Today marks 36 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 11: Which Nugget has the most to prove?
The NBA season is now just over a month away.
The last two seasons have featured the Denver Nuggets falling short in the playoffs due to injuries and lacking performances. As a result, there are a lot of players with a lot to prove on the roster this season. The Nuggets maintained some of their continuity, but they also made some changes that outline the roles of the roster very well. In some of those roles, though, the pressure will be extremely high.
With that in mind, which player on the Nuggets roster has the most to prove heading into the season?
I’m going to use the Pressure Index to find out. A ‘1’ means the indicated player has next to nothing to prove this season. A ’10’ means the player is about to embark on an all-or-nothing season.
Let’s dive in:
Little to No pressure
Collin Gillespie: 1
Peyton Watson: 2
Ish Smith: 2
Christian Braun: 3
Jeff Green: 3
Though the Nuggets are getting ready to embark on a championship run, not every player will feel immense pressure to prove themselves along the way. Christian Braun, Peyton Watson, and Collin Gillespie are just entering the league. Though Braun will look to push for some playing time, nobody will think twice if he isn’t on the big stage in Denver’s ultimate playoff rotation. The same goes for Watson, who should have an even longer runway. Gillespie’s pressure index would be higher had he not sustained a broken leg this summer.
For Ish Smith and Jeff Green, these two veterans have already had the majority of their NBA stories written. Smith is expected to fill a low pressure role as the third string point guard. Green is in line to be a regular rotation player, but the Nuggets (and the NBA) already know exactly what he brings to the table.
Starting to feel the heat
DeAndre Jordan: 4
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope: 5
Vlatko Čančar: 5
Jack White: 5
Bones Hyland: 5
This category is when the pressure begins to manifest.
DeAndre Jordan will push for time at backup center, but the last several years of his career would suggest he’s heading for a mostly permanent bench role sometime soon. He’s under some pressure to stay that momentum, but the story is mostly written for the 34-year-old vet.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is mostly in the clear from a role and responsibility standpoint. He’s seen as a steady 3&D contributor for any roster. It will take a lot change that narrative, but it won’t change how much the Nuggets are asking of him this upcoming season. He’s likely taking on lead ball handler defensive assignments in the starting lineup, something he didn’t do much of in Washington.
Vlatko Čančar and Jack White are each in similar positions. Both players are running low on opportunities to prove themselves as NBA talents. Čančar has an extra year to prove himself, but both will have limited chances. Taking advantage of those minutes will be crucial.
Bones Hyland finds himself in this category and not the next one because it’s still his second season. If he puts up an identical year to his rookie season, the Nuggets will be slightly disappointed. They won’t immediately let go of Bones if he doesn’t progress to the level many expect him to be, though. He has time to prove himself, even though his individual role will feature exceptionally high levels of pressure.
It’s getting pretty hot
Aaron Gordon: 6
Bruce Brown: 6
Jamal Murray: 7
Zeke Nnaji: 7
Davon Reed: 7
Nikola Jokić: 8
This is the section where the pressure really starts to ratchet up. None of Denver’s players (save for one in the next category) are under “make-or-break” pressure this season, but several have something to prove.
First is Aaron Gordon. He has already earned his third contract in the NBA. He’s a proven veteran, but the expectations were different than the reality for Gordon’s career. He’s solid, but to date, he hasn’t proven to be a high level impact player in a playoff environment. He’s had some good games, but also some stinkers. This season, Gordon has an opportunity to fully embrace being a role player, and that may benefit his perception around the NBA.
Next is Bruce Brown. Brown has played just four seasons in the NBA, two with the Detroit Pistons and two with the Brooklyn Nets. He has a unique skill set but has yet to find a home. Playing on a one year contract with a player option to follow, this is basically a “prove-it” season for Brown in what is expected to be an ideal role. If he doesn’t break out, he will still find rotation player money. If he wants starter money though, this year is big.
Then there’s Jamal Murray, who shouldn’t be expected to be an elite player in his immediate return from the ACL tear. Still, he’s likely to place that pressure on himself anyway. Murray wants to be great, and heading into his Age-25 season, he’s hopefully about to enter the prime years of his career. If he plans to take full advantage of this period, it has to begin this season, unfair or not.
The Nuggets pushed their chips all-in this season on Murray’s healthy return, trading away both Monte Morris and Will Barton to add more defensive minded veterans around Murray. This is his team just as much as it is Jokić’s if the Nuggets are going to win a title, and that reality brings on pressure more than anything else.
Next are two players on the edge of Denver’s rotation hoping to lock in rotation spots. Davon Reed signed a two-year minimum deal with the second season non-guaranteed. That amounts to a one-year deal. If Reed is unable to prove himself in that time, he may fall out of the NBA entirely for a second time.
Zeke Nnaji is entering the third season of his rookie deal, and the Nuggets know exactly nothing about whether he fits into the team’s long term plans. Nnaji has played mostly power forward to date, but common sense says that he’d fit well as a small ball center in more switchable lineups. If Nnaji can prove his versatility and effectiveness this season, it could be the difference in tens of millions of dollars on his next contract and an indication of whether he’s starter material or not. If he struggles, the Nuggets may decide to cut ties, and his next team won’t be as invested in the former first round pick’s success.
Finally, Nikola Jokić. The two-time MVP has proven his ability as a regular season contributor. He’s even proven himself as a playoff fulcrum on the offensive end, having averaged 26.4 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 6.4 assists on 60.7% true shooting in 48 career playoff games. Putting up the numbers has never been an issue.
For Jokić, there’s pressure to dispel the notion that he can’t anchor a playoff defense. For each of the last four seasons, the Nuggets have been unable to put together a successful defensive formula around Jokić. The closest they got was the bubble with Gary Harris, Jerami Grant, Paul Millsap, and Torrey Craig taking on the opposing rosters, and the Nuggets made the conference finals as a result. Now, with Gordon, KCP, Brown, and others, the Nuggets are in a better position to play defense around Jokić than ever before.
If the Nuggets can’t find a way to get stops this year, it will be placed at Jokić’s feet as a way to discredit him, fair or not.
Michael Porter Jr.: 9
Only one player is feeling exceptionally high pressure this season. Michael Porter Jr., who the Nuggets gave a max contract to before the 2021-22 season, played just nine games in his second lost season to date. Half of the time, Porter’s been injured. The other half, he’s progressed into a strong outside scorer with deficiencies as a playmaker and defender.
The first thing Porter has to prove is his health. Can he stay on the floor consistently to help his team win games? Second, can he progress beyond the player he was at the end of the 2020-21 season? He was certainly dynamic as a shooter, but the rest of his game left a lot to be desired and likely hasn’t improved during the time he’s missed.
Porter’s career is on the precipice of four pathways:
- Permanent injury issues that end his career
- Limited role as a shooting specialist but no longer a starter
- Stagnation as the starter he was but never quit an All-Star
- Recover to full health, fix the weaknesses, and become his best self
All four paths still have reasonable probability. The first two paths of his career would practically ruin Denver’s title chances. The third path keeps those title hopes alive, but the Nuggets would still need to get lucky. The last path, if it began to happen this year, might make the Nuggets the title favorites by the time the playoffs roll around.
No Nuggets player has more riding on this season than Michael Porter Jr., and perhaps no other player in the NBA either. If Porter proves he can still progress forward his reputation would drastically shift.