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Denver Nuggets 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Denver Nuggets might be the deepest team in the NBA, but in a division in which every team might make the post-season, are the Nuggets good enough to be more than first-round fodder? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Denver Nuggets in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

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Despite missing out on the latest installment of the NBA playoffs, there is almost too much to like about this Denver squad. It’s easy to forget about their lack of defense when you realize just how explosive they are offensively. Throw in the fact that they are one of the younger teams in the league and it becomes clear why so many people are high on their potential.

An important thing to note with this Nuggets squad: they barely missed out on the postseason last year. I can’t put enough emphasis on the word barely. Not only did a trip to the playoffs come down to the last game of the season (the Nuggets played the Minnesota Timberwolves with the winner moving on), but a win could’ve vaulted the Nuggets up much higher than just the 8th seed. That’s how close the Western conference playoff race was. Obviously, the Nuggets lost, missed out on the postseason and found themselves yet again in the lottery. But the future for this young core has never been brighter. Let’s take a look at this year’s edition of the Denver Nuggets.

FIVE GUYS THINK

The Denver Nuggets are not going to be the NBA’s best defensive team next season, but their offense should be quite potent. The Nuggets didn’t add make any major changes this offseason, though Isaiah Thomas could be a difference-maker if he is at least relatively healthy. Assuming players like Paul Millsap can avoid the injury bug as well, Denver should be considered a playoff contender as we approach opening night. This is especially true when you consider that some of Denver’s key players, like Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris and Jamal Murray are still young and improving. However, while I like the talent on this team and think their offense will be a matcup problem for most opponents, their defense will likely be an Achilles heel. Players like Jokic and Murray are not impact players on defense and are often targeted by opponents. If Denver can put together a league average defense, I think they have a good shot of making the playoffs.

4th Place – Northwest Division

-Jesse Blancarte

The Nuggets didn’t make sweeping changes to any of the primary players on their roster this summer, but that hasn’t stopped some pundits from predicting big things for them in 2018-19. After missing the playoffs by just a game last year, the Nuggets will bring back much of the same crew – only with hopes for a full season of health from Paul Millsap, a potential small boost from signee Isaiah Thomas, and most importantly, some solid development from young pieces like Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. Denver has one of the league’s most potent offenses when Jokic is on the floor, and while they’ve struggled at times on the other end, they may only have to approach league average here to rack up a ton of wins if everyone stays healthy. At the same time, it’s unlikely they’ll break into a true tier of contention until the defensive side of the ball gets a bit more attention.

3rd Place – Northwest Division

-Ben Dowsett

Oh, what this team could do! Before Paul Millsap’s wrist injury undid everything last season, the bar for the Nuggets was set at the playoffs. Now he’ll be back fully healthy. On top of that, Denver’s summer can be summarized in two hyphenated words: “Low-risk” and “high-reward.” They took Michael Porter Jr with the 14th pick after many believed he could have been top-three in a loaded draft. Then they signed Isaiah Thomas, who’s only one year past his MVP candidacy. So much could go right for Denver this season that it’s actually kind of scary to think of their potential. With all they’ve accumulated, Denver has to feel good about their chances.

3rd Place – Northwest Division

– Matt John

One of the strongest young cores in basketball resides in the Mile High City. Jamal Murray and Gary Harris Jr. have continued to develop into a significantly productive backcourt tandem. Nikola Jokic heads into his fourth year with plenty of hype surrounding him. There’s a nice veteran presence in Paul Millsap, who can truly making an impact if he stays healthy for the majority of 2017-18. A bench featuring Isaiah Thomas, Will Barton and Trey Lyles will provide plenty of scoring as well. The Nuggets fell one game short of making the NBA playoffs last season. Mike Malone’s talented bunch won’t be missing out this time around.

3rd Place – Northwest Division

– Spencer Davies

If you look at the West in an unbiased way, it’s fair to say all five teams in the Northwest could make the postseason. The division is that good. For Denver specifically, how can you not like their roster? Nikola Jokic might be the best “every category” player in basketball and he’s really just finding his way. The Nuggets’ roster is just loaded, so beyond injury, the Nuggets should be a playoff team at worst, and at best could win 45-50 games. The West is going to be brutally tough, so its not a given for anyone, but one this is as close to a lock as they come, the Nuggets look like a formidable cover every night.

4th Place – Northwest Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Nikola Jokic

Sure, there are multiple guards on this roster that could claim this spot. But Jokic not only averaged the most points per game (18.5), he did so with the highest efficiency. He led the team in both three-point percentage (39.6) and true shooting percentage (60.3). He also led the team in assists, assist percentage, and usage. Did we mention he plays center?

Jokic is one of those “eye-test” players that doesn’t really come off as elite to the casual fan. But make no mistake, this guy can play basketball. He just got inked to a nice, big contract. He’s only 23 years old. He’s improved his per-game points, assists, rebounds, steals, and blocks numbers in each of his three years in the league. Few players have done this in the league’s history.

Top Defensive Player: Paul Millsap

If there is one thing Denver has struggled with, it is their defense. Whether it’s personnel, coaching, or a combination of both, they’ve been one of the worst rated teams in the league on that end of the floor. Paul Millsap has been one of the better defenders on this roster. Standing at 6-foot-8, his elite wingspan at 7-foot-2 allows him to guard players taller than him, yet his quickness helps him stick with more athletic guards on switches. He boasts the second highest block percentage on the roster at 37.6 percent.

Another thing to note, when Millsap is on the floor, the team boasts their lowest defensive rating of 107.1. When off, it goes up to 109.5.

Top Playmaker: Nikola Jokic

This was an easy choice. Although he plays the five, the offense essentially runs through Jokic. Like I mentioned previously, he leads the team in assists per game at 6.1. As impressive as it is to lead the team in assists at center, it’s very easy to see why. Jokic has a natural feel for the game and can fit passes into pockets that most wouldn’t even think about. His high offensive IQ allows him to facilitate the ball whether it’s from the top of the key, or down by the rim. He had mild success playing alongside Jusuf Nurkic a few seasons ago, but we really saw his playmaking abilities flourish as soon as he was placed next to a true stretch four in Paul Millsap.

Top Clutch Player: Paul Millsap

Although his sample size wasn’t as large as other players on the team in clutch minutes, thanks in part to missing extended time with a wrist injury, Millsap is the clear choice for this spot. Considering the fact that “clutch” minutes are the last five minutes of a game when the score is within five, no one played more clutch minutes per game than Millsap. He remained on the floor thanks in part to his veteran presence. He averaged the most clutch points, had the second highest field goal percentage and the highest plus-minus out of anyone who played in more than 10 clutch games.

He led the previous year’s edition of the Atlanta Hawks in clutch points as well, so this isn’t anything new for him. As the season goes on, look at a few younger guards to potentially take this position, but entering the season it’s clear Millsap is the best option with the game on the line.

The Unheralded Player: Gary Harris

No player on this roster has quietly improved his game the way Gary Harris has. Arguably the best shooter on the roster, he’s also developed into an above-average wing defender, and an efficient scorer from almost anywhere on the court. He finished last season with a deadly clip of 39.6 percent from three. He averaged 17.5 points per game, his highest mark to date. He turned in 1.8 steals per night as well, also a career high.

On a team that is so explosive offensively, yet lacking on the defensive end of the court, Harris is a player that stands out. Not only is he a main contributor on the offensive end, he does plenty on defense as well. The Nuggets have a positive 3.2 net rating with him on the court and a negative 2.6 rating with him off.

Best New Addition: Isaiah Thomas

There is not a single player in the NBA that has had a rougher go than Isaiah Thomas in the last few years. He played highly admirable basketball in Boston, got dealt to Cleveland while he was trying to overcome an injury, and ultimately ended up with the Lakers after another string of trades. His season there had its ups and downs, but he wasn’t really a part of the Lakers’ future. After signing with Denver in the offseason, he’ll look to get his career back on the right track.

Thomas certainly will not help Denver on the defensive side of the ball, as his sheer size essentially hinders any success on that end, but he’s only two seasons removed from one of the better offensive seasons in recent memory. His final year with Boston, he averaged 28.9 points and 5.9 assists per game, with an effective field goal percentage of 54.6. If Thomas can get back to that kind of production, he’ll make an already impressive offense even better.

– Jordan Hicks

WHO WE LIKE

1 – Jamal Murray

Murray didn’t get any mentions above, but could essentially find himself in each of the aforementioned categories. It was clear the Nuggets viewed him as the point guard moving forward after dealing Emmanuel Mudiay to the Knicks. In just his second year in the league, he started in all but two games and played in all but one, averaging 16.7 points on 45.1 percent shooting, and 3.4 assists. He has incredible range from beyond the arc, and is a superb free throw shooter, finishing last season at 90.3 percent.

2 – Michael Porter Jr.

Once considered the top high school prospect in the country, a back injury caused him to miss almost his entire college season. He still entered the draft, and luckily for the Nuggets slid all the way to No. 14. Boasting a combination of elite size, skill, and athleticism, Porter Jr. could be the next big star. The only unknown currently is his expected return date, as he opted for a second back surgery not long after this year’s draft. If he can return this season, he’ll likely add instant help off the bench. But that’s a big if. When healthy, there’s no doubt Porter Jr. will contribute, but it may not be this season.

3 – Nikola Jokic

Much can be (and already has been) said about this big man. An interesting rhetoric that surrounds this team is whether or not the Nuggets can actually win a championship with Jokic at the five. He’s slow, not overly athletic, and certainly doesn’t look like an elite basketball player. But the numbers don’t lie. When he is on the court, this team is better. He has the highest net rating differential on the team at 9.9.

He got paid a lot of money this offseason, and many people are arguing that his contract is too much. Only time will tell if his on-court production is worth his max contract, but one thing’s for certain: This Nuggets team is considerably better with him on the court.

4 – Trey Lyles

Many would argue that the Utah Jazz got the better end of this trade. They gave up their 24th pick in the draft and Trey Lyles for Donovan Mitchell. We all witnessed the season Mitchell put together and no one would say the Jazz were stupid to give up Lyles. What isn’t getting enough attention is how well Lyles played in the absence of Paul Millsap. During this stretch of a little over two months, Lyles average 13 points and six boards off the bench. He did so shooting 49.8 percent from the field, and 40.1 percent from three. In Millsap’s absence, Lyles was essentially the sixth man for the squad and performed under that title commendably. In that same span he also had the fourth lowest defensive rating, something Lyles had struggled with “effort-wise” earlier in his young career.

– Jordan Hicks

STRENGTHS

One word: offense. This team can flat out score. They have the personnel to do so at the rim, from mid-range, and most definitely from three. They finished sixth last season in points per game and 5th in assists per game. Adding Isaiah Thomas to this squad will only bolster their bench’s ability to get buckets.

Another really important attribute that this team possesses is continuity. Their core four players of Millsap, Harris, Jokic, and Murray all have one season of playing together. Take out Millsap and they have two full seasons. Add in another key player like Will Barton and you can go back even further. This team clearly has chemistry on the court, and that is an absolute plus.

– Jordan Hicks

WEAKNESSES

One word: defense. The Nuggets finished 26th in defensive rating, 22nd in opponents points per game, and dead last in opponent field goal percentage. They struggle mightily at protecting the rim. Jokic is better at defense than most people assume, but rim protection isn’t his strong suit. During the offseason the Nuggets seemed to have gone all out on offense, adding Isaiah Thomas. He clearly isn’t going to help the team defensively, so it appears that the Nuggets will continue to try and hide their poor defense with an even better offense.

– Jordan Hicks

THE BURNING QUESTION

Will Denver’s strategy of focusing more on offense and less on defense get them to the playoffs?

This question ultimately depends on how well they do offensively this season. They have an arsenal of players that can score, create, and do a little of both. They do not have an arsenal of players that can defend.

Obviously, winning a basketball game comes down to scoring more points than the other team. If the Nuggets can do this night in and night out then they will win games. The issue falls on them being able to perform well, on a consistent basis. There are many teams in the league that can win games both on offense and on defense. The Nuggets’ success this year will rely heavily on their ability to put the basketball through the hoop. Place extra emphasis on the words rely heavily. Are they good enough to do that? The answer is probably, yes. But only time will tell if they are actually able to.

– Jordan Hicks

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Looking For A Few Great Voices!

From time to time we have open chairs at Basketball Insiders for writers looking to gain experience, grow their brand and to be part of an aggressive up-tempo content team.

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From time to time we have open chairs at Basketball Insiders for writers looking to gain experience, grow their brand and to be part of an aggressive up-tempo content team.

We are considering adding new voices for the 2020-21 NBA Season, and what we are looking for is very specific.

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