Look back on Denver’s first-round meeting with Golden State, and there’s a decided turning point that flipped the series from a lopsided matchup to one that, at bare minimum, turned it competitive.
In the first two games – losses by a combined 36 points – Aaron Gordon was a shell of his athletic, burly frame. He looked lost, unsure where his offense would come from, and appeared to press as the Warriors dug further and further under his skin.
The trash-talking from Draymond Green and Klay Thompson was relentless.
In Game 3, Gordon arrived. He hit the glass (12 rebounds), feasted in the paint and when an opportunity to launch an open jumper presented itself, he didn’t hesitate. It was a subtle but vastly significant change that gave Nikola Jokic a viable partner, kept the Nuggets within striking distance of the Warriors, but more importantly, imbued Gordon with playoff confidence.
His debut playoff run with Denver (vs. Portland, vs. Phoenix) was underwhelming, though an injured hamstring may have played a part. Up until Game 3 vs. Golden State, Gordon hadn’t proven he wanted to be featured on that stage. Games 4 (the lone Nuggets win) and Game 5 were similar. Gordon was aggressive, calling for the ball in the post, exploiting his size advantage and playing freely.
The final three games of Denver’s first-round series loss to Golden State, the Nuggets lost by a combined four points total.
Gordon’s renaissance was at the heart of their revival.
Thrust into either the No. 2 or No. 3 option this season depending on the night, it became obvious that those responsibilities — including the top defensive assignment on a nightly basis — were too much for Gordon. But injuries and glaring lack of depth on the wing mandated he fill those holes.
P.J. Dozier’s ACL tear in November was devastating on a number of fronts. Dozier had been one of the team’s most versatile defensive players, and his absence only added more defensive pressure to Gordon. Despite searching for a true wing at the trade deadline, the Nuggets instead only added shooting (Bryn Forbes) and a backup enforcer (DeMarcus Cousins).
Davon Reed, a sparkplug two-way player, was relegated to the bench for the postseason because of his contract status. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him back in Denver on a standard contract. But the truth is, even with Gordon playing lower in the pecking order next season alongside a (presumably) healthy Michael Porter Jr., the Nuggets are extremely thin on the wing.
They know it, too, and there is a significant internal push to get better defensively.
Whether that’s through the draft, or via a landscape-altering trade, the course might be determined in the next week. If it’s the former, they’ll have ample options.
1. A.J. Griffin, 6-foot-6, Duke, 18: Griffin is big, strong and has a 3-point stroke that could translate seamlessly to the NBA. He has the potential to develop into an ideal 3-and-D type player, though lower-body injuries have hampered his progress. The Nuggets have already assumed a fair amount of injury risk regarding Porter. Selecting Griffin would likely require trading up — something the Nuggets could do now with two first-round picks.
2. Jalen Williams, 6-foot-6, Santa Clara, 21: The Nuggets, having a window defined by Jokic’s prime, are in the unique position to value older prospects. Williams is an elite athlete with a high hoops IQ and smooth 3-point shooting stroke. With a good frame and motor, he projects to be a promising defender as well. Williams could be one of the sleepers of the draft.
3. E.J. Liddell, 6-foot-5, Ohio State, 21: Liddell’s a fundamentally sound player with solid shooting mechanics and a high passing IQ. He played some center at Ohio State, which won’t happen in the NBA. His size could be a limiting factor, but if the Nuggets believe in his defensive versatility, they could project him in smaller lineups.
4. Dalen Terry, 6-foot-6, Arizona, 19: A lanky leaper, Terry excels in transition with his speed and vision. Though his shooting needs work, particularly from outside, his defensive potential is already there. In being a selfless passer and quality defender, he’s already checked two of the boxes Denver needs of its wings.
5. Kendall Brown, 6-foot-6, Baylor, 19: A persistent lob threat, it’d be endlessly entertaining to line up Brown next to Gordon to deploy multiple off-ball dunkers. Brown’s also a switchable defender, but his inconsistent shooting — and sometimes hesitancy — could give the Nuggets pause.