Today marks 25 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 20: Do the Denver Nuggets have what it takes to win it all?
There’s a sense around the Mile High City that the Denver Nuggets are looking more and more like a team of destiny.
For a long time, things just haven’t gone Denver’s way. Dating back to their ABA days, the Nuggets have yet to win a championship. Any time they get close, something goes wrong, or the team simply hits a glass ceiling that they’ve yet to crash through. In 1985, it was an injury to Alex English, the leading scorer of the 1980’s. In 2009, it was incomprehensible inbound passes against the Los Angeles Lakers. In 2020, those same Lakers lucked into some extra rest in a bubble environment and outworked the Nuggets 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 have yet to make an NBA Finals, but this appears to be the best chance for the Denver Nuggets in franchise history.
Jamal Murray recently ranked as the 50th best player on ESPN’s annual player rankings. The justification was simple: nobody has any idea just how good Murray will be when he returns to the hardwood. Of course, the Nuggets are getting very excited internally. They would scoff at such a low rating for the returning star:
— AltitudeTV (@AltitudeTV) September 21, 2022
The Nuggets know that they need Murray at his best to be a true title threat. Every team to win a championship has had at least one star perimeter scoring threat. The Nuggets committed to believing Murray could be that guy a long time ago, and his playoff averages – 33 games, 24.3 points, 5.8 assists, 4.6 rebounds, 47.3 FG%, 40.9 3P% – seemingly back that up. If he were to simply perform at his averages during the 2022-23 playoffs, the Nuggets would feel very comfortable with their title chances.
Jokić and Murray are fairly stable. Barring a slower recovery for Murray or a surprise setback to either of them, the Nuggets know they have one of the most dynamic duos in the NBA today. Either player can win Denver a playoff game. Jokić has already proven a strong series from him can carry Denver’s winning chances. The bubble proved the same from Murray. Those two are Denver’s pillars on the offensive end.
The third, and admittedly shakier, pillar of the offense is Michael Porter Jr., though there’s no doubting his talent level. Multiple seasons lost to injury have brought to light some reliability concerns. Even if Porter is healthy though, he has had much larger playoff struggles than Murray thus far. Many of those struggles can be attributed to growing pains in an NBA environment, but until he grows out of some bad traits (weak ball handling, poor isolation defense) teams will continue to prey on his weaknesses as a player.
The Nuggets have yet to fully unlock MPJ’s capabilities alongside Jokić and Murray, and yet it hasn’t really mattered. According to PBP Stats, those three have shared the court together for 1,139 career minutes across regular season and playoff games. In those games, they’ve maintained a +12.1 Net Rating. For comparison’s sake, the career net rating for Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green is +14.8. The Nuggets aren’t far off.
Offense on a grand scale is almost certainly taken care of by that trio. Defense will be what defines Denver’s chances for contention though.
The Nuggets have never had an above average playoff defense during the Michael Malone and Nikola Jokić era. In each of the seasons, other teams have found enough ways to exploit Denver’s personnel and scheme to outpace Denver’s playoff offense. Putting Jokić on an island and forcing him to defend in space out to the three-point line has been a good strategy for opposing teams. There have also been enough defensive weaknesses at other positions (Murray early on, Porter lately, and Will Barton last season) to give opposing teams confidence that they could score on Denver at any time.
The Nuggets can’t continue to make scoring easy for their opponents, which is why they made offseason changes. They added Kentavious Caldwell-Pope via trade, Bruce Brown via free agency, and Christian Braun via the 2022 NBA Draft. The three wings represent Denver’s best collection of wing defenders to date. Adding them (or at least KCP and Brown) to a rotation that already features Aaron Gordon gives the Nuggets plenty of length and versatility at key positions.
In previous seasons, the Nuggets were tethered to various lineups due to defensive concerns, lack of depth, or the need to sell out on the offensive end. For the first time though, Michael Malone can look at his rotation and see a variety of options for any situation. Can’t play Porter due to a specific defensive matchup? Bring in Brown, Jeff Green, or Zeke Nnaji as alternate defensive options. Need some extra offense on the floor? Bring in Bones Hyland and slide Porter to power forward in place of Gordon. Need some extra energy? Braun and Ish Smith are available to shake things up.
There’s no doubt that the Nuggets need a variety of things to go right for them in order to win a title. It’s like that for every team though. The Golden State Warriors needed Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Poole, and Kevon Looney to step up in different parts of the playoffs to get past the opposition. The Milwaukee Bucks needed Kevin Durant’s toe to be on the three-point line in their Game 7 matchup in 2021 in order to win a title that season. Every champion had help and got fortunate along the way, and the Nuggets won’t be the exception.
It does feel like a gap in the West has emerged though. The Warriors, while clearly still dominant, are on the downslope of their dynasty. The Phoenix Suns had their best shot in 2021, saw it slip away, and have slowly seen chinks develop in their armor. The Los Angeles Clippers, while formidable if healthy, are a team the Nuggets have had success against in the past. Plus, they need to prove health just as much as the Nuggets do. Other West teams either have too many questions or not enough top end talent to be serious contenders for the title this year.
That leaves Denver, a team hungry to prove itself after seeing multiple opportunities ripped away due to injuries. They’re healthy now, and they’ve improved beyond just bringing the old band back together. This roster is as ready as its ever been to challenge the hierarchy of the NBA. They might even succeed.
To date though, the Nuggets haven’t shown the resiliency needed against the best teams in the NBA to execute their game plan on both ends of the floor. Against the Lakers in 2020, the Nuggets were disrupted on the defensive end by the Lakers’ inside-outside attack. Against the Suns in 2021, the Nuggets couldn’t solve high pick and rolls 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 Golden State’s shooters run around without challenging them in any way.
Finding that next gear mentally will be key to Denver’s success. It takes a level of experience, commitment, and discipline to truly compete for a title. Perhaps the Nuggets will reach that level offensively. Reaching it defensively will be the swing factor in Denver’s season.
Jokić hasn’t given Nuggets fans any reason to doubt though. He keeps getting better, finding new ways to excel on offense and to improve on defense. As his leadership continues to take steps forward, expect the Nuggets to follow his example. They still have to progress, but there’s plenty of reason to believe they will.
As long as Murray and Porter get and stay healthy, the Nuggets can win a championship. I predict they will, and as such, I’m predicting the Nuggets earn a ring this season.