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The X-Factors: Denver

Expectations for the Denver Nuggets were high entering the 2019-20 season, but Drew Maresca explores the most important X-Factors for a deep postseason run.

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With news breaking about new cases of COVID-19 in states like Florida – where the remainder of the NBA season is to be played – it shouldn’t be too surprising that a segment of the NBA population is reticent to return – including the likes of Carmelo Anthony.

As of Wednesday, the league and the NBPA are ironing out a plan that would allow players to skip the remainder of the season without facing consequences. That means that the outcomes of the returning NBA season will be greatly affected by who chooses to return – and who doesn’t. And as strange as the remaining games might be, one team will ultimately be crowned the 2019-20 champion.

Basketball Insiders has been reviewing the major X-Factors for teams that will return to action on Jul. 30. Our very own Matt John did a great job recapping which teams we’ve covered so far in his introduction to the HEAT’s X-Factors piece yesterday. Today, let’s review a team that is laser-focused on wearing that aforementioned crown – the Denver Nuggets.

Denver entered the 2019-20 season in excellent company as many felt that they were right behind the Lakers, Clippers and Bucks in terms of talent and potential. And they’ve mostly lived up to the hype. The Nuggets won 66.2 percent of games this season, which leaves them as the third-best team in the Western Conference when play resumes in July.

But the Nuggets have their share of question marks, too. They were only 5-5 over their last 10 games prior to play stoppage, with losses to the lowly Cavaliers and Warriors. Obviously, if a major rotation player chooses to opt-out of returning, that greatly changes their outlook. That aside, what other factors might contribute to a Nuggets postseason run – and maybe even a championship?

The first X-Factor is probably the most unreliable – and it’s Michael Porter Jr. The enigmatic athlete was a sure thing, top-three pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, but a back injury led to him falling to the Nuggets at No. 14. He sat out his entire rookie season but was worked back into action slowly in 2019-20.

Porter’s first few months of professional basketball were successful as he averaged 21.3 minutes, 12.3 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.3 assists while shooting 48.0 percent on three-point attempts in 15 games in January. But an ankle injury late that month cost him all games between then and the All-Star break. When Porter. returned in late February, he came back to a different role and he struggled – either as a result of a lack of confidence or residual effects from the ankle injury. Either way, he had only two double-figure scoring nights in his next nine games.

But Porter has now claimed another three months to continue to bounce back and hone his craft. His length and skill were on full display in January, as was his ability to connect on tough shots. What he’s back to his old self? Will he have the opportunity to earn a significant role? He’s a wild card considering his age and experience, but Porter is a unique offensive talent given his size, length and skillset. He’s been a relative liability on defense; but, again, he’s long – which can help in guarding the bigger small forwards, for whom the Nuggets have few answers. While he could hurt the Nuggets chances at succeeding this postseason, he could also be the key to their big-picture success.

The next X-Factor the Nuggets must hope (but probably already know) will break their way. It’s the longest standing criticism of their best player – Nikola Jokic. He’s a franchise cornerstone seven-footer that can handle the ball, pass better than maybe any center ever and still connects on 43.3 percent of shots between 16 feet and the three-point line. So what’s the problem?

Jokic has been criticized for much of his career for being out of shape and/or not possessing an NBA body. But it’s important to remember that he entered the league as a doughy 253-pounds. He’s never been overly muscular and it’s fair to assume he weighs more now than he did then.

The X-Factor element asks: What if Jokic comes back in even better shape? A slimmed-down Jokic would likely add athleticism to an already-elite skillset. There’s really no comparison for what that could look like. If Jokic comes back in even slightly better shape, the rest of the Western Conference is in trouble.

The final X-Factor relates to the Nuggets’ youth. Ultimately, they’re young, so their lack of playoff success thus far should be categorized as learning opportunities. Last season represents this group’s first playoff experience and it ended on their home court.

Denver’s ascent has defied logic as they entered the season as one of the favorites in the Western Conference despite boasting the NBA’s 11th youngster roster at just 25.42 years old. Looking at it more closely, none of this should be surprising considering their 25-year-old star center (Jokic) is in only his fifth season and their fourth-year star guard Jamal Murray is still only 23. They’re actually the second youngest “contender” in the NBA, behind only the Boston Celtics (25.09 years old).

With that in mind, the Nuggets shouldn’t view this season as the end-all, be-all, right? Well, unfortunately, title windows can close quickly and for a number of reasons – including injuries, trades and coaching changes.

The Nuggets’ core came up short against the (widely-believed-to-be -lesser) Portland Trail Blazers in Game 7 of the 2019 Western Conference Semifinals. As a team, the Nuggets shot only 37 percent from the field in that game, connecting on a measly 10 percent of their three-point attempts. Can they collectively overcome their lack of experience, avoiding another potential elimination game failure? If they play to their best potential, the Nuggets might not have to look ahead any longer – this year could be their year.

The three-month hiatus from basketball opened up new possibilities for the NBA from a business standpoint, but they also provided opportunities for a number of teams who most felt were out of the championship discussion. Teams will return revitalized, both mentally and physically. Will Denver take advantage of that? There are lots of similar questions left to be answered beginning in late July. And we only have 50 days left before we begin getting answers.

Basketball Insiders contributor residing in the Bronx, New York.

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