When talking about the contenders in the Western Conference this summer, you hear a lot about the Lakers, Clippers, Rockets, Blazers, Warriors etc. Hell there’s even been a ton of hype and buzz surrounding the Jazz after the additions they’ve made this summer.
And then there’s the Nuggets.
You know, the team that won 54 games last season and proved that despite many not really buying into them all throughout the year that they could perhaps be the best overall team in the West. They certainly weren’t a 2 seed by accident, and after one of the best seasons in franchise history and their deepest playoff run since 2008, this Nuggets team enters next season absolutely loaded and ready to build on that success. But first, we should relive that magical season because it truly was fun as hell
2018-19 Season Highlights
What makes the Nuggets different from some of these other West contenders is first and foremost they are what you would consider a small market NBA team who isn’t exactly a hot free agent destination. For example, when they snagged Paul Millsap that was a great basketball decision, but it wasn’t exactly earth shattering news of another super team forming. Instead they’ve had to go the GS pre Durant approach of building through the draft and making smart trades. You look at their roster now, and you see a common trend. It’s almost entirely made up of home grown players
With a total salary of $133,199,833 the Nuggets currently have the 9th most expensive roster in the league. You’ll notice this season doesn’t include Jamal Murray’s massive extension that he signed this season, where he jumps to $29.5M next season and they’ll be paying their core of Jokic/Murray/Harris/Barton around a cool $90M. They’ve made the decision that investing in this core is the way to go and to surround them with legit role players and intriguing young talent when they have in spades. If you want to show a franchise as a blueprint for how to build a contender in a small market, the Nuggets have to be at the top of your list. When you look close at their season you start to see why they had this sudden rise and why barring injury they don’t appear to be going anywhere.
Of course, it all starts with Jokic. Once you accept that it just doesn’t make any goddamn sense that he’s so unstoppable and a legit MVP candidate, you can appreciate his greatness. He looks like every washed up big in your men’s league, he’s pudgy as hell and yet he absolutely destroys people
His passing is insane, he can stretch the floor and knock down threes, and when you get him on the block he knows how to use his big ass body to bully his way to the rim. Not to mention he’s only 23 years old so we probably haven’t even scratched the service with how good he can be. That’s pretty fucking terrifying considering how good he already is. Hitting on a player like Jokic in the second round is so huge for a small market team like the Nuggets, it’s the main reason why they are where they are.
The thing that makes Jokic such a problem is how versatile he can be within the Nuggets offense. You see a lot of pick & pop where he initiates the offense from the top of the key, and they do a great job of cutting and moving without the ball to create easy baskets. There are a handful of teams that use this approach, think the Horford Celtics or the Draymond Warriors, and when you have an elite passing big man it really opens everything else up. For example, the Nuggets ran cutting plays 7.9% of their possessions (8th), averaged 11.9 points a game off them (6th) while shooting 69.4% (1st). That was good enough to rank in the 96th percentile which was by far the best of anyone who ran it that often. It’s a huge part of what they do and why they are successful, thanks to Jokic.
What makes them a little different from other Western Conference contenders is they pretty much avoid isolation at all costs. Teams like HOU/OKC/LAL were all in the top 5 in isolation frequency last season. Denver? They finished 25th. Their offense is more about ball movement (5th in passes made per game), and killing you in the half court. This is NOT a team that plays fast, just a 98.49 pace which was good for 26th in the league. They want to slow it down, post you up with Jokic, and then have him find cutters and open shooters. This was a team that was basically league average in terms of 3PA and 3PM, they have to shooters you have to respect but don’t overly rely on the three point shot either. Remember, this was a team that was 20th in the league in points scored per game, so it’s not like they were some unstoppable offensive juggernaut. So how did they become a legit contender and the 2 seed in the West? Easy. Their defense woke up.
Of every team in the West, only one was able to finish the season in the top 10 in both offense and defense. That was the Denver Nuggets. Their consistent execution on the defensive end is what truly made the difference and why you could believe that their early success wasn’t a fluke. That seems weird considering Jokic won’t be making an All Defensive team anytime soon, but collectively this group defended at a pretty high level. Their 108.1 Drtg was the 4th lowest in the West, (0.1 behind MEM) and the only ones better were defensive monsters in OKC and UTA. Their overall net rating was 5th, and when you look at this year’s roster, who did they lose? There’s no reason to think the Nuggets can’t repeat that elite level defense.
Despite what we saw last year, there are still questions surrounding this Nuggets team. They’ve now paid Jamal Murray like a franchise #1 option, and the jury is still out on him. We saw some areas of his game improve, like his scoring and his assists, but like other members of his draft class the efficiency took a bit of a dip, and the defense is still an issue at times.
What level of jump he makes will truly determine if this group can hang with the now loaded LA teams in a brutal conference. Then there’s the questions around Michael Porter Jr and what he may be able to give. Remember, this team didn’t even get to see one second of their prized rookie last season, and at like 6’10 and healthy he could be a monster on their second unit. We’ll also hopefully see how things mesh with a healthy Gary Harris, who only played in 57 games last year, the same with Will Barton who only played 43. As we’ve seen, it’s not always smooth sailing when guys come back from injury. The good news is this team still has ridiculous depth with solid second unit players like Malik Beasley and Monte Morris, two guys who showed flashes filling in for these guys last year. I also think adding Jerami Grant will help because he’s a solid 3 and D guy who you can play at a small ball four and not lose much defensively. He was more than solid during his time in OKC.
As of now the Nuggets have the 8th best title odds at +1600, with 5 other teams out West coming in with better odds. That feels slightly disrespectful to a team that just showed us they can beat pretty much anyone in the conference and didn’t lose much in free agency. In my opinion Jokic could absolutely be a dark horse MVP candidate and it would be silly to underestimate the Nuggets for a second year in a row. Despite the lack of hype this is probably the second or third best team in the conference, and I’m sure they’ll have no problem being under the radar as they attempt to build on one of the best seasons in recent memory.
Official Greenie Prediction: 55 wins