Long time readers of Sports Illustrated who are also weirdly devoted to what I have to say will know the Nuggets are my team. I’ve picked them to make the Finals two years in a row. Their superstar center Nikola Jokic was rocking a quarantine body way before it became popular. And Paul Millsap is the NBA’s breakout star of TikTok. Yet, with all that said, Denver’s ceiling may still be only somewhere between really, really, really good and true title contender. The Nugs are a top-three team in the West, but it’s hard to see them toppling the Lakers or Clippers in a seven-game series. So what if Denver’s best path forward means significantly changing a good thing?
The Nuggets are the kind of team that benefit from being wildly competent at every position, with an All-Star in Jokic who seemingly falls slightly short of being able to carry a title team as the No. 1 guy. Jamal Murray is supposed to be the second breakout star, but he’s still the slightest bit inconsistent to be a true second banana. Gary Harris is a valuable player who took a step back this season. Monte Morris and Michael Porter Jr. were important finds. And vets like Will Barton and Paul Millsap are impactful though not necessarily high-level difference makers. The challenge for Denver’s front office will be figuring out how to enter the top tier of the West, and that could mean sending away pieces from a well constructed roster.
It would be risky to break up a team with such a high floor, but the Nuggets may be pushing up against their ceiling. Do they have time to wait for Porter to potentially break out when he’s struggling to earn consistent minutes? Is Murray definitely going to make a leap? Denver has to be seriously considering getting in on the next sweepstakes for a disgruntled star, even if the trade market is out of whack for the next couple seasons. Could some package of Harris, Porter, a rotation guy or two, and picks bring back somebody like Bradley Beal? Would Beal, Jokic, and Murray be enough to compete with the best of the conference?
The Nuggets are in a great position no matter what. The front office built a talented roster, and there is honor in being a team that’s consistently in the top half of the conference. Still, if Denver wants more, the current core seems to be awful close to maxing out. Taking a big swing with an already successful group may be the only way to take the hardest step up.