Beneath the surface of a 23-11, first-place record is an intriguing-yet-injured list of depth on the Denver Nuggets roster.
Point guard Isaiah Thomas — a two-time All-Star — is nearing a return from hip surgery.
Rookie Michael Porter Jr. — the No. 14 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft — is close behind Thomas.
Swingman Will Barton — one of the league’s top bench scorers in 2017-18 — will be back within the next week.
And this is the same team that beat the Golden State Warriors without any of the aforementioned names to start the 2018-19 campaign.
Coach Michael Malone has untapped potential within his 17-man roster, a group of injured players who are chomping at the bit for an activation. The Denver medical staff is still waiting to etch a timetable for Thomas and Porter Jr., but the team has 48 games remaining over three-plus months on its regular-season slate — plenty of time to recuperate and retool a playoff-bound rotation.
Could the Nuggets improve even more with internal upgrades like Barton, Thomas and Porter Jr.? And this goes without mentioning their latest hot stretch, a three-week span in which they have won six of eight games without the services of key pieces like Paul Millsap and Gary Harris, too.
Thomas declined the surgical route ahead of his brief stint with the Cavaliers, a decision that has derailed his career. In 2016-17, though, Thomas helped the Celtics to a 30-14 record in clutch opportunities, and shot 40 percent from 3-point range, with a 65.4 true shooting percentage in such valuable scenarios. His 29 points in the fourth quarter against Charlotte set a franchise record Dec. 30, 2016.
Yes, this all transpired when Thomas was last healthy two years ago — before the hip injury, before the drama in Cleveland and before the veteran’s-minimum contract in Denver. Expectations should be tempered when it comes to Thomas, but having success in a 15- to 18-minute workload behind Jamal Murray is something he is capable of and likely motivated to do, especially heading into another summer of free agency.
There was a point when Porter Jr. was a potential No. 1 overall pick. Of course, this came before two back surgeries in November 2017 and July 2018, procedures that repaired one of his two bulging disks. He has reportedly turned some heads during team workouts.
Make no mistake about it — back surgeries are serious, and even a return to basketball activities does not guarantee much for Porter Jr. With that said, he is a 6-foot-10, three-level scorer who features the same standing reach as Anthony Davis (9-feet). Couple that with a 7-foot wingspan and a high-release, high-percentage shot, and Porter Jr. has a superstar-level ceiling.
Barton might be the easiest of the trio to project this season. He led the NBA in games played in 2015-16 (82), and almost matched that total in 2017-18 (81). Barton’s numbers have only elevated since he entered the league in 2012-13, as his ability to fill the stat sheet across most impactful categories makes him a threat in any second unit.
The 27-year-old’s groin injury has limited him to two games, one year after he averaged career-highs in points (15.7), assists (4.1), steals (1.0), blocks (0.6), points per 100 possessions/offensive rating (113), win shares (6.2), minutes (33.1) and starts (40). The list goes on and on, too.
So, what might the Nuggets look like when the playoffs roll around in April 2019? Their starting lineup likely will inject the multi-layered contributions of Barton:
PG Jamal Murray
SG Gary Harris
SF Will Barton
PF Paul Millsap
C Nikola Jokic
However, the bench could be just as impressive compared to other postseason-bound rosters when/if Thomas and Porter Jr. are ready:
PG Isaiah Thomas
SG Monte Morris/Malik Beasley
SF Juancho Hernangomez
PF Michael Porter Jr./Trey Lyles
C Mason Plumlee
Denver’s blueprint for April 2019 is still unknown, as it cannot solely depend on the health of oft-injured players like Thomas and Porter Jr. But we knew that already, as the Nuggets have relied on Nikola Jokic’s MVP season, Murray’s career year and Monte Morris’45-percent clip from downtown instead.
If Barton, Porter Jr., Thomas, Millsap and Harris are collectively able to stay healthy and mesh within an already promising system, then expect the Nuggets to contend for a Western Conference title for 2018-19 and beyond.