The Denver Nuggets are on track to join the NBA’s elite. The combination of Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic took the Nuggets back to the Playoffs for the first time in seven years. Building their talent through the draft, the Nuggets now pack a potential All-NBA one – two punch that is under contract for the next four years. Only a missed shot or two away from making the conference finals last season, Nuggets management have chosen to run it back this year. While western conference rivals the Clippers and Lakers mortgaged their futures to bring in star talent, the Nuggets gave away a solitary first rounder this off-season.
Locking Jamal Murray down to a five year contract was the first off-season priority. Murray’s excellent play in the postseason was a massive part of why the Nuggets were a bounce of the ball away from making the conference finals. Murray was only the 9th player in playoff history to post 20 points, four rebounds and four assists in their age 21 season or younger. Murray was one of the youngest players in his draft class, and in his age 22 season this year is ready to explode plus 20 points a game. At rim finishing and getting to the line are the next steps for a player that has all the tools to be a top guard in this league. After agreeing to sign a five year – 170 million maximum deal, Murray and Jokic are now under contract for six and four more years respectively.
Nikola Jokic is about to enter his fifth year in the league. Last year was a breakout year for the Serbian as he was selected for the All-NBA 1st team. Already proclaimed by some as the greatest passing big man in NBA history, Jokic took his play to another level in the recently concluded playoffs. At only 24 Jokic is just hitting his peak, his insane playoff stat line proof that he is still improving. 25 points 13 rebounds and eight assists was the mark. This has only been achieved once prior to Jokic, by the great Oscar Robertson way back in 1962. Jokic’s defense needs to continue to improve to raise the floor of this team. The narrative that Jokic is a bad defender is incorrect, but he needs to make better reads on that end as the leader of this team. While Jokic and Murray provide the star building blocks, its the role players who will define the Nuggets playoff success in the future.
Role players are the key
Second round pick Monte Morris surprised plenty last season with his efficient scoring and strong play-making. Per cleaning the glass, Morris was in the top 3% of mid range shooters in the league last year. Malik Beasley also took his first big step in a Nuggets uniform in the past year. The 19th pick in the 2016 draft, Beasley improved his points per game from three to eleven while knocking down 40% of his three point attempts. If Morris and Beasley continue to improve, the Nuggets offense will have shooting options up and down the roster.
In what was possibly the most underrated move of the summer, the Nuggets traded a first round pick to Oklahoma City Thunder for power forward Jerami Grant. With Paul Millsap only having one year left on his contract, Grant could be the long term replacement at the four. A legitimate stretch big on a contract of only nine million, he is a strong playoff piece for this team. Connecting on 40% of his three pointers last season, Grant is also an improved defender. As Millsap’s offensive game peters out, Grant may be the perfect replacement piece.
While talking about options at the four, Michael Porter Jr’s availability this year could be a boon for the Nuggets. Porter missed all of last season with a back injury but is said to be fit for this coming season. Though they have a plethora of options at the four when you consider Jarred Vanderbilt also, Porter gives them another young scorer on a cost controlled rookie contract.
Last year Will Barton, Gary Harris and Paul Millsap all missed significant times with injuries. Considering this and that they still had the sixth best offense, there is no reason this team cant take another step forward. Figuring out who will play small forward full-time may be an important decision, but in this position-less NBA it may be of more importance to have the right pieces around Murray and Jokic.
This Nuggets team is one of the most exciting in the league, and with the average age being around 25 they also have one of the brightest futures. A 50 win season and second round of the playoffs should be the goal again for this team. If they are fit and healthy there is no reason they couldn’t upset one of the more fancied big market teams.