This week is all about the Denver Nuggets season in review. From Monday to Friday, we will be releasing season evaluations by position, beginning with point guard and ending with center. Ryan will break down what expectations were at the beginning of the season, what actually happened, hand out a letter grade, and ask what’s next for each player involved.

Power Forward Rotation

  • Starter – Aaron Gordon
  • Rotation – Peyton Watson
  • Reserve(s) – Hunter Tyson, Braxton Key (2W), Vlatko Cancar (injured)

Aaron Gordon

Expectations entering 2023-24: “AG filling that [versatile offensive and defensive] role…can scale up when needed…and can just do a lot of great stuff. I’ve been impressed with AG.” – Pickaxe and Roll

Reality: This season for Aaron Gordon was all about continuity from what he accomplished during the previous season’s championship run. Gordon filled in the gaps, didn’t need the ball to be effective offensively, and was on the receiving end of Denver’s most potent action: The Finale Oop.

The regular season was more of the same for Gordon, though his outside shooting dropped off for much of the year. He was a consistent defensive contributor and always put in work for the Nuggets, playing 73 games and doing everything he could to stay on the floor. In the playoffs, he was up and down as a scorer but continued to find other ways to impact the game, including averaging 4.4 assists per game. He was the difference maker in the Nuggets winning Game 4 against the Timberwolves, and though he wasn’t great at the end of the series, he was one of the only players capable of holding up defensively across almost every matchup.

Season Grade: B+

What’s Next for Gordon: Gordon will enter his 12th season next year, and for power forwards of his caliber that have a lot of their game based in athleticism, that can be a dangerous time. For several forwards throughout history that have accumulated as many minutes as Gordon has, it’s up to the Nuggets to manage his minutes and role effectively. There should be no issue with starting Gordon for the next couple of seasons, but the Nuggets have to be cautious. The Nuggets dynamic power forward is under contract for one more season then has a player option. Both sides will be tempted to do an extension before this season begins to ensure that Gordon stays in Denver through Nikola Jokic’s contract.

That should be fine, but it’s something to monitor in the long term. In the short term, he’s Denver’s third best player, and his skill set is integral to Denver’s ongoing success. Hopefully, the Nuggets can continue to capitalize on his best years.

Peyton Watson

Expectations entering 2023-24: “I think there’s an absolute possibility that he’s just in the rotation from Day 1 and never leaves.” – Pickaxe and Roll

Reality: During Peyton Watson’s rookie season, he played a total of 200 minutes between the regular season and the playoffs. It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough to generate some excitement about Watson’s future in Denver. That excitement proved to be well warranted with the second-year wing/forward playing 80 regular season games this year, averaging 18.6 minutes per game and serving as the Nuggets eighth man behind Reggie Jackson and Christian Braun. Watson’s defense was fun to watch throughout the year, and he had plenty of exciting moments guarding elite stars and locking them down. The offensive end was more hit or miss, but he made strides throughout the year and learned how to be impactful.

Unfortunately for the UCLA product, Watson’s minutes in the playoffs were abruptly cut short. He played in every game against the Los Angeles Lakers and wasn’t great on either end of the floor, unsurprisingly struggling against LeBron James and Anthony Davis. After playing just five minutes in Game 1 against the Timberwolves and struggling, Watson played little more than garbage time after that.

Season Grade: A-

What’s Next for Watson: A third year leap for Peyton Watson would be incredibly timely. The Nuggets are more or less stuck with their current group and plan to run it back, but having a player like Watson take another step forward would be incredibly valuable to a veteran team. Watson’s defense is unquestionably good, and he’s capable of becoming truly great on that end. If he can improve that three-point percentage and grow more comfortable with the ball in his hands in Denver’s offense, that opens up several windows of opportunity for the Nuggets in building a playoff rotation.

It’s not hyperbole to say that Watson’s development is the second biggest pivot point for the Nuggets rotation this season behind Kentavious Caldwell-Pope entering free agency.

Hunter Tyson

Expectations entering 2023-24: “Hunter Tyson I think has the straight line to playoff playing time. I think that there is a strong case for Hunter Tyson to play pretty close to immediately.” – Pickaxe and Roll

Reality: Oof. Talk about a miscalculation on my part. Tyson played just 48 minutes this season, the fewest on the team. I expected him to be an option as a floor spacing forward, but the Nuggets decided against playing him immediately. Perhaps he wasn’t ready. Perhaps I took Summer League a bit too seriously.

Season Grade: C-

What’s Next for Tyson: Tyson remains under contract for the Nuggets and presumably will get another opportunity for development at Las Vegas Summer League. Tyson shined there last July, and it will be on him to prove that he’s a cut above the level in Las Vegas in his second season. From there, he will have to work hard in training camp to earn an opportunity, though I expect his minutes to once again be limited next season.

Braxton Key

Expectations entering 2023-24: I don’t have a quote to fall back upon to evaluate my Braxton Key takes. Suffice to say I didn’t expect him to play much of a role heading into the season.

Reality: Key played 60 total minutes across 20 games for the Nuggets and never crossed into double-digit minute totals. He simply wasn’t a factor in the Nuggets rotation.

Season Grade: C-

What’s Next for Key: Key will become a restricted free agent this offseason and will have a decision to make on whether he wants to stay in the NBA or pursue opportunities in other leagues. Perhaps the Nuggets could retain his services on another two-way contract, but it’s difficult to say that he earned one of Denver’s 15 coveted roster spots. I don’t expect him back.

Vlatko Cancar

Expectations entering 2023-24: “The Nuggets will miss Čančar’s contributions on the court. He’s a great teammate, puts others before himself, and simply wants to see the team win. To see him suffer an injury of this magnitude is extremely unfortunate, and the Nuggets will be worse for it.” – Reacting to Vlatko Cancar’s ACL tear

Reality: It was a lost season for Vlatko. He underwent surgery soon after the injury, but there simply wasn’t enough recovery time to expect him back on the court in time to make an impact this season. He was getting shooting workouts in and taking part in some drills by the end of the year, but that was the extent of his basketball activities. He mostly stayed around as a supportive figure for the Nuggets bench mob.

Season Grade: Incomplete

What’s Next for Cancar: According to Calvin Booth at the End-of-Season press conference, Vlatko should be healthy enough to participate in the qualifiers for the Summer Olympics this offseason. He has a team option with the Nuggets and will probably be retained, but it’s possible that the Nuggets could let him go if they run short on roster spots. Hopefully, the Nuggets find a way to bring back the Slovenian Cyborg if he’s ready and able to contribute again.

Final Thoughts

With only two main contributors at power forward this year (along with Michael Porter Jr. sliding over on occasion) the Nuggets rotation was fairly rigid. Aaron Gordon started, and Peyton Watson backed him up. Going forward, I wonder if the Nuggets can stagger a few more players in there to come up with some different lineup combinations to keep opposing teams off balance. The Nuggets had their formula and they mostly stuck to it. That was fine in the regular season, but then Watson wasn’t able to play consistently in the postseason.

Perhaps the addition of Cancar will give Denver another solid option they can go to. Perhaps the Nuggets find someone else in free agency. Either way, Denver could use another player to help relieve the burden of Gordon and allow Watson to move to small forward more consistently.