Simply put, these Nuggets were pretty badly lacking in D. The team’s 110.9 defensive rating was 25th, and they ranked dead last in both FG% (47.6) and 3PT% (37.8) allowed. Injuries to two of their best defensive players certainly didn’t help, but defense should be a continued issue as the team builds around Jokic – who offers little rim protection or switchability – and a rotation of relatively undersized guards.

Game 82. Good lord, were the Nuggets close. Forcing a play-in game in Minnesota with that late six-game win streak, Jokic was absolutely magnificent, scoring 35 and hitting dagger three after dagger three, to pull the Nugs level with four seconds left with the ball. But Jokic was stripped in the corner by Taj Gibson on the final possession, and in overtime he just didn’t have the juice. Neither did Murray or Harris, as one of the NBA’s best offenses could only manage five points in the OT period, ultimately losing the game (and the season), 112-106.

Millsap and Harris injuries. The Nuggets were essentially playing with one hand tied behind their back for most of the season, as versatile two-way power forward Millsap – arguably the biggest free-agency acquisition in Nuggets history – missed 44 games with a wrist injury. He made it back in time for the team’s stretch run, but then Denver lost Harris for double-digit games in March and April with a knee sprain. In a season where the Nuggets missed the playoffs in overtime of Game 82, either one of these injuries could have made the difference in them making it.

Cutting the cord with Emmanuel Mudiay. Three summers ago, it seemed like the Nuggets were one of the draft’s big winners for landing Mudiay – the supremely athletic, two-way point guard – with the No. 7 pick, despite being tabbed by many mock drafts as a top-three talent. However, his first two years in Denver were reflective of a player who barely should have gone in the first round, as Mudiay failed to score efficiently, distribute prolifically, or defend consistently.

Midway through his third season, Denver finally cut bait with their lottery point guard, dealing him to New York in a three-way deal that brought in a much more reliable backup point guard in Devin Harris. Not a fantastic return for a former No. 7 pick, but given how putrid Mudiay was in New York – posting a 43 percent True Shooting, with laughably bad defensive numbers – it’s hard to imagine Denver has lost much sleep over the deal.

The Donovan Mitchell factor. If Denver did earn themselves sleepless nights this season, it likely came from Tim Connelly & Co. staying up to watch Utah Jazz games. The Nuggets sent their first-round pick in the ’17 draft – No. 12 overall – to the Jazz, in return for Lyles, who had a very nice junior season in Denver. But it was nothing compared to the rookie year from the player Utah grabbed with that No. 12 pick: Donovan Mitchell. A dynamic two-way lead guard, Mitchell posted 20.5 PPG, hit countless huge shots, and was integral in the Jazz making their post-Gordon Hayward playoff run. It’s hard to say where Mitchell would have fit in Denver’s already crowded back court, but it’s safe to say that Michael Malone would have been happy to try and make the league’s deadliest young three-guard attack in recent memory work.

The Questions

Will the team go to great lengths to retain Will Barton’s services? Barton proved himself a Sixth Man of the Year candidate this season, averaging career bests in both PPG (15.7) and TS% (56.2) while serving as one of the team’s better wing defenders and more reliable late-game options. He was even forced into the starting lineup for half the season with the injuries to Millsap and Harris, posting far better splits as a starter than reserve. He’s a major part of this Nuggets squad, but he’s also a free agent this summer, sure to command a hefty payday on the open market and the Nuggets already have nine figures worth of salary commitments for next season. Will they do what’s necessary to keep the explosive wing, or will he be the odd man out from the team’s increasingly expensive core?

How will the team resolve Nikola Jokic’s unusual free agency situation? It’s the same dilemma the Rockets found themselves in a couple years ago with Chandler Parsons. They have a laughably cheap team option for their second-round steal in the final year of his rookie deal, but if they pick it up, Jokic will become an unrestricted free agent next summer. If they decline the option, Jokic instead becomes a restricted free agent, meaning he’ll be in for a considerable raise immediately, though Denver can match any offer sheet he signs elsewhere.

That’s probably the safe move, since the Nuggets can’t possibly risk losing Jokic for nothing at any point in the next half-decade, but doing so will have major ramifications on their cap situation, putting them in the luxury tax and hampering their ability to retain Barton. Either way, Jokic’s contract situation will probably have to be the first domino to fall in the Nuggets’ offseason plans.

What money can the team get off their books for the summer? It’s in the Nuggets’ best interest to clear as much cap space as possible this summer, and that may require getting rid of some highly compensated but inessential players. Backup center Mason Plumlee is owed $27 million over the next two years, while power forward Kenneth Faried – who fell out of Denver’s rotation entirely this season, an incredible fall from grace for the 28-year-old – is also due nearly $14 million next season. Meanwhile, veteran wing Wilson Chandler and backup PF Darrell Arthur have player options for a combined $20 million for next year, both being owed far more than they’re likely to pick up annually on the open market this summer.

It may take some attaching of assets to get the Nuggets clear of some of these deals, though they don’t have a lot of expendable young prospects or extra draft picks to dispense with at the moment. Forward and former first-rounder Juancho Hernangomez might still hold some allure, but probably not enough to take on eight figures in additional salary. It might take a future first-rounder and/or Lyles to convince any team to serve as a salary dumping ground for Denver – which would sting, but probably not as much as the potential loss of Jokic or the guaranteed loss of Barton.

How high is the ceiling for a Nuggets team built around Jokic? Jokic’s offensive skills are generational, but his defensive shortcomings make him a liability at the one position you can’t really afford to have a hole. The big man is talented enough that Denver pretty much has to figure out a way to build at least an average defense around him. While having Millsap and Harris around for a full season would certainly help, additional moves are likely needed to take advantage of Jokic’s presence on one end of the floor, while covering up for his minuses at the other. Building a contender like that will be a big challenge, but after this season, just building a guaranteed playoff team would probably be an acceptable baseline for the time being.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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