Today marks 34 days until the beginning of the 2022-23 NBA season. In preparation for the most anticipated year in Denver Nuggets franchise history, Ryan Blackburn is asking and answering 20 burning questions facing the Nuggets prior to Media Day on Monday, September 26th. One question each weekday for the next four weeks.
Question 13: What are the biggest weaknesses for the Denver Nuggets next season?
The ceiling is the roof for the Denver Nuggets next season.
With injured players returning and a reshuffling of role players to become more defensive, expectations for the 2022-23 Nuggets are sky high. Nikola Jokić is fresh off of two straight MVP seasons. Before they got injured, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. were developing into star scorers. When the Nuggets added Aaron Gordon in March of 2021, the Nuggets thought they had enough to win a title that season. Life didn’t go according to plan.
Now, the Nuggets appear back on track. There are very few teams in the NBA that can match Denver’s offensive talent. Scoring and playmaking versatility will be their biggest strength throughout the year. Their physicality and creativity to generate buckets in the paint will also be key.
But what about Denver’s weaknesses? Sure, Denver made strides in perimeter defense with the acquisitions of Bruce Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Did they solve the issue? Did they create other issues in the process? Can the Nuggets count on all of their strengths when the playoffs roll around?
Let’s talk about Denver’s largest pitfalls prior to the 2022-23 season:
It’s no secret that the Nuggets are one of the teams with potential injury landmines. Missing Murray and Porter last season put Denver’s fragility as a contender into perspective. Jokić can’t do everything by himself, though he certainly tried in admirable fashion.
No, the Nuggets need their health this season. Even though it’s unfair to expect Murray and Porter to play a full season’s worth of games, the target number of appearances for each player should be roughly 60 to 65 games. If the Nuggets can reach the playoffs fully healthy, and the team has enough experience from the regular season to play their most effective basketball, then health won’t be an issue.
But a slow recovery from Murray or Porter, or perhaps a an extended absence for Jokić, Aaron Gordon, or Bones Hyland, could just as easily derail Denver’s best laid plans.
Another potential issue the Nuggets face this season comes from their frontcourt. Not the starters, though. The starting frontcourt of Porter, Gordon, and Jokić is one of the best in the entire league, perhaps behind only the LA Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks. Denver’s starters up front compare with just about anybody.
The backups? That’s a different story.
After trading away JaMychal Green and letting DeMarcus Cousins walk, the Nuggets are left with players that are unproven or possible too proven. Jeff Green started a bunch of games last season next to Nikola Jokić, but his minutes without Jokić on the court left much to be desired. Zeke Nnaji showcased some nice 3&D ability from the power forward spot, but the Nuggets might need him to play center. If he can’t, that opens the door for DeAndre Jordan to see consistent minutes.
At small forward, the Nuggets will have a training camp battle between Davon Reed, Christian Braun, and maybe some other options. Whoever they select will be inexperienced though, and the Nuggets will need stability given Porter’s ongoing injury concerns.
If the Nuggets cannot find a frontcourt that works among their bench options, the Nuggets will likely be forced to make a midseason trade or stagger starters with the bench group. The more the Nuggets stagger, the fewer minutes Denver’s strong starting lineup can play together.
If the Nuggets can never find a combination that works when Jokić sits, their championship aspirations will be put into doubt.
Last season, the Nuggets didn’t lack for ball handlers. Monte Morris and Will Barton started games, while Bones Hyland and Facu Campazzo operated the bench units. Denver had other problems with that quartet, but ball handling was never one of them.
Now, the Nuggets return Jamal Murray, but Morris, Barton, and Campazzo are all out the door. Adding Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown to the rotation certainly strengthens Denver’s defense. It also has the side effect of reducing Denver’s on-ball playmaking capabilities. Murray and Bones are the only players that will consistently create off the dribble. Murray is coming off a major injury, though, and Bones will be in just his second season.
Ish Smith will help provide the Nuggets with occasional reinforcements from the reserve group. KCP and Brown aren’t helpless as ball handlers either, though it isn’t the strongest aspect of their games. Jokić will need to do some creation of his own both on and off the ball, something he excels at. Perhaps MPJ takes a step forward as a ball handler and creator himself.
In the end though, Denver’s current high pick and roll game rests on the shoulders of Murray and Hyland. Denver doesn’t have great options beyond them, and a poor game or untimely injury could cost the Nuggets in a playoff series.
Defense against elite floor spacing
Now, this was an aspect of Denver’s defense that the Nuggets threw a ton of resources at. KCP and Brown are both strong perimeter defenders. Brown is borderline elite in that category. Minutes for Davon Reed and Christian Braun should be seen as improvements. Murray is a better defender than Monte Morris. Bones is a year older and more experienced. Gordon will be playing his natural position of power forward more often.
Still, Denver’s perimeter defense will almost always have questions due to Jokić and MPJ.
Jokić has made plenty of strides as a defender. He’s possibly the best rebounder in the NBA. He racks up steals and deflections. His post defense is good. He walls off the paint with solid positioning. The problems have always been perimeter oriented, as they are for most traditional centers. Drag him away from the paint where he’s most comfortable, and teams like the Golden State Warriors, Phoenix Suns, and Utah Jazz have proven they can score at will against Denver’s defense.
MPJ is a different case. He has the length and athleticism that should allow him to hang defensively. To date though, he hasn’t made enough strides as a defender in space, struggling to contain opposing ball handlers off the dribble. He also can struggle with precise perimeter rotations, something the Nuggets absolutely need around Jokić in order to compete defensively.
The Nuggets can take MPJ off the court if they need to. Bruce Brown gives them an excellent alternative option. They can’t take Jokić off the court. He’s their identity, their do-everything offensive force that singlehandedly ensures the Nuggets are in the conversation for elite offense. Denver can’t do what most every other team does in a high leverage situation and go small at center. They have to find ways to defend with Jokić on the court.
Will the improvements around him be enough? We will see.