Nuggets Mailbag: Can Denver earn the No. 1 seed in the West?

Before we get to our (long overdue) mailbag, we’ve got something special in the works. On Sept. 22 at ViewHouse BallPark, we’re holding a special live Nuggets Ink Podcast with point guard Bones Hyland at 6:30 p.m.

In addition to the live conversation with Bones, fans in attendance can participate in a Q&A with the Nuggets’ second-year guard. Seating is limited, so arrive early! This season, we’re also thrilled to announce a partnership with Evoca TV as the title sponsor for our podcast. We can’t wait to see you there and formally kick off the 2022-’23 season.

Beat writer Mike Singer opens up the Nuggets Mailbag periodically during the offseason. Pose a Nuggets — or NBA — related question here.

If Nuggets remain healthy, do you think there’s a legitimate chance they can take the top seed in the West next season?

— Joshua Messer, Lochbuie

I remember saying last season that a top-four seed wasn’t a guarantee. Knowing that Jamal Murray would be out for the majority of the season, I thought earning homecourt advantage in the first round would be difficult. They wound up with the No. 6 seed, four games back of the No. 4 Mavericks. And you know what? The West got deeper.

Certainly Phoenix and Golden State, and to a lesser extent, Memphis, will all be vying for the top seed in the West, but there’s a newcomer that might be even more dangerous than the aforementioned teams: the Clippers. The Clippers were good without Kawhi and PG healthy. They had the No. 8 defense without those two stalwarts. In other words, it’s going to be a battle royale atop the West this season.

If the Nuggets remain healthy, which might as well be distilled into a question of MPJ’s health, I think they’ll be contending for a top-3 seed. A lot has to go right to achieve the No. 1 seed. Not only does Porter need to prove his health is sustainable, but Murray probably won’t be consistent until December, having had 18 months away from NBA competition. While possible, I’d lean unlikely.

(Relevant sidenote: Porter’s been working out in LA with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Trae Young, Miles Bridges and Victor Oladipo, as well as a handful of other NBA players. I’m told there have been no limitations after missing most of last season).

I’ve got a few questions for you: With Juancho Hernangomez being available the Nuggets opted to re-up Vlatko Cančar. Do you think this was because they view Vlatko as a better or more versatile player, more affordable or a better fit in the locker room? I’m a huge Juancho fan and feel he is a better player, so this move baffled me. In order for Zeke Nnaji to see more minutes this season, is it largely predicated on his health or based upon improving his skill set? Lastly, when Katy features you in the in-game Singer Sings segment will you be more likely to sing some New Jack Soul, classic Doo-Wop, or perhaps some power ballad crooning?

— Mathieu aka Van Rouge, San Francisco

Here’s a secret: Before he was traded, Juancho wasn’t thrilled with his role, which was a shade over 12 minutes per night. Yes, he was friends with Jokic, but the Nuggets had also drafted MPJ, who presented a giant roadblock for Hernangomez’s development. In Vlatko, the Nuggets have an excellent locker room guy and a close friend of Jokic. But if I was Vlatko, and I kept hearing that same trope that my value was tied to being well-liked, it would irritate me because it would overlook my value as a basketball player.

Cančar has a great feel for the game and is an intuitive player. As with any smart player, he works well with Jokic. The knock on Cančar is that he’s too rigid, which only gets ironed out through playing time and reps. He was starting to figure it out before his foot fracture last January. If you’ve been watching him compete for Slovenia in EuroBasket, you’ll notice that the game is slowing for him. There are timely pump-fakes, quick-release 3s, hustle plays and clutch shots. It’s hard to pen him into a certain role this year until that translates consistently to the NBA. I just think the Nuggets have invested a lot in him and want to exhaust his chances at contributing on this level.

Regarding Zeke, it begins with his knees. If he’s not healthy, or doesn’t feel comfortable with whatever was ailing him last season, he’ll quickly find himself buried on the depth chart. There was never a great explanation, either, for what specifically was wrong with his knees last season. I know he’s spent a ton of time working out in Denver, honing his 3-point shot and has added 11 pounds of muscle this summer. To me, that suggests he’s going to be playing in the paint. An insurance plan when DeAndre Jordan doesn’t play? A third-string power forward behind Jeff Green? I think his best avenue to playing time is at backup five. If he can hold his own defensively there, he could be an offensive mismatch on the second unit.

When Katy turns over the microphone for my Singer Sings segment this season, I’ll be belting out Chance the Rapper or Bone Thugs and Harmony. We’ll see you at the crossroads.

What is the time frame you give the Nuggets before they should scrap it all?

— Thomas Malone, Westchester

A question for a question: Do you, Thomas, have a brother named Michael, and are you concerned about his job security? If there was ever a time to join the bandwagon, it’s right now.

Nikola Jokic is under contract through, at minimum, the 2026-27 season. Michael Porter Jr.’s under contract for the same time frame. Jamal Murray’s under contract through, at minimum, the 2024-25 season. The same goes for Aaron Gordon. New shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope signed an extension that can keep him in Denver through the 2024-25 season. The window is in the next two seasons. As long as Jokic is healthy, I don’t think there should be any consideration to “scrapping” anything.

Do you think the nuggets should try having a replacement big or should they just go all in on small ball 5 (Zeke Nnaji/Jeff Green/whatever)? Also where do you see our defense with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown playing significant minutes?

— Yotam, Tel Aviv

Can you expand on the coaching staff’s thinking behind Bruce Brown as a secondary ball handler? And in addition, have you heard anything regarding Malone’s early inclinations on the how bench minutes in the front court will be distributed, notably a lineup featuring AG at center?

— @rinoriverhigh

Since I already answered the Zeke question to an extent, let’s focus on the new additions.

The Nuggets added KCP because he can stretch the floor, doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective, and can defend. There was way too much asked of Aaron Gordon last season on that end. He’s a safety net for Gordon, but also a safety net for Murray. Don’t expect Murray to be guarding opponents’ lead guards any time soon. Remember, the concern with Murray returning was always on the defensive end, where he’d need to fight through screens, take contact and be physical.

I think Bruce Brown might be an even better fit. Think about where he might serve as insurance. In the event Michael Malone can’t rely on MPJ in the fourth quarters of games, Brown can slot in as a wing defender. KCP/Gordon/Brown is a dangerous (and versatile) trio of defenders to pair with offensive wizards Murray and Jokic. If Brown plays as advertised, he’d be able to guard fours as well. I’ll be very curious to see if (when?) we see that closing lineup.

Regarding Brown as a secondary ball-handler, that was one of the reasons Calvin Booth targeted Brown in free agency. Think about the bench unit. It’s Bones, Christian Braun/Davon Reed, Brown, Green and Jordan/Nnaji. There’s not a traditional backup two on the roster. Brown will be needed to alleviate pressure on Bones, who’s going to be tasked with scoring and initiating on the second unit. While Malone probably has a plan for his second unit depth chart, I’d venture to guess that there will be camp battles at the two and five.

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