Of the five teams who have never played in an NBA final, Denver have been around the longest, and as such would have to be considered one of the bigger failures in league history, in terms of winning it all.
However, after five straight seasons of missing the playoffs before last season – and a further four postseason trips before this finishing with first round defeat – the Nuggets may finally be striking gold after building a core around perhaps the most uniquely talented player in the NBA.
Denver climbed up the mountain in 2018-19, finishing with a 54-28 record, good for fourth-best in the NBA. Since 2014-15, the Nuggets have slowly improved their record each year – winning 30, 33, 40 and 46 games in the previous four seasons – and bolstered their roster.
That 2014-15 squad included names such as Arron Afflalo, Kenneth Faried, Danilo Gallinari, Ty Lawson, Chandler Wilson and Jusuf Nurkić. From that team, only Gary Harris and Will Barton remain. Following Brian Shaw’s firing, the Nuggets’ front office decided gradual improvement was more suited to a team that, historically, has not been considered successful in signing or retaining big-name free agents.
Denver came tantalizingly close to playoff berths each season before the last, including a devastating loss to Minnesota in the final game of the season for the eighth playoff spot. After starting the season with a 9-1 record, including impressive wins over the Golden State Warriors and the Utah Jazz, the Nuggets locked up the second seed in the Western Conference. Denver enjoyed an especially high winning rate in their Northwest Division, going 12-4 combined against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Oklahoma City Thunder, Utah, and the Minnesota Timberwolves (with the three former teams all winning between 49 and 53 games in the season themselves).
In the first round, Denver defeated Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs in a seven games series many considered beforehand to be a toss-up due to the Spurs experience and the Nuggets struggles towards the end of the regular season. However, behind a 23-point performance from Murray in Game 7, Denver progressed.
In the second round, Denver went the distance again but fell to Portland in a series that they had a 3-2 lead. Though many considered the loss to be an upset considering the season Denver had, and its home court advantage, the Nuggets had missed the playoffs a year before entirely – being one game off the Western Conference Finals was, in fact, a huge overachievement for Denver.
The man nicknamed The Joker stood right alongside Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant (when healthy) as the best player in the playoffs, finishing 14 games with averages of 25.1 points, 13 rebounds and 8.4 assists per game, numbers reserved only for all-time guards like Oscar Robertson (twice), Russell Westbrook, and another freak of nature in LeBron James.
Questions loomed during the off-season, all of which were answered accordingly. Paul Milsap was signed for one more season after Denver picked up the team option, meaning the Nuggets will retain their defensive leader for at least another year (at the cost of $30,500,000). Michael Porter Jr has stated he is healthy and ready to play, which if true gives Denver a player who was a top-five talent in his draft, and Jamal Murray signed a hefty five-year, $170-million contract extension, locking him up until 2024 – assuming he isn’t traded before then.
In terms of free agent signings and trades, Denver did not make any marquee signings – though they were linked with Jimmy Butler and Bradley Beal.
However, for a team built through the draft, as they are, it isn’t necessary. The defensive side of the ball is where Denver had the most improvement by trading for Jerami Grant from a Thunder team in re-build mode, and signing 19-year-old Bol Bol to a two-way contract, adding an interior presence if he can get minutes.
Outside of Milsap and Will Barton, Denver has a team full of youngsters. In the playoffs, Denver fielded the eighth youngest team ever, and their best starting five (comprising Murray, Harris, Barton, Milsap and Jokić) had an average age of just 25.4. Despite the youth, Denver showed signs of a team that had all the experience in the world, especially in the fourth quarter having the lowest amount of points per game scored against them at 25.2. The valuable playoff minutes acquired will no doubt help the Nuggets this season, and another season with Malone as head coach will also add continuity to the team.
It is fair to say Jokić has already cemented himself as one of the most unique offensive weapons to grace the NBA. His ability to run an offense from the high post, and even be the ball handler in pick and rolls with Murray means Denver has an inverted offense which – when working – challenges every team in the league. Jokić has also shown himself to be the closer when needed for Denver, with three game-winning shots made last season. The question will be when his teammates’ shots aren’t hitting, does he have the will to take the ball into the low post and dominate a team single-handedly as many believe he has the ability to do?
Denver will be a key player in a Western Conference that somehow got even better. Although they won’t have the dynasty of Golden State almost guaranteed to finish above them, the conference does now feature a whole slew of teams who have made moves to be in the same position as Denver. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Nuggets improve their record for the sixth straight season, and could even eclipse their all-time best record of 57 wins from the 2012-13 season.
1.The Blue Arrow – Jamal Murray
Although not the star of the team, Denver’s title chances will rely on the play of Jamal Murray. Denver was one quarter away from making the Western Conference Finals, but the team was just as close to being beaten in Round 1. It was Murray, who, in Game 2, showed his true scoring ability. After starting off the game 0-8 from the field, he poured in 21 of his 24 points in the fourth quarter to ensure Denver didn’t go down 2-0 to San Antonio. If Murray can become a more consistent shooter and a crunch-time shot maker, the Nuggets will be real contenders for an NBA Finals trip.
2.Age, experience and continuity
The NBA is a results-driven league (evident enough as there have already been seven new head coaches since the start of the 2018-19 season), so with Mike Malone now secure in his role after there were reports in 2017-18 that Denver could move in a different direction, the former Sacramento Kings head coach can continue to implement his game plan. With many of the team’s key pieces finally tasting playoff success (or even playoff minutes), the Nuggets will no doubt be more driven than ever to get back there.
Most of the great offenses in the league have offensive styles consisting of isolation heavy guards (Houston and Portland), off-ball motion (Golden State) and big centric spacing (Philadelphia and Milwaukee), however, Denver’s two-man game has become their dominant playstyle. They finished the season ranked seventh in offensive rating, but their true potential has yet to be realized when it comes to scoring the basketball. Jerami Grant will become a primary screen setter, a match-up that could be unguardable with Joker on the ball. Milsap – who shot 47 percent – from between 10 and 14 feet can be moved slightly back to allow for even more space in the paint. By switching touches between Jokić and Murray, Malone will be hoping the biggest improvement next season will be playmaking ability in increasing the offensive input from the other players (with almost 33 [percent of Murray’s assists being to Jokić last season and 25 percent of Jokić’s being to Murray).
Nikola Jokić | 20.1 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 7.3 apg
An All-NBA First Team selection, All Star and MVP candidate, Joker will be looking to further cement himself as the premier big man in the league (though Joel Embiid, Rudy Gobert and Karl Anthony-Towns will have something to say about that). Jokić won’t be winning over fans for his defense. While it is not elite, his defensive positioning has been slated a little too harshly. Offensively, the Serbian center may distance himself in 2020 as the best dual-threat the game has to offer, after finishing the previous campaign as tied for eight in assist per game (and the third most assists per game ever for a center after two seasons by Wilt Chamberlain).
Jamal Murray | 18.2 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 4.8 apg
At just 22 years of age, Murray should be entering his fourth season with high expectations after coming off a post season in which he stepped up big for the Nuggets, with eight games of 23 points or more. He can be inconsistent, but with maturity, Mike Malone will be hoping Murray can become the team’s leading scorer.
Paul Millsap | 12.6 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 2.0 apg
Though no longer considered a first, second – or perhaps even third – option on the offensive end, Milsap has flourished in his role as defensive anchor for a Denver team that jumped from 23rd in defensive rating 2017-18 to 10th in 2018-19.
Gary Harris | 12.9 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 2.2 apg
Perhaps Denver’s best two-way player, Harris will continue to guard the opposing teams’ best offensive guards and wings. Against the Spurs in round one, Derrick White averaged 23 points in games one through three, shooting close to 70 percent from the field. Coach Malone opted to have Harris guard White from thereafter, and from that point on averaged less than 10 points per game on almost half the efficiency he had before. Offensively, expect Harris to continue to thrive in the Nuggets offensive system, which is dominated by Jokić finding open cutters – something Harris may be the best at on the team.
Michael Porter Jr. | DNP
It may be strange to consider Michael Porter as a key player considering he has yet to play an NBA game, and only played three college basketball games. However, if the reports are to be believed and he has fully recovered from a second back surgery, then Porter Jr. could go on to have impact with Denver. In today’s game, with pace and space becoming ever more important, Porter Jr. has great movement on and off the ball and has drawn comparisons to a young Rudy Gay, which could be key in creating quick plays on a team that finished 26th in pace last season.