If the Nuggets want to reach the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history, these five questions must be answered.
Well, the Denver Nuggets are just 11 days away from their very first preseason game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. The season is no longer rapidly approaching; with media day on Monday, September 26th, the season is now officially here.
The Nuggets are entering the season with a singular and specific goal of reaching their first ever NBA Finals and finishing the season by hoisting the trophy as the 2022-23 NBA Champions. In order to accomplish their goal, there are five questions they must answer.
Can Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. get back to their pre-injury levels before the playoffs arrive?
If the Nuggets have any hope of reaching their first NBA Finals, they will need both Murray and Porter not only healthy, but at their best which is a lot to ask for two players who have both missed essentially all of last season.
Can Murray get to a point where him and Jokic can become the elite two-man tandem they were prior to his injury? Will he be able to take pressure off of Jokic when defenses key in on the back-to-back MVP? Will Murray’s time recovering from tearing his ACL make his journey back to being productive on defense a difficult and long trek? Are there any lingering concerns in the back of Murray’s mind that his knee will fail him? These are challenges that Murray must overcome before the playoffs arrive in order for the Nuggets to be at their best. That a short time to progress so quickly, but Murray is more than capable of being the player Denver needs him to be.
Porter, while direly important, has an easier on-court integration than Murray because his role is less complicated. Murray has to run the offense as the point guard, constantly find ways to set up Jokic to attack with an advantage, keep everyone else involved, and defend well at the point of attack. For Porter, his role is playing as a spot-up shooter on offense and a checking the lesser of the two forwards when on defense. The weight Porter is carrying is simply less than Murray. Hopefully for the Nuggets, that means Porter will easily slide back into his role and he can be the six-foot-10 sniper they need him to be.
Will the four-man group of Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, and Nikola Jokic rediscover the dominance from two seasons ago?
The four-man lineup featuring Murray, Porter, Gordon and Jokic has admittedly only played 117 minutes together ever, but in those 117 minutes they were spectacular.
Denver went 4-1 in those five games and that group posted a 126.4 offensive rating and 108.2 defensive rating equating to a +18.2 net rating. When comparing those numbers to the season-long marks last year, Denver would be best in basketball in offensive rating and net rating while fourth in defensive rating. That group completely dominated in every aspect.
Denver will need to draw out every bit of potential from that four-man group regardless of who the fifth member is. Those are the four players who will carry Denver to their goals. Without them playing at a high level individually and as a unit, Denver has little hope of truly competing for their first Finals berth.
Can the Nuggets new additions of Bruce Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope provide Denver with the boost they need?
From my point of view, there was no more glaring of an issue for the Nuggets over the past few seasons than their particularly porous perimeter defense.
Clearly, Nuggets President of Basketball Operations Calvin Booth agrees with that assessment because his two biggest moves in his first offseason at his new post were to trade Barton and Morris to the Washington Wizards for the defensive-oriented Kentavious Caldwell-Pope before eventually signing Bruce Brown.
Brown and Caldwell-Pope are both established as strong defenders in the league already. Caldwell-Pope has won a title and should provide a new level of defense for Denver at the point of attack. Brown, despite being six-foot-four, defended big men more often than perimeter threats for the Brooklyn Nets, but his impact as a switch defender was always felt. He can truly defend four positions and will likely see a lot of opposing wings as his defensive assignment.
If the Nuggets get no more than a defensive upgrade to their roster from them both, the trade and signing were both worthwhile, but if both can find a way to help on offense — Caldwell-Pope hitting 3-pointers and Brown finding seems to attack as a cutter, helping create for others as a passer, and hitting triples when left open — Denver’s ceiling could exceed any team in basketball.
Will Bones Hyland take control of the backup point guard role and provide the creation Denver lost with Monte Morris and Will Barton III ending up in Washington?
Bones Hyland has shown an incredible amount of potential as an offensive player, but there is no tougher role to learn in all of basketball than a young lead guard learning to run a NBA lineup. Plus, the safety net of having multiple creators on the roster is no longer a luxury Hyland will get to enjoy. With Barton and Morris in Denver, the only other true creator off the bench is Ish Smith. Denver is down on creators which in turn is putting a hefty burden on the shoulders of Hyland.
Those facts make this a giant ask of the second-year lead guard who is still learning the intricacies of playing point guard.
Hyland already showed plenty of diversity in his bag of tricks which helped make up for his lack of experience, but this season will be a completely different animal. Last year, Hyland had the benefit of surprise and a lack of film for opponents to use against him. This year, every team Denver takes on will know the playbook on Hyland and will attack him more precisely. Teams will look to get physical with him to disrupt his handle and fight over every screen to keep him from shooting open 3-pointers so he has to get downhill and make more decisions.
Hyland has the potential to not only fill the shoes vacated by Morris, but thrive in a way Morris never could. Where Morris was conservative and steady, Hyland is explosive and energetic. The upside is much higher, but in order to truly unlock his ability, Hyland’s consistency will be key.
That will not be an easy task with so much pressure on Hyland to perform at a high level for a team with title aspirations despite entering just his second season.
What can the Nuggets bench unit do to keep games afloat with the starters resting?
This is an extremely simple problem and hopefully it will be rectified by having better players with a better on-court fit with one another.
Last year, the Nuggets starters had a raw +/- of +275 in 2479 minutes which was the seventh-best mark for starters according to NBA.com. Unfortunately, their bench unit was outscored by 86 points in 1482 minutes which was 23rd best.
This season, Denver will be able to stagger starters in with the bench unit and they should benefit from a jump in overall talent, but even with those advantages working for them, the bench unit has to prove they can produce before anyone trusts them to simply not fall apart.
As stated above, Hyland will be the steward of the reserves, but the pressure on him to keep the bench playing at a high level will be enormous. Brown will likely slide in as the small forward which leaves three spots unaccounted for.
Will Zeke Nnaji lock himself into the backup power forward role? Denver certainly hopes so, but if he struggles or continues dealing with injury issues, Vlatko Cancar could slide into that role.
At backup shooting guard, there will be a position battle entering training camp. Can Christian Braun hit open 3-pointers and defend at a high level or will the more experienced Davon Reed earn the role? Will both struggle and Denver choose to play Ish Smith alongside Hyland despite the defensive limitations? Those questions still lack answers.
Backup center is set to be a revolving door. Denver can play big with the newly signed DeAndre Jordan or they could play smaller with Jeff Green down low. If they wanted, Denver could even look to get Cancar minutes at center and play ultra-small in spurts. Maybe even Nnaji can grow enough as a rebounder and paint defender to log minutes at center. The Nuggets have options and Malone will likely use them all throughout the season.
Still, without the bench unit holding onto leads, Denver could find themselves sliding down the standings. If they want a good playoff seed, the bench unit will be crucial.