The Denver Nuggets.
The Denver Nuggets are a good team. They won 54 games last year, and they didn’t have their opening night starting line up for most of that due to injuries. Their 54-28 record was 4th best in the entire league. Their Net Rating was 8th in the league. The last time they made the playoffs before the 2018-19 season, the immortal Anthony Randolph was still on the roster. Not only did they make the playoffs in 2019, but they made it to the second round. The last time THAT happened, Dahntay Jones started 71 games for the team. The Nuggets were a good team, and by any objective measure they had a successful season last year.
They are still good this season. They brought back almost the exact same roster. They added Jerami Grant. They have Michael Porter Jr. ready to actually play this year. The core of their team (Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton) are all either pre-prime or in-prime players. They are 7-3 so far this season, right back near the top of the Western Conference.
And yet, something is just wrong with them.
This is not a Nikola Jokic hater column. Zach Lowe wrote about Jokic already, as well as approximately 253 other blogs and posts on /r/nba and the Denver Stiffs and DNVR and everywhere else. While I agree something doesn’t look right with Jokic, he’s not my problem with the Nuggets.
The strength of the Nuggets is supposedly their depth. But their bench has actually been a giant weakness this year. Check out the +/- column in this box score from their game against the Mavericks earlier this year. The Nuggets have played 16 5-man lineups more than 5 minutes this year. Six of those have a positive net rating. Only one of those features more than one bench player. While Jokic may not look right, the bench looks positively awful.
To paraphrase Brett Brown, the Nuggets need to be star hunting. Yes, they won 54 games last year. But they also got bounced in the second round by a Blazers team that was swept by a Kevin Durant-less Warriors team. And they lost game 7 at home to a Blazers team with no Jusuf Nurkic. And they probably should have lost game 7 at home to the Spurs in the first round, if not for a royal fuck up at the end of the game by San Antonio. In order to get to the next level – championship level – they need a star. Luckily, they have a potential star on their bench.
Michael Porter, Jr. was the number two ranked high school basketball prospect according to ESPN. He played three games in college before getting injured. The Nuggets drafted him with the 14th overall pick in the 2018 draft, and he redshirted last year to get healthy. He’s the closest thing the Nuggets have, and probably will be able to get, to another star. They have Jokic. They could theoretically package some players and trade for a star, but Bradley Beal can’t be traded this season after signing his extension with the Wizards. In other words, Carmelo Anthony isn’t walking through that door. Alex English isn’t walking through that door. The Nuggets need to find as many ways as possible to get MPJ on the court and see if he’s a star. Sure, sometimes the number 2 high school player turns out to be Shabazz Muhammad, but other times they turn out to be Zion Williamson.
Unfortunately, Michael Malone and the Nuggets seem incapable of straying from the norm and trying something new. I’m a Michael Malone fan. Anyone who can keep Boogie Cousins happy and actually make the Kings respectable is a quality coach. But for some reason he feels compelled to keep a giant white dude on the court at all times. Check this out: According to pbpstats.com, last year, when the score was within 10 points, the Nuggets only played 89 total minutes with neither Jokic nor Plumlee on the court. 89! This year, its been only 7 minutes when the score is within 10 points.
It’d be one thing if these traditional lineups were blowing teams away, but as I already mentioned, anytime more than 1 bench player is on the court, it’s almost always a negative. It’s time the Nuggets try something new. A small ball lineup could open up the court for MPJ and let the Nuggets find their next star.
They could run out lineups starring Jerami Grant at center, with Murray, Monte Morris, MPJ and Malik Beasley (the Pacers may have the monopoly on TJs but the Nuggets have the market cornered on M names). Or have Millsap join them and get rid of Morris. They also need to turn up the pace with these lineups. Last year, the Nuggets ranked 26th in pace despite have a clear home court advantage with the altitude. This year they are dead last. And I get that Jokic isn’t exactly John Wall out there. But they have plenty of positional versatility, both offensively and defensively, to play small and fast for stretches in the game and absolutely blitz opponents.
The Warriors had the death lineup that pushed them to an almost unbeatable level. While the Nuggets probably can’t get that high, a small ball lineup could serve the dual purpose of tiring out opponents in the Mile High City, while also unlocking the star potential of Michael Porter, Jr. Something is wrong with the Nuggets. But it’s not Jokic. Its not Jamal Murray or Will the Thrill. What’s wrong with the Nuggets is what isn’t there.
If the Nuggets are star hunting, the small ball lineup could be their telescope.
All stats are current through November 13th.