- The Western Conference took a major leap forward this offseason, with unparalleled star movement establishing new duos in Los Angeles, Houston and Utah. Where does that leave the Nuggets and their two young stars?
The Nuggets are the Western Conference’s chief anomaly among the dozen or so teams we expect to gun for a playoff spot in 2020. Nearly every West contender will be headlined by its backcourt in 2019-20, with Steph Curry, James Harden, Damian Lillard and now LeBron James each leading a franchise. Denver, meanwhile is anchored by a pudgy Serbian center who holds court from the elbow at a mile high. Both Los Angeles teams were drastically altered by trades this offseason, as was Utah and Houston. The Nuggets, meanwhile, held firm aside from their acquisition of Jerami Grant.
Denver has no guarantee it will advance past the first round of the West playoffs next season, let alone claim the conference crown. But the Nuggets still hold a spot as one of the league’s most distinct teams. The Nuggets' League Pass status is secure, but their standing in the West is far more tenuous.
Denver was one of the league’s most joyful surprises last season. The Nuggets dropped their regular season finale to Minnesota in April 2018, missing out on the playoffs for the fifth straight year. But there was no scrounging for a playoff spot in 2018-19. Denver sprinted to the No. 2 seed in the West with 54 wins, trailing only Golden State out West en route to the fourth-most wins in franchise history. Jokic emerged as a legitimate MVP candidate while Jamal Murray continued his growth from an impressive sophomore season. A second-round loss to the Blazers capped a season of true progress, entrenching Denver as a near lock for the postseason in 2019-20. Whether the Nuggets can win the West is now a question worthy of further examination.
Jokic and the Nuggets should avoid any worry of missing the postseason in 2019-20. Their frenetic pace and high-octane offense should overwhelm teams at home, taking advantage of the altitude as opposing defenses gasp for air. This year’s crew is deeper in the frontcourt with Grant, and Michael Porter Jr. could provide a solid scoring boost if he can stay on the floor. Pencilling Denver outside the top eight is likely foolish barring a major injury to Murray or Jokic.
Another playoff appearance should keep the Denver fans content, but just how legitimate are the Nuggets’ hopes of a title? There are certainly some complicating factors, including concerns about Jokic. The ground-bound big is unlike any talent in the game today, with few historical comparisons. Wilt Chamberlain is the only other big man in NBA history to average 20 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists per game in a season, while Russell Westbrook is the only active player to join Jokic in the 20-10-7 club. But can a team reach the Finals with such an unconventional star?
Jokic is a Bill Walton-level passer with an increasingly fearsome scoring arsenal, yet there’s little precedent for a ball-dominant big man leading a Finals team over the last decade. Jokic was largely effective against Portland late in the Western Conference semifinals, though his deference to Murray was frustrating on key possessions. He needs to be more selfish as a late-game scorer, and an improved rate from three will certainly help relax the interior defensive pressure. Jokic’s game will need to reach another level for the Nuggets to compete with an elite pool of guards and reach the Finals, and increased assertiveness down the stretch remains critical to his growth.
As much as Jokic’s effectiveness will swing Denver’s postseason hopes, Murray likely stands as the biggest X-Factor for the Nuggets to reach their first Western Conference finals since 2009. The Kentucky product served as the Nuggets’ bellwether in the 2019 playoffs. Denver’s offense stalled as Murray struggled, slogging through quarters behind a slate of contested midrange jumpers. But when Murray found his footing, Denver soared. He took defensive pressure off Jokic and punished opposing teams from beyond the arc, launching triples with a Lillard-esque confidence. The Ontario native showed flashes of All-Star playmaking as a lead ball-handler, whipping crosscourt passes to open shooters in either corner off the pick-and-roll. Jokic’s unselfishness appeared to affect his young point guard in the latter half of 2018-19.
It’s a touch reductive to identify Denver’s two best players as key factors heading into next season’s title hunt, but it’s truly difficult to imagine the rest of its roster altering production by a significant margin. Paul Millsap is now more of a malleable rotation piece than an offensive force, while Gary Harris, Will Barton and Torrey Craig will likely rotate minutes based on their effectiveness from beyond the arc. Grant could provide an intriguing replacement for Millsap in certain late-game situations, adding a sizable boost in athleticism along with an improving three-point stroke. The former Thunder big man could be one of the more underrated moves of the offseason, though his impact pales in comparison to Jokic and Murray. There is no third star looming in Denver. The Nuggets' two-headed monster will need to lead the way.
Denver’s relative cohesion compared to its competition should be a notable advantage in the West, especially in the regular season. The Nuggets won’t need any adjustment period like the contenders in Houston, Los Angeles and Utah. But cohesion alone won’t give the Nuggets the conference title. Jokic and Murray will both need to rise to All-NBA status for Denver to make a legitimate push for the West crown, nudging their way into the conversation for the conference’s most effective duo. The Nuggets’ franchise cornerstones took the team back to the postseason in 2018-19. Another leap could vault Denver to the first Finals in the organization’s history.