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Denver Nuggets 2017-18 Season Preview

After an eventful offseason with a big addition, Basketball Insiders previews the Denver Nuggets.

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The Denver Nuggets go into the 2017-2018 season hoping that their continued investment in a few talented young players surrounded by capable veterans is an effective recipe to make the playoffs. The team is coming off a year in which they went 40-42, placing them 9th place in the western conference and just outside the playoff picture. Add in a key offseason acquisition in power forward Paul Millsap and the team should be poised to break into the top eight this season.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

One of my favorite offseason acquisitions was the Denver Nuggets’ signing of Paul Millsap. From the terms of the deal (three-years, $90 million, team option on the final season) to Millsap’s fit alongside center Nikola Jokic, this was simply a homerun deal for Denver. Millsap alone can’t turn the Nuggets into an above average defensive team, but he will certainly have a tangible effect on the team. Denver will also have to rely on the continued development of young studs like Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Jokic, who is quickly establishing himself as a superstar level talent. The Northwest Division is hard to get a full grasp on at this point, but with more internal development and the addition of Millsap, Denver could turn some heads this upcoming season.

2nd Place – Northwest Division

— Jesse Blancarte

The Denver Nuggets are smack dab in the middle of possibly the NBA’s toughest conference.

Nearly every team in the Northwest Division will have playoff aspirations this upcoming season. So, with a budding star player in Nikola Jokic already at their disposal, the Nuggets made a move to position themselves equally among their division counterparts by signing free agent forward Paul Millsap.

Placing Millsap alongside Jokic provides Denver a nice frontcourt combo that can stretch the floor on opposing defenses. With Jokic’s above-average passing ability and Millsap’s catch-and-shoot ability, the Nuggets should have a nice one-two punch down low to accompany their cast of young, promising guards.

However, the road to the playoffs won’t be easy for Denver. The West only got stronger this offseason and that includes their division. Should the Nuggets find themselves playoff bound, it will be a result of a best case scenario regular season.

4th place — Northwest Division

— Dennis Chambers

If we liked the Nuggets last season, we sort of have no choice but to love them this year. Golden State owns the Western Conference, obviously, but much of the talk this summer has been about the ground made up by Houston. Denver, though, certainly made their own splashy acquisition in Paul Millsap. He and Nikola Jokic should be one of the most entertaining frontcourts in the league this year, and with further emergence from young studs like Gary Harris and Jamal Murray, it’s really hard not to have these guys as up-and-comers in the West. Unfortunately they play in the league’s most miserable division, but while I’ve got them ranked fourth there, I also don’t see there being a whole lot of space between any two teams in the Northwest.

4th Place – Northwest Division

— Joel Brigham

In an NBA Sunday column, I wrote about the 2014 draft class and how, in some ways, they have already been surpassed by the 2015 draft class. Nikola Jokic could help to turn the tide, though.

After the February 11 trade that saw Jusuf Nurkic land in Portland, Jokic’s number shot up across the board. His usage, minutes and repetitions all increased dramatically and the results had most people that follow the Association gasping. After the trade, in 28 games, Jokic averaged 18.7 points, 12 rebounds, 6.1 assists on about 57 percent shooting from the field. His per-36 numbers were even more impressive: 21.9 points, 14 rebounds and 7.1 assists. He also recorded five triple-doubles.

In other words, Jokic has gotten a lot of people wondering whether or not he is a special player, and if he is the star that the Nuggets have been searching for since trading Carmelo Anthony, they have a few pieces around him that can prove to be helpful. The addition of Paul Millsap helps improve their fortunes, as well, but it’s with Jokic’s proving that last season’s numbers weren’t an aberration that the Nuggets’ postseason hopes lay. It’s also worth noting that in those final 28 games, they were a respectable 17-11.

With all the changes that have taken place in the Northwest, it’s difficult to predict where the division’s teams will ultimately land. I’d probably pick the Nuggets to finish fourth or fifth, but wouldn’t be surprised to see the top four teams from the Northwest make the playoffs. It’s safe to say they are one of my top five teams to watch this season.

5th Place — Northwest Division

— Moke Hamilton

Outside the world champion Warriors, maybe no offense in the NBA should inspire as much excitement as the Nuggets heading into next season. A group that shined offensively down the stretch last year then went out and added even more firepower in the form of star Paul Millsap, leaving Denver with a fearsome scoring machine. In Millsap and rising star Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets boast an incredible combination of skill and playmaking in their frontcourt – they can run the entire offense through it. They retain strong wing options like Gary Harris and Wilson Chandler, along with second-year spark plug Jamal Murray. They’ll push the pace in transition, and when they have to play in the halfcourt, Millsap and Jokic will create a huge number of issues for defenses with their passing and creativity from the elbows. This group will have some real questions to answer on defense, but Millsap also provides a real boon on that end. Look for them to be right there in the Northwest Division.

2nd place — Northwest Division

— Ben Dowsett

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Paul Millsap

The 2016-2017 NBA Offseason will go down as one of the busiest in recent history. Players such as Kyrie Irving, Paul George, Isaiah Thomas, Gordon Hayward and Jimmy Butler all moved teams and did so in surprising fashion. In comparison, the offseason signing of power forward Paul Millsap was, in comparison, less talked about and, for longtime Nuggets fans, not as much of a surprise. However overlooked, this is the perfect acquisition for the team.

Millsap brings savvy passing, intelligent defense and the ability to score one-on-one, both from the outside and in the post. Although other teams didn’t make aggressive overtures to Millsap and the Hawks apparently never tendered an offer, the Nuggets got just the player they wanted in Millsap.

Top Defensive Player: Wilson Chandler

Look for the Nuggets to rely on Wilson Chandler as a primary defensive player. Chandler has both the skill and experience to lead the Nuggets on defense, though his health has been a concern in recent seasons. Building around Jokic is great for the Nuggets’ offense but deprives the team of possibly using a more athletic, defensive minded player to anchor the team’s defense. Chandler, with his length, strength and size is best suited to guard the elite small forwards in the league, which makes him very valuable defensively. Chandler is in a contract year also, so don’t be surprised to see a boost in his overall performance this season.

Top Playmaker: Nikola Jokic

After narrowly being edged out for Top Offensive Player by new addition Paul Millsap, Jokic holds the crown decisively for the Nuggets as the team’s Top Playmaker. The Nuggets are now built around Jokic and his rapidly developing game. There was a point last season where the Nuggets tried in earnest to make the pairing of Jokic and center Jusuf Nurkic work. Since trading Nurkic, Jokic has emerged as a star whose combination of excellent court vision, deft passing and high IQ gives the Nuggets a unique and talented base to build around. Running the offense through Jokic alleviates pressure on point guard Jameer Nelson, who finished last season as the team’s primary point guard but whose best days in the NBA are behind him.

Top Clutch Player: Paul Millsap

Again, this is a team built around multi-skilled big men with a knack for nifty passing. The incumbent top clutch player is Jokic as he was the only player with a positive net rating (1.9) in clutch minutes (in a minimum 20 games according to NBA.com), to go with the highest shooting numbers of any Nuggets player and passing numbers comparable to point guard Jameer Nelson.

However, under the same criteria, Millsap comes to the team with a much higher net rating (16.4) than Jokic, higher usage percentage (30.8) than Jokic (23.8) and similar passing numbers. Look for the team run the offense through Jokic late in the game and give the ball to Millsap to utilize his ability to score the ball on final possessions. It’s a close call here, but Millsap gets the nod.

The Unheralded Player: Jamal Murray

Jamal Murray. Both Jamal Murray and Emmanuel Mudiay came to the Nuggets as the seventh pick in their respective drafts. Despite the attention having been on Mudiay for the past two years, all eyes should be on Murray going forward. Murray played point guard in high school and when drafted by the Nuggets expressed his interest in returning to the position. Murray received his wish, playing in and starting a few games at point guard at the end of last season. Expect the Nuggets to continue to explore how viable Murray can be in this position. If Murray builds on his brief but successful run at the point, this could pay huge dividends for a team fretting whether Mudiay will ever transition into the player they hoped he would become.

Best New Addition: Paul Millsap

The nod again goes to Millsap. Nuggets fans are aware of the team’s past interest in Millsap, so this move comes as no surprise. The ability of the Nuggets to acquire Millsap to less than a maximum deal and retaining a team option in year three is a credit to the team’s front office. In the past the Nuggets have signaled their interest and attempted to acquire big name post players such as Blake Griffin but came up short. The offense, led by Head Coach Mike Malone, will hum with Millsap at the power forward spot.

— James Blancarte

WHO WE LIKE

1. Mike Malone

Mike Malone’s desire for balanced offense with free-flowing ball movement caught fire with the discovery of Jokic’s full skillset. Credit Malone for his part in the free agent pitch that helped to secure the services of Millsap. Jokic playing as a full time starter only began in December. How successful the offense can be with a full season of Jokic and the addition of Millsap is now directly tied to Malone’s ability to make maximize the pairing. He’s the right man for the job and should find plenty of interesting ways to utilize each player’s significant talent.

 2. Juan Hernangomez

Hernangomez has received a lot of attention recently. He and his brother Willy Hernangomez of the New York Knicks are playing together in the Eurobasket. While the Gasol brothers, Pau and Marc, receive more attention, look for the Henangomez brothers to continue to garner increasing amounts of attention from the international audience. On his native Spanish team, Juan Hernangomez is thriving at the small forward spot, using a combination of cuts, ball movement and spot up shooting to make an impact. After not much playing time to start his rookie year, Hernangomez played well for a rookie in the second half of last season. Look for him to have a chance as an impact player off the bench for the Nuggets behind Wilson Chandler.

 3. Gary Harris

Gary Harris has been on an upward trend in his first three years in the league. In addition to Jokic and Millsap, Harris is arguably in position to be the third-most important player on the team. With a full season featuring Jokic as the team’s star player and the addition of Millsap, expect Harris to continue his improvement and creep closer to being a 16-18 point a game player. With more experience and talented teammates in the frontcourt, Harris should have plenty of opportunities to knock down open jumpers on a nightly basis.

4. Kenneth Faried

Kenneth Faried has had an up and down tenure in Denver. While experiencing stints of success and notoriety over the years, he has also chaffed at the prospect of remaining with the Nuggets and even asked for a trade last season. Look for Faried to be the first featured big off the bench as the Nuggets will certainly look to dangle him in trades during the season. Faried may not be the player the Nuggets hoped he would develop into a few years ago, but he has value and, if featured in a positive role, could land Denver something of value in a trade.

— James Blancarte

SALARY CAP 101

The Nuggets used most of their cap space to sign Paul Millsap. While they’re currently about $2.8 million under the league’s $99.1 million cap, that number could grow to $8.6 million if restricted free agent Mason Plumlee leaves for another team. Denver cannot withdraw their $4.6 million qualifying offer to Plumlee without his approval.

The Nuggets have until the end of October to take options on Emmanuel Mudiay, Jamal Murray, Trey Lyles, Juancho Hernangomez and Malik Beasley for the 2018-19 season. Gary Harris is extension eligible before the start of the season. Next summer, Denver could reach at least $36 million in cap space, provided Wilson Chandler ($12.8 million) and Darrell Arthur ($7.5 million) opt out of their contracts.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The offense. As mentioned above, Malone has the team in position to improve and potentially explode on the offensive end. The team’s purest playmaker is Jokic. With Millsap now in the fold, the ball should move freely and efficiently. How well the team can stagger the minutes of Jokic and Millsap will help determine how successful the offense is. The second unit should be aided by one of the starting big men staying on the floor to help keep the ball movement going as the back-ups simply cannot mimic either player’s considerable skill set. If the Nuggets are really aggressive, they may try to use Millsap as a backup center to give more room to other more traditional power forwards in the rotation like Trey Lyles or Darrel Arthur. There are plenty of options here for Malone – expect him to make the most of it.

— James Blancarte

WEAKNESSES

As good as the offense was last year, the defense held the team back just as much. Expect the defense to continue to struggle but for the team to trend upwards a few spots overall. This year’s team, like last year’s, is built around a lot of younger players, which means there will be plenty of mistakes on defense throughout the season. The addition of Millsap as an experienced veteran who plays smart defense is a plus, but he cannot turn things around on defense by himself.

The Nuggets have some capable wing defenders in Chandler and Harris, but players like Murray, Mudiay and Nelson often struggle on defense. This roster simply isn’t built to be a top defensive squad, which means the offense is going to have to be extremely efficient.

— James Blancarte

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the team improve enough to make the playoffs?

Yes. With only a few weeks left until the start of training camp, the Nuggets are running out of time to make a move and free up the logjam at power forward and bring better balance to their roster. Even if the team elects to not make a move or at least waits until the trade deadline, the team is already in a great position. Millsap and Jokic will lead a balanced attack based on ball movement and generate open looks for their teammates. The team’s offense should rank in the top five, assuming the team stays healthy for the most part. If the defense can come close to league average, that should be good enough for the team to make the playoffs.

— James Blancarte

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