The Nuggets are fun. They’re full of fascinating talent under age 30. They could be a playoff team, if all goes according to plan. And this could’ve been said about them each of the last three 30-win seasons.
But little has gone according to plan in the five years since Denver traded Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks for a haul that included Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Timofey Mozgov, Kosta Koufos, a 2014 first-round pick, the right to swap 2016 first-round picks and two second-round picks.
The early returns were encouraging for the Nuggets, who made three straight playoff trips under coach George Karl from 2011-13, with Gallinari and Chandler as key cogs on a team that won 57 games three years ago. Then, the wheels fell off. Gallinari and Chandler broke down, each missing an entire season with knee and hip issues, respectively, and as you might suspect from a franchise that signed Ty Lawson and JaVale McGee for a combined $92 million, the Nuggets quit on Karl’s replacement.
Mike Malone’s hiring to follow Brian Shaw and interim coach Melvin Hunt was supposed to signal a new beginning for a franchise that turned two straight lottery bids into Jusuf Nurkic, Nikola Jokic and Emmanuel Mudiay at the 2014 and 2015 NBA drafts. But prolonged absences by Gallo and Chandler, as well as several other important contributors, resulted in the same playoff disappointment in 2015-16.
Now, after swapping spots with the Knicks this past June, the Nuggets drafted Jamal Murray at No. 7 to complete the Anthony trade. Technically, Denver still has a future first-round pick for dealing Mozgov, but in some form or another the front office turned the pieces it got from parting ways with Melo into current Nuggets players Gallinari, Chandler, Murray, Darrell Arthur and Gary Harris.
Most of Denver’s core, save for Kenneth Faried and 2015 trade target Will Barton, somehow spawned from either trading Melo or the team’s failures thereafter. There’s reason to think the current crop can challenge for a playoff spot, but another 30-win campaign will beg the question of whether these fun pieces will ever amount to the Western Conference finals success they enjoyed under their superstar.
2015-16 season in 140 characters or less:
I asked Malone postgame how high does he think Jokic’ ceiling is? He gave me a great answer. pic.twitter.com/N5fI794rWU
— Harrison Wind (@NBAWind) February 2, 2016
— Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) February 6, 2016
Nuggets have a lot of fun pieces. Excited for their future.
— Greg Wissinger (@gwiss) February 20, 2016
— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) March 1, 2016
Did the summer help at all?
Outside of re-signing Arthur to a three-year, $23 million contract, Denver’s biggest free-agent signing was bringing in 36-year-old Mike Miller on a two-year, $7 million deal, so the answer to that question will depend on what they get from first-round picks Murray, Juancho Hernangomez and Malik Beasley.
The Nuggets jumped two draft spots by swapping into the seventh overall selection and taking Murray — no small feat in a draft with a clearly defined top eight. The 6-foot-5 Murray is a prototypical two-guard, capable of scoring in bunches, as his 20 points-per-game average on 59 percent true shooting at Kentucky proved in 2015-16. The question is where his minutes will come from on a team that features Most Improved Player candidate Gary Harris and Sixth Man of the Year finalist Will Barton.
In the long run, Juancho should be the more productive Hernangomez, which is quite a sentence. And maybe quite a boon for Denver. While brother Guillermo averaged seven points and three rebounds during Spain’s bronze-medal run at the 2016 Rio Olympics, the 6-foot-9 Juancho played in the Las Vegas summer league, where he averaged 10 points and eight rebounds. Those averages have dipped to 6.7 points and 4.8 rebounds in 20.9 minutes during the preseason, but anything close to his 2015-16 averages abroad — 9.7 points and 5.7 rebounds in 23.7 minutes — will help fill a frontcourt hole left by the August trade of Joffrey Lauvergne to Oklahoma City for a pair of 2017 second-round picks.
And Beasley is yet another 6-foot-5, 19-year-old shooting guard who will find himself even further down the depth chart than Murray, despite a similarly productive (20.9 points per 36 minutes) and efficient (58.3 true shooting percentage) performance as a freshman at Florida State last season.
It’s not unreasonable to consider all three of Denver’s top-20 picks may not immediately pay dividends in 2016-17. And just as they project as a trio of valuable commodities down the line, the Nuggets kept the door open for future roster improvement. They avoided throwing good money after bad this summer, maintaining the cap flexibility to offer a max contract in 2017 free agency, and the relatively affordable contracts on their books now keep trade possibilities on the table in February.
Potential breakout stud:
Can Gallinari still be considered a breakout candidate? Now 28 years old, he was enjoying his best season in 2015-16, averaging 19.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists for a 19.0 player efficiency rating (all career highs), before two torn ligaments in his right ankle cost him the final 23 games of the year. The hope is another injury didn’t derail the considerable progress he made in his eighth NBA season.
But Gallo isn’t the only Nuggets player on the precipice of sub-stardom. After generating 16.5 points, 11.6 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.6 steals and a block per 36 minutes in his first NBA campaign, Jokic finished third in the 2016 Rookie of the Year voting behind only Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis. He made the All-Rookie First Team, a selection emboldened by his contribution to Serbia’s silver-medal finish this summer, including a 25-point effort in a near pool-play upset of Team USA.
Fellow 2014 draft pick Nurkic was similarly productive for Denver in 2015-16, averaging 17.3 points, 11.5 boards, 2.9 blocks, 2.6 assists and 1.6 steals per 36 minutes. Jokic and Nurkic only played at the same time in seven games last season, but the former’s 3-point potential (33.3 percent on 84 attempts as a rookie) makes it possible for Malone to create some potentially troublesome frontcourt matchups.
Barton broke out last season, ranking as the NBA’s most potent scorer and rebounder among bench guards in 2015-16. His 1,159 points and 468 boards in 81 games were each more than 100 more than the next-closest backcourt reserve. He added 2.5 assists a night and capable defense some nights.
To different degrees, we’ve been waiting on Faried and Arthur to break out for some time now. There was a time, during his 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup dominance, when the former appeared destined for daily double-doubles, but Arthur’s ability to add 3-point range (38.5 percent on almost two attempts per game last season) better fits the power forward position in the pace-and-space era.
[Follow Dunks Don’t Lie on Tumblr: The best slams from all of basketball]
Harris was one of the NBA’s most underrated two-way guards in 2015-16, making significant strides as a 3-and-D performer in his sophomore season, and it would be nice to see the wildly inconsistent — and sometimes spectacular — Mudiay make similar strides as his backcourt mate in Year 2. Mudiay’s rookie averages of 14.9 points (on 36.4 percent shooting from 3), 4.9 assists and 3.7 rebounds after the All-Star break put him in some pretty elite company among point guards, and a full season’s worth of that production would be a welcome sight moving forward, especially if he can harness his turnovers, because the team is otherwise relying on a 34-year-old Jameer Nelson as its primary ball-handler.
Finally, Chandler may not be much of a breakout candidate, but the 29-year-old would be a hell of a Comeback Player of the Year contender, if the award still existed, since he too was an underrated 3-and-D wing before hip surgery cost him all of last season. At 6-foot-8, he’s capable of defending almost any position, and that versatility allows Denver to toy with those fun lineups, like a Mudiay-Harris-Gallinari-Chandler-Jokic quintet that offers Mudiay all sorts of drive-and-kick options.
If the Nuggets accomplish the difficult task of making strides both individually and collectively — with a majority of the under-25 contingent of Harris, Nurkic, Mudiay and Jokic all progressing with another year under the belt, one or more rookies making an immediate impact and the veteran contingent of Gallinari, Chandler, Faried and Arthur all exhibiting the best of what we’ve come to expect from each — there’s no doubt Denver can compete for one of the West’s four road playoff seeds up for grabs.
If everything falls apart:
Health remains a primary concern for these Nuggets. Another signficant setback for Gallinari would spell disaster both for Denver and the former top-10 pick’s longterm career prospects. (Not to mention his future earnings with a decision looming on his $16.1 million player option in 2017.) Also of concern are the ceilings for their young players. No sign of a future star among their recent draft picks would be disconcerting. There’s also the matter of Malone getting a team with no experience winning as a unit to learn how to close out victories. The Nuggets ranked in the league’s lower third in overall defensive rating and crunch-time offense last season, which for a team with capable players on both ends of the floor, suggests struggles with effort and execution. If all these issues arise again in 2016-17, another lottery pick and more concerns about how these fun pieces fit is on the horizon.
Kelly Dwyer’s Best Guess at a Record:
34-48, 13th in the Western Conference.
Read all of Ball Don’t Lie’s 2016-17 NBA Season Previews:
Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Hornets • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors • Washington Wizards
Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Golden State Warriors • Houston Rockets • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Memphis Grizzlies • Minnesota Timberwolves • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Utah Jazz
– – – – – – –