The Denver Nuggets have not made it to the playoffs since the 2012-13 season. However, this season, the franchise has plenty of reason to be optimistic and hopeful it can break its playoff drought. This is especially true after Denver has won its first three preseason games.
The excitement around the Nuggets begins with one of their offseason additions. Denver pulled off one of the offseason’s best deals by signing Paul Millsap to an incentive-laden three-year, $95.4 million contract, with a team option on the final season.
In his Nuggets’ debut, Millsap contributed 22 points, 11 rebounds and two assists to help lead the Nuggets to a 108-102 win against the Golden State Warriors. Many projected Millsap to be an ideal fit in the Nuggets’ frontcourt alongside Nikola Jokic. So far, the duo has been encouraging on both ends of the court.
With playmakers like Jokic and Millsap in the frontcourt, and plenty of offensive talent on the wing, the Nuggets are likely to be one of the NBA’s most efficient offensive teams this season. However, with Jokic at center and Emmanuel Mudiay, Jamal Murray and Jameer Nelson at point guard, the Nuggets are likely limited to being an average defensive team. But the Nuggets have looked more engaged, focused and aggressive on defense this preseason, which may be due to Millsap’s presence. If this renewed effort and engagement on defense maintains throughout the entire season, the Nuggets should be in range of making the playoffs, especially considering how potent their offensive attack is. Through three preseason games, the Nuggets rank fifth in offensive efficiency and 16th in defensive efficiency.
Millsap’s defensive impact is a welcome addition for the Nuggets, but it doesn’t address one of the other major issues Denver faces. Specifically, who will be the team’s starting point guard?
Last season, Mudiay struggled and Murray showed flashes of his overall talent, but Nelson eventually took over the starting position. It’s still unclear which point guard is going to take control of the starting position but there has been a lot of optimism surrounding Mudiay recently. Mudiay has shot the ball well from three-point range, his efficiency has improved significantly from last season and he has been active as a playmaker and scorer. Turnovers continue to be a major issue for Mudiay, which ultimately could be the reason he loses the starting role to either Murray or Nelson.
Murray is another intriguing prospect who displayed a diverse offensive skill set last season. Murray doesn’t have the explosiveness that Mudiay has, but he has a knack for creating space, getting into the lane and finishing around the rim. Murray may not be a true point guard, however, and it’s not clear whether he’s ready to manage the team’s offense as a starter. However, with his combination of shooting, scoring at the rim and solid playmaking skills, he arguably has the highest ceiling among the Nuggets’ point guards. Also, Mudiay has proven to be most effective coming off the bench so far this preseason, which may be a factor in determining who will win the starting position.
Nelson is probably the Nuggets’ safest option to fill the starting spot. Nelson is a 14-year veteran and had a bounce back campaign last season. But Nelson doesn’t have the upside that Mudiay and Murray have and it’s possible that injuries and age could slow him down this season. Also, with Millsap and Jokic in the frontcourt acting as playmakers as well, it arguably makes most sense to have the best shooter in the starting unit to spread the court. Murray could punish teams as a spot up shooter with Jokic and Millsap drawing defenses toward the basket. Mudiay has been on fire from distance this preseason, but it’s unlikely that he can maintain this hot streak (though only time will tell). Head coach Mike Malone has a tough decision ahead of him. There is no obvious answer here and he Malone may even tinker with different lineups throughout the season before he names a fulltime starter.
Another open ended question is the contract status of sharpshooter Gary Harris. Nuggets general manager Arturas Karnisovas told the Denver Post on Thursday that the franchise is working with Harris on a contract extension.
“He’s been such a huge part of what we’re trying to do here, a representation of what we’re building here,” Karnisovas said regarding Harris. “Him going through trade rumors and still staying with us and being consistent and being a good leader for our guys and (knowing) how to do it, he was the ultimate professional.
“We’re trying to find ways to keep him here as long as we can.”
Last season, Harris averaged 14.9 points, 3.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists and shot 50.2 percent from the field and 42 percent from three-point range. Harris has quickly developed into a knockdown shooter for Denver and has become an effective slasher off the ball as well. Harris is a low usage player that spreads the court, takes efficient shots and moves the ball whenever he doesn’t have an open look at the basket. Harris is also an effective wing defender, though his reputation may actually exceed his actual defensive impact at this point. Nevertheless, his production on both ends of the court is significant and his performance this season will be a big factor in how far Denver is able to go. The Nuggets would do well to lock him up for the foreseeable future on a reasonable contract the way the Toronto Raptors did earlier this week with swingman Norman Powell.
Another outstanding issue for Denver is the situation surrounding forward Kenneth Faried. Faried is clearly unhappy with the fact that the team acquired Millsap this offseason and has locked him into the starting power forward position.
“I’ll just put it out there for everybody. I’m not a bench player. I’ve been saying that for the longest. I’m a starter,” Faried said during Denver’s Media Day. “I love to hear the crowd (when introduced as), ‘Starting at power forward, No. 35, Kenneth Faried.’ Yes, that’s me. One hundred percent, that’s been my whole life. And I’m going to fight for a starting position. I’m just not going to lay down and let somebody take it.
“There are 29 other teams. If this team doesn’t want, or respect me enough, to play me the minutes that I think I deserve to play, then I understand that. Hey, there’s 29 others. Maybe I’ll go somewhere else and do what I need to do there. But at the same token, I’m here in Denver, and I want to play Manimal basketball, no matter what, every time I step on that court.”
Faried is under contract for $12,921,348 this season and $13,764,045 next season. While Faried is a productive player, his inability to stretch the court from the power forward position limits his value. Moving that much salary could prove difficult considering Faried’s limitations, but there may be a few teams that would be interested in adding his energetic style of play.
Millsap is clearly the more complete and talented player and is a better fit in the starting lineup. With this in mind, it’s possible that Faried’s frustrations could become a distraction in the locker room, similar to the situation with Jusuf Nurkic last season. With no obvious solution to this issue, this situation will be something to keep an eye on as the season progresses.
The Nuggets didn’t have the most active offseason, but the addition of Millsap could be a catalyst for this team to break its current playoff drought. Denver also features plenty of young talent at just about every position. With some internal development and a consistent emphasis on the defensive end of the court, the Nuggets could be one of the NBA’s most interesting and surprising teams this season. There are some outstanding issues to keep an eye on, but with so much offensive talent and depth, it’s easy to understand why there’s so much excitement surrounding this team.
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