Today marks 25 days until the start of the 2022-23 NBA season. In preparation for the most anticipated year in the history of the Denver Nuggets franchise, Ryan Blackburn asks and answers 20 hot questions the Nuggets will face ahead of Media Day on Monday, September 26th. One question each weekday for the next four weeks.
Question 20: Do the Denver Nuggets have what it takes to win it all?
There is a sense around Mile High City that the Denver Nuggets are looking more and more like a team of destiny.
For a long time, things didn’t go the Denver way. Back in their ABA days, the Nuggets haven’t won any championships yet. Anytime they get close to it, something goes wrong, or the team hits a glass ceiling they haven’t shattered yet. In 1985, it was the injury of Alex English, top scorer of the 1980s. In 2009, passes were incomprehensible against the Los Angeles Lakers. In 2020, those same Lakers took some extra relief in a bubble environment and kept the Nuggets away by dominating the paint.
Now, after a bit of a hiatus from the championship conversation, the Nuggets are hoping to reintroduce themselves to the NBA world. They haven’t made the NBA Finals yet, but this appears to be the Denver Nuggets’ best chance in franchise history.
Jamal Murray was recently named a Top 50 player in the annual ESPN Players Rankings. The justification was simple: No one has any idea how good Murray will be when he returns to the hardwoods. Of course, Nuggets are very excited internally. They’ll mock this low rating for the returning star:
– AltitudeTV (AltitudeTV) September 21, 2022
The Nuggets know they need Murray at his best to be a real threat to the title. Each team that wins a championship has at least one threat in the vicinity of its star. The Nuggets stuck to the belief that Murray could be that guy for a long time, and his playoff averages – 33 games, 24.3 points, 5.8 assists, 4.6 rebounds, 47.3 FG%, 40.9 3P% – seem to back that up. If he were to simply give his averages during the 2022-23 playoffs, the Nuggets would feel very comfortable with their title chances.
Jokic and Murray are fairly stable. Barring a slower recovery for Murray or a sudden setback for either, the Nuggets know they have one of the most dynamic doubles in the NBA today. Either player can win a playoff game in Denver. Jokić has already proven that a strong streak of him can hold Denver’s chances of winning. The bubble proved the same from Murray. These are the two Denver columns at the end of the offensive.
The third column, and the most shaky, is Michael Porter Jr., although there is no doubt about his level of talent. The loss in several seasons to injury has highlighted some reliability concerns. Even if Porter is healthy, he has faced much greater difficulties than Murray so far. Many of these difficulties can be attributed to the growing pains in the NBA environment, but until he grows out of some bad qualities (poor ball handling, poor isolation defense) teams will continue to exploit his weaknesses as a player.
The Nuggets still had to fully unlock MPJ’s abilities alongside Jokić and Murray, however it didn’t really matter. According to PBP stats, these three shared the field together for 1,139 minutes during the regular season and play-off matches. In those games, they maintained a net rating of +12.1. For the purpose of comparison, the net career rating of Stephen Curry, Clay Thompson and Draymond Green is +14.8. Nuggets are not far away.
This trio is almost certain to take care of the attack on a large scale. But defense will be what determines Denver’s chances of competing.
Nuggets never had above-average defense during the playoffs during the Michael Malone and Nikola Joki eras. Each season, other teams found enough ways to exploit Denver’s personnel and scheme to beat Denver’s playoff attack. Putting Jokić on an island and forcing him to defend into space up to the three point line was a good strategy for opposing teams. There were also enough defensive weaknesses in the other centers (Murray early on, Porter lately, Will Barton last season) to give the two opposing teams confidence they could score on Denver at any time.
Nuggets cannot continue to facilitate the scoring of their opponents, which is why they have made unexpected changes. They added Kentavious Caldwell-Pope via trade, Bruce Brown via free agency, and Christian Braun via 2022 NBA Draft. The three wings represent Denver’s best group of wingers to date. Adding them (or at least KCP and Brown) to a spin that already features Aaron Gordon gives the Nuggets plenty of length and variety in key positions.
In previous seasons, Nuggets were linked to various formations due to defensive concerns, a lack of depth, or a need to sell on the offensive end. But for the first time, Michael Malone can look at his rotation and see a variety of options for any situation. Can’t play Porter because of a certain defensive match? Bring in Brown, Jeff Green, or Zeke Nnaji as alternate defensive options. Need some extra humiliation on the ground? Bring Bones Hyland and move Porter forward instead of Gordon. Do you need some extra energy? Braun and Ash Smith are available to change modes.
There is no doubt that Nuggets need a variety of things to suit them in order to win the title. The same is true for every team. The Golden State Warriors needed Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Poole, and Kevon Looney to advance in various parts of the playoffs to get past the opponent. The Milwaukee Bucks needed Kevin Durant’s toe to be on the three-point streak in Game 7 in 2021 in order to win this season’s title. Every hero got help and got lucky along the way, and Nuggets will be no exception.
However, it appears that a gap has emerged in the West. While the warriors were clearly still dominant, they were in the descent of their lineage. The Phoenix Suns had their best shots of 2021, saw them slip through, and slowly saw the holes in their armor appear. The Los Angeles Clippers, while great if healthy, are a team that the Nuggets have had success against in the past. Plus, they need to be validated just like Nuggets. The other West teams either have too many questions or don’t have enough outstanding talent to be serious contenders for the title this year.
This leaves Denver, the team hungry to prove itself after seeing several opportunities lost due to injuries. They’re healthy now, and they’ve gotten better after just getting the old band back together again. This roster is ready as ever to challenge the NBA hierarchy. So they may succeed.
So far, the Nuggets haven’t shown the flexibility needed against the best teams in the NBA to implement their game plan on both ends of the floor. Against the Lakers in 2020, the Nuggets were defensively disrupted by the Lakers attacking inside and out. Against The Suns in 2021, the Nuggets couldn’t solve a Pick and Rolls game run by Chris Paul or Devin Booker. Against the Warriors in 2022, the Nuggets couldn’t stay disciplined in their three-point defensive principles and let the Golden State shooters run unchallenged in any way.
Mentally finding the next gear will be key to Denver’s success. It takes a level of experience, commitment and discipline to truly compete for the title. Perhaps the Nuggets will reach that level offensively. Getting to him defensively will be the swing factor in Denver’s season.
Joki has not given Nuggets fans any reason to doubt. He is constantly improving, finding new ways to excel in attack and improving defense. As his leadership continues to take strides forward, expect the Nuggets to follow suit. They still have to come forward, but there are plenty of reasons to believe they will.
As long as Murray and Porter are healthy and maintained, the Nuggets can win the championship. I expect they will, and as such, I expect the Nuggets to win the ring this season.