Zach Gotlieb | June 14th, 2019
Let’s just start by saying: what a year for the Denver Nuggets. The first playoff berth in 6 years, first all-star in 8 years, first playoff series win in a decade, all with one of the youngest teams in the league and the most injured team in the National Basketball Association (NBA). I’ll get into how it all happened and possible offseason moves and storylines to look forward to, so let’s get into it.
This season was not necessarily supposed to go as well as it did for the Denver Nuggets. After missing the playoffs five years straight, with the last two years missing out by just one game including a heartbreaking game 82 overtime loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves last season ago. Going into the year, the expectation from local media and myself was saying that the Nuggets may win 50 games this season and make it to the playoffs as maybe fifth or sixth seed in the superior Western Conference. Fifty-four wins and the second seed in the powerful and star-studded Western Conference defied all expectations.
The big storyline this season was how the Nuggets were able to get past the injury bug. Let me just say, after seeing what I witnessed with this Nuggets team, I don’t want to hear another word about injuries derailing a season. The Nuggets led the league in games lost due to injury with over 200 games total among the whole team. They only had their opening night starting lineup start a game 22 times this year, and they had several games where they were missing three starters, and they were able to stay afloat, thanks in part to one of the deepest benches in the National Basketball Association.
Coming off of a season where the team’s biggest weakness was the bench and the lack of production when the starters were not in the game, the Nuggets bench guys 6-12 found ways to produce in significant ways.
Monte Morris was perhaps the biggest surprise this year, and while there may have been better players, he was probably the most important of them. He only appeared in three games his rookie year, spending the majority of the season in the G-League with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. This year he played all 82 games for the Nuggets serving as the primary backup point guard to Jamal Murray. From when he was drafted, up through a good part of the start of the season, the biggest concern for Morris was his shooting ability. He finished ninth in effective field goal percentage among all guards this season (56%) and top 15 among all players, shooting 41.4% from three-point land, which was the best mark on the team. His shooting ability and consistency was a big surprise, but his most significant value is his “pure point guard” ability. He was second in the NBA in assist: turnover ratio. His ability to seemingly always make the right play and find the open guy was big, especially with the starting point guard, Jamal Murray, profiling better as a shooting guard with point guard ability.
You can’t talk about the Denver Nuggets 2018-2019 season without talking about their best player Nikola Jokic. He signed the team’s first max contract since Carmelo Anthony in 2007 and did everything and more to show he deserved that contract. He averaged a double-double with 20.1 points and 10.8 rebounds per game while also averaging over seven assists per game which were the most, by a large margin, among all centers. He had multiple game-winning shots or big games including a huge 47 point outburst in the first round of the playoffs or a game where he recorded a triple-double (35-11-11) while shooting 100% from the field, which hasn’t been done since Wilt Chamberlain. His ability to score, pass, set screens, and run one of the most dangerous two-man games in the league with two different teammates is what makes him an offensive savant and a true so-called “unicorn.” The biggest key in his development was his conditioning, and being able to play big minutes. Especially in the playoffs where he played nine more minutes per game than in the regular season, which included a 65-minute performance in a four-overtime game against the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round of the Western Conference Playoffs. “The Joker” had been creeping on to the NBA’s radar as a top player and this year he solidified himself as a top center and top player in the league today. That can be proven by his first all-star selection, the first Nugget given that honor since Carmelo Anthony in 2011, and an All-NBA First-Team selection, the first Nugget given that honor since David Thompson back in the 1977-78 season. To think he’s still only 24 years old and still improving should be a scary thought for teams across the league.
October 21st, 2018: Win vs. The Golden State Warriors 100-98
For the Nuggets, their biggest area of focus was the defensive side, specifically defending the three-point shot. Going up against two of the greatest shooters in the history of basketball was a nice early season test to see how much the defense progressed from the previous season. Suffice it to say, they were fully up to the challenge as the Warriors shot a lowly 24% (7-29) on the game, which included Kevin Durant shooting 0-4 and Klay Thompson shooting 1-6 from three. What made this game great is even though Denver shot worse than Golden State, they were able to get enough buckets at the right times and defensive stops in clutch moments. That featured an incredible blocked shot by Juan Hernangomez in which he came from behind to stuff the game-tying layup by Warriors big man Damian Jones with two seconds remaining in the game. It was the first of many very impressive defensive games, but this one stands out since it was against the “juggernaut” Warriors.
January 28th, 2019: Win @ The Memphis Grizzlies 95-92
This was kind of a Frankenstein type game for the Nuggets. The first half consisted of negative energy and frankly one of the few times you could say there was an effort problem with the team. The team was down by as much as 25 about halfway through the third quarter. That’s when the team finally came back from the dead and started to chip away. By the end of the third quarter, the Nuggets had only chipped away six points off their significant deficit and faced a mountain of a lead they needed to scale if they wanted to win. The final run to close out the game began with 4:30 to go in the fourth quarter. Down 85-72, the Nuggets finally got hot. Two free throws by Paul Millsap and a layup by Malik Beasley led the charge. Beasley got hot then stayed hot, Will Barton also hit a couple of big shots. The daggers came from Beasley hitting a three with 1:16 to go to bring Denver within one then Will Barton hit the go-ahead three-pointer with 43 seconds to go, and Denver took the lead for good. The first game against Memphis was a tough grind out loss with Nikola Jokic being a no-show, but this time, tough defense, Nikola Jokic keeping the Nuggets at least sort of in the game in the first half and hot shooting down the stretch won the Nuggets this game. If you had to pick a theme for the season and put it into one word, it would be resiliency, and it was on full display on the night of January 28th.
February 1st, 2019: Win vs. the Houston Rockets 136-122
The Denver Nuggets had lost to the Rockets nine straight times, with their last win being on December 14th, 2015. The Nuggets were going into the game playing without their starting backcourt of Jamal Murray and Gary Harris, otherwise known as their second and third best players. A team that hadn’t beaten a Houston team in just over three years was supposed to do it without two of their three best players. When I said the bench became a huge strength this year mainly because of their depth, I meant it, and it was on full and complete display on this night in February. Nikola Jokic did his thing going for 31-13-9, which is excellent, but this game wasn’t about that. It was about the bench. A career high from Malik Beasley (35 points) and a very impressive game from an offensively inconsistent Torrey Craig led the way for the Nuggets. Those guys, Monte Morris, and Nikola Jokic kept Denver in the game while Houston scored 43 in the first quarter, then Denver exploded with 48 points in the second quarter and won the quarter by 20 points. That gave them a lead of 83-71 going into the half, and they didn’t look back from there. While Craig had an impressive 22 points, what was key was his defense on James Harden. We all remember his record-setting streak of consecutive 30-point games; it probably should have been ended on this night, but he shot up a three-pointer with 1:05 to go to keep his streak alive. It took everyone playing some of their best basketball, but the Nuggets proved to be resilient again and finally beat the Rockets for the first time in literally years.
April 27th, 2019: Game 7 win vs. the San Antonio Spurs 90-86
This series and the whole playoff run for Denver was filled with so many firsts. First playoff game for almost every player on the roster, first playoff win, first road win which was their first win in San Antonio since 2012 and first road playoff win against the Spurs since 2007. You could have picked any of the wins in this series or the series against the Portland Trail Blazers, but this game seven was so important for this Nuggets team and Nuggets history. The Nuggets earned the second seed which meant that they were expected to at least get to the second round and they were getting put through the wringer by one of the most stable franchises over the last two decades led by one of the greatest coaches ever in Gregg Popovich. The biggest struggle for the Nuggets in this playoff series was their starts in the first quarter winning only one of the previous six first quarters of the series. Denver successfully accomplished the mission of getting off to a hot start on both ends of the floor keeping the Spurs under 20 points. Jokic got off to a quick start scoring 9 of their 23 points in the first. He finished with 21-15-10 which was the perfect cap off to an absolutely incredible series for him that had him firmly in the conversation of the best player of the first-round and top 10-12 player in the league. Once again though, the defense, as it was so often this season, shined through. After game three and going into game four coach Michael Malone made a change to the starting lineup taking out Will Barton and putting in Torrey Craig. It was a defense for offense substitution, and it was needed. Gary Harris was guarding and honestly doing a terrific job of defending DeMar DeRozan, but the emergence of Denver’s hometown hero in starting point guard, Derrick White, the Nuggets needed another defender in the lineup, and they looked to Craig to do a job, and he did it. It was huge in game seven and the defense as a whole, spearheaded by Harris and Craig, kept the Spurs under 90 points and got enough stops at the end of the game, despite a mad comeback from the Spurs at the end, to win game seven. This series win signified the first playoff series won since 2009 when Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups led the Nuggets to the Western Conference Finals where they were eliminated by Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. It took seven games and a ton of learning moments for a team with virtually no playoff experience, but once again, the team showed admirable resilience and grit to grind out their first playoff series win in a decade.
The Nuggets don’t currently have a draft pick in either round of this year’s draft. However, with most of the Nuggets growth and rebuild coming organically from drafting and player development, it would not be too outlandish to see the president of basketball operations, Tim Connelly, make a move to at least get a pick or two in the draft.
The Nuggets are legitimately a player or two away from being potentially (knock on wood) championship contenders. Will Barton, I feel, got a bad rap from fans and media for his performance. Don’t get me wrong, he deserved criticism, but not as much as he got. Coming off of injury was one thing, but perhaps the more significant reason was that he was playing out of position. Barton is a combo guard, able to play either guard spot, but he was put at starting small forward where he was at the mercy of bigger and stronger small forwards, namely LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard. They haven’t had a legitimate starting small forward since either Danilo Gallinari or Carmelo Anthony (depending on how you want to look at it). Either way, it’s been a while and adding a small forward would be a piece that could be huge in getting the team over the top.
They may have that piece in house already with last year’s first-round pick Michael Porter Jr. Coming off of a severe injury, who knows what level he’ll be able to play at, but if he can play anywhere close to the level we hope he can, he could be the answer. There’s room to hope with him, but we may need to temper some of our expectations, I explain why here.
Team Priorities: First and foremost, figure out what’s going on with the Paul Millsap contract situation. The Nuggets have a team option with him that would be $30 million if they were to pick up that option. I’m of the mindset that they should decline the option and rework his contract with a smaller salary, given they have a tight cap situation and he’s starting to get up there in age.
Next, with their current cap situation (assuming no big changes or trades) the team only has room for a mid-level-exception player which they’ll obviously have to look at using. I’d expect them to make a move to give them more flexibility, but there’s no guarantee on that.
Possibly the most important part of the offseason is watching Michael Porter Jr at the Las Vegas Summer League in July. He sat for the entire year recovering from a herniated disc but has been finally cleared for full contact basketball. He’s chomping at the bit to play, and everyone else is chomping at the bit to watch him step on the court in Nuggets clothes for the first time. As I said, if he can resemble anything like we hope he can from before the injury, he could be the ever elusive answer at small forward.
While the Nuggets are in a position to largely stand pat in the offseason, they should not shy away from making a move if the opportunity arises. I’d love to see them make a move to try and maybe do a sign-and-trade for a Khris Middleton or possibly trade for a guy like Blake Griffin. A quick note about Griffin: he was said to have wanted out of Detroit and listed Denver as a desirable landing spot. I haven’t looked a ton into potential deals would look like talent wise or financially, but adding a guy like one of them could be an important addition as they both are very talented starters that can contribute on both ends of the floor.
It’s been years of rebuilding and roster construction, but going into the year, the Denver Nuggets finally had a core group of players to build around. A true superstar, developing star and an up and coming top two-way player in the league. A great combination of young emerging players and veteran leaders led to tremendous success despite much adversity and gave them one of the deepest teams in the entire league. They had some great wins and terrible losses, but each game led the Nuggets to where they got. The key, going forward, is going to be the young players continuing their development.
The Denver Nuggets 2018-19 season was one for the books, and while media and fans around the league insisted that the Nuggets were frauds and we’re going to get exposed in the playoffs, they held their own and showed that they were just getting started and have a potentially great future ahead of them.
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Main Image Credit: Embed from Getty Images