2016-17 record: 40-42. 9th in the Western Conference.
Transactions: After making the huge leap from a 33 win team to a 40 win team that just barely missed the playoffs (largely because of sending back-up centre Jusuf Nurkic to conference rival Portland which then caused the Blazers to surge ahead of them for the final playoff spot in the West), Denver was looking to build around the incredible Nikolai Jokic and make their leap into the play-off picture.
The Nuggets likely accomplished that goal by adding Eastern Conference all-star Paul Millsap of the Atlanta Hawks in a sign and trade which also saw them ship Danilo Gallinari to the Los Angeles Clippers in a move that signalled that Denver was ready to compete.
Losing Gallinari does hurt a bit. Even with an extensive injury history that saw him miss 153 games over the past four years, Gallo was a huge asset to the Nuggets on the court. His ability to switch between multiple positions, create off the bounce, hit from three and attack the basket kept opposing defenses on their heels. When he and Jokic were on the floor together, Denver outscored opponents by 8.2 points per 100 possessions.
While the loss of Gallinari might impact the Nuggets versatility offensively, you have to give something to get something and Paul Millsap is a huge boon to this squad at a great price. Denver inked Millsap to a 3 year, $90 million deal with the third year being $29 million team option. If the 32 year old four time all-star doesn’t work out or starts to decline, the team is only on the hook for two years which is a great position to be in, however the odds of it not working out are incredibly low.
Millsap’s immediate impact will be on the defensive end. He’s a high IQ player who has the tendency to be in the right place at the right time. At only 6’8”, he’s shown the ability to guard multiple positions and has the hustle and drive to lock down players much larger than he is. Given that the Nuggets had the second worst defense in the league last year, having a skilled defender on the ranks addresses a massive need for Denver. If the addition of The Anchorman even pushes Denver into a top 20 defense, it should be a huge boon to its playoff push.
Offensively, Millsap is coming off his highest scoring season yet as he averaged 18.1 points per game with the Hawks last season on 44.2% shooting. He’s got a nice mid-range game and attacks well off close-outs. His new front-court partner also happens to be one of the best passing big men in the NBA and does his best work from the high post which is going to open up a ton of space for Millsap down low. I’d expect to see him set a new career high for points per game paired with Jokic.
Denver really couldn’t have asked for a better fit alongside Jokic in a lot of ways. Millsap will pick up the slack defensively and be the perfect front-court partner on offense. He’s also an excellent rebounder averaging 7.5 for his career and should help the Nuggets assert control over the glass alongside his new Serbian running mate.
Veteran Mike Miller has departed the Mile High City on waivers which isn’t a huge loss on the court, but will be one in the locker room as the 17 year veteran was much beloved and served the all important mentor role during his time with the squad.
Incoming is Trey Lyles from the Utah Jazz as part of t a draft day trade that saw the Nuggets send the number 13 pick in the draft to Utah for the number 24 pick in the draft and power forward Trey Lyles. Lyles never really panned out in his two years with the Jazz but does have an intriguing array of skills that could work out better in Denver’s more streamlined system. The 21 year old Saskatoon native is shaky on defense, but could develop into a decent stretch big with solid play-making skills.
The Nuggets also became the first NBA team to sign a veteran from Ice Cube’s Big 3 league when they inked 34 year old swingman Josh Childress to a one year non-guaranteed deal in a move to add more depth at the wing where the Denver really only has Wilson Chandler.
2017 NBA Draft: With the 24th overall pick in the draft, the Nuggets took Tyler Lydon a 21 year old forward who played two years at Syracuse. At 6’10”, Lydon does have the potential to develop into a decent stretch-4 if he can strengthen up his 225 pound frame and work on becoming a better rebounder.
He’s got the ability to space the floor and was a 39.8% three point shooter during his two years as an Orangeman. He’s also a solid passer and has a good eye for finding his teammates open looks and isn’t one to force shots – albeit sometimes to his detriment. Lydon can run the floor well in transition and is an excellent spot up shooter.
It’s unlikely that he will ever become an NBA superstar or anything, but he can develop into a nice piece of the rotation.
At the 49 spot, Denver drafted 20 year old Slovenian Vlatko Cancar a 6’8” forward with a 6’11” wingspan who plays for Serbian squad Mega Leks. He’s a raw prospect who is likely years away from playing in the NBA and a total draft and stash for the Nuggets.
His greatest strength is his jump shooting ability. Cancar hit 42% of his spot up threes and is capable of shooting off the dribble with enough space. He needs to work on his pull-up game and shot selection as he continues to develop. Another area he will need to address is his explosiveness as he’s currently missing those initial steps to beat opposing wings off the dribble and really needs to find ways to finish at the rim. He’s the rawest of raw prospects at this point.
The Nuggets really made a steal of a pick at 51 when stud point guard Monte Morris surpisingly fell to them. Morris is a point guard out of Iowa State who was the catalyst of one of the most efficient offenses in the NCAA last year. He’s an absolute reflection of that efficiency.
In his four years as a Cyclone, he rarely made mistakes. He set new school records for assist and steals totals and lead the entire NCAA in assist to turnover ration in three of his four years. He also displayed his skill as an elite-level facilitator and really has every pass imaginable in his arsenal. In his senior year, he averaged 16.8 points, 6.2 assists 4.8 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game. He shot an impressive 46.5% including 37.8% from three point range.
Morris may have fell in the draft because of his lack of stand-out athleticism, his small 175 pound frame or his 6’4” wingspan which prevents him from being an effective finisher at the rim. He’s a 22 year old senior and generally those types of players aren’t coveted at high spots.
There are a lot of teams who will regret passing on him. With that kind of efficiency and court vision, Morris will likely develop into a solid back-up point guard for the Nuggets who can distribute, run the offense and take care of the basketball. Fundamentals just aren’t as valued as they used to be.
Outlook: The Nuggets are going to going have one of the best duos in the NBA as their front-court in Millsap and Jokic. As much as Jokic is rightfully heralded for his elite passing ability, Millsap is no slouch in that department either. The high-low combos that they can throw at teams are going to give opponents fits and result in a new and exciting look for Denver’s already high powered offense.
These are two players who will bring out the best in each other. Jokic’s biggest weakness – his defense – is also Millsap’s biggest strength and their games really compliment each other well. It’s a match made in basketball heaven that will result in plenty of must-see moments on League Pass.
Jokic is already establishing himself as a generational talent in his own right. His 16.7 points on on 57.8% shooting, 9.8 boards and 4.9 assists per game last season is something that only Charles Barkley, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain have achieved. Being in a market like Denver, I don’t think people focus enough on what a once in a lifetime player we’re dealing with in the Joker and he’s still only 22 years old!
What should be particularly terrifying about that stat-line for opposing players is that the big Serbian’s numbers go to 19.2 points, 10.9 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game when tracked from when he was reinserted into the starting line-up on December 19th. When Jokic’s minutes increased after the Nurkic trade on February 17th, his numbers were 17.5 points, 12.1 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game. He was the only centre in the NBA who averaged a double-double and over five assists per game during that span.
Jokic is capable of MVP calibre numbers. He’s already established himself in elite company. He was tied for fourth in the NBA in box plus/minus with LeBron James. His 8.4 BPM last season is tied with David Robinson for the most ever by a second year player in NBA history. It’s a very impressive feat when you consider that LeBron James is in second place all-time.
Paired with Millsap, I’d expect Jokic to break out even more this season. There is really is no limit to what he can accomplish on offense. Now that he’s got an all-star calibre partner beside him, it’s going to be a beautiful thing to watch. Unless you’re cheering for the other team then look out.
I’m also excited to see the kind of chemistry that Jokic will continue to develop with another 22 year old star, guard Gary Harris who had a solid campaign for the Nuggets last season, albeit one where he only appeared in 57 games due to a groin tear. He still averaged 14.9 points on 50.5% shooting and added 2.9 assists, 3.1 boards and 1.2 steals.
Harris was absolutely devastating as a cutter. He averaged 1.39 points per possession on cuts last season which was a better mark than new teammate Paul Millsap and all-star Jimmy Butler. He knows when to head to the basket and has the athleticism to comfortably score inside. Expect Harris to be on the receiving end of a lot of Jokic passes at the basket.
The fourth year Nugget is also lethal with his feet set. He had a 68.1% percent effective field goal percentage when taking a shot without a dribble last season which is a mark that’s second only to LeBron James. He’s just as lethal in transition where he was third in the league out of all players who had at least 100 attempts in the open floor with 1.38 points per possession.
The Harris-Jokic combo had a 121.6 offensive rating last season. Now they’ll have Millsap on the floor as another weapon and also someone who can greatly improve the team defense. Mike Malone has some tantalizing combos to unleash this season.
Juan Hernangomez is coming off a solid rookie season and should see a lot of time off the bench as both a stretch-4 and even playing on the wing given the Nuggets lack of depth at small forward. Juancho shot 40.7% from downtown last season and should get a lot of opportunities to let it fly in different situations this season.
The wing is a huge problem for Denver though. Veteran Wilson Chandler is their only true small forward and although he’s an effective scorer (15.6 points on 46.1% shooting last season) and a capable defender who had the ability and athleticism to guard three and stretch fours, the 30 year old veteran can’t do it alone.
Josh Childress was a a nice depth move, but if it doesn’t work out, the Nuggets will have to do something. I’d expect the Nuggets to try to package Kenneth Faried (who they’ve had in trade rumours for years) with a pick to try and get another wing player. They’ve got to do something because it’s a huge hole to have in your roster and using stretch-4s at the wing will create a lot of defensive mismatches. Although the Nuggets have a high powered offense that will allow them to overcome that issue, it will be a huge problem should they enter the play-offs with that situation still looming.
At the guard spot, I’m really looking forward to seeing how Kitchener, Ontario’s own Jamal Murray continues to develop. He’ll likely be coming off the bench behind veteran Jameer Nelson again, but Murray showed a lot of improvement throughout last season. Post-all-star break he was averaging 12.1 points on 42.1% shooting including 34.1% from three point range adding 2.8 assists, 2.8 rebounds and a steal per game. He could really break out this year if given more to especially in Mike Malone’s high octane offense.
Veteran Will Barton should anchor second unit scoring as he’s reliably done since coming to the Nuggets and keep an eye on second year player Malik Beasley who is ready to break out after putting himself through a punishing off-season regimen in a quest for a bigger role on the squad.
The Nuggets are going to be one of the most entertaining teams in the NBA to watch next year. Jokic alone is worth the price of admission, but the addition of Millsap will balance him and the team out. This is a team on the rise that is likely headed back to the play-offs. I don’t see them making a deep run – especially if they don’t address those wing issues – but this is likely the first of many play-off appearances behind their generational talent.
Prediction: 44-38. 6th in the Western Conference. Likely first round exit, but back in the playoffs.