Five takeaways from the Denver Nuggets 2021-22 season

Apr 27, 2022; San Francisco, California, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon (50) drives into Golden State Warriors forward Kevon Looney (5) in the fourth quarter during game five of the first round for the 2022 NBA playoffs at Chase Center. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Well, after a five-game series in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs against the Golden State Warriors, the Denver Nuggets 2021-22 season has officially come to an end.

With that being said, let’s dive into five takeaways from a roller coaster of a season.

Nikola Jokic was masterful

It is hard to find a new way to say how incredible Jokic has been. Every adjective has been used and rightfully so.

Simply, Nikola Jokic was masterful.

Over the course of the season, Jokic put up mind blowing stat line after mind blowing stat line. By the time the regular season came to an end, he led the Nuggets in points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, minutes played, field goal attempts, free throw attempts and field goal percentage.

Ultimately, Jokic averaged 27.1 points, 13.8 rebounds, and 5.8 assists per game which were all in the top-10 across the entirety of the National Basketball Association and he led the Nuggets to 48 wins and the sixth seed in the Western Conference.

Oh, and he did all of that without Denver’s second or third best players in Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., who only played in the first handful of games before having season-ending back surgery.

Once the playoffs rolled around, Jokic’s responsibilities only grew and he rose to match them. Unfortunately, it was not enough as Denver lost their first round playoff series to the Golden State Warriors.

Still, despite Denver’s quick exit from the postseason, it is impossible to deny Jokic’s impact. He averaged 31 points per game in the five playoff games Denver took part in and he managed to shoot a scorching 57.5% from the field in the process. For good measure, Jokic also put up 13.2 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game while adding 1.6 steals and one block on the defensive end.

Jokic is more than likely the league’s Most Valuable Player and this will be the second-consecutive season he was won the award. He played like the MVP during the season and played like the MVP during the playoffs.

It’s too bad Denver’s injury issues robbed Jokic of the roster worthy of his greatness.

Aaron Gordon proved he is the player the Nuggets need

There were ups and downs all season long and everything was far from perfect, but over the course of the regular season and playoffs, it became clear that Aaron Gordon is exactly the player Denver hoped he would be.

Yes, he has had to create far more offense than he would need to if Murray or Porter were healthy. Yes, he was asked to take on a significantly heavier scoring load. Yes, Gordon had to check the opposing team’s best non-center offensive player each game. Yes, Gordon played out of position for most of the season.

Despite everything working against him individually, he still came out as the Nuggets second-leading scorer and their best defender. Gordon averaged 15 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game while shooting 52% from the field.

Once the Nuggets are healthy, it is terrifying to think how good Gordon could be in his role. He was able to carve out space around the rim as a cutter and when posting up mismatches without Murray or Porter on the court. With both of those elite shooters spacing the floor, it will be even easier for Gordon to slice into the paint and find easy buckets.

Also, when Murray and Porter are healthy, there will be much more length on the floor which would minimize the amount of ground Gordon has to cover on defense which would only make him a more impactful individual defender.

It is clear Gordon fits; now it all comes down to getting this Nuggets roster healthy so he can thrive in the role the Nuggets intended for him.

It took just his rookie season for Bones Hyland to become a big part of Denver’s future

From the moment Bones Hyland began getting playing time, it was clear he belonged at the NBA level.

He had multiple NBA ready skills. His handles were advanced for his experience level, he had a creative package of moves around the rim, he was completely fearless and had a long wingspan which could give him more credibility as a defender in time, but everything for Hyland revolved around one skill; his 3-point shooting.

Yes, 36.6% from beyond the 3-point arc is not an outstanding figure, but it takes time for rookies — especially lead guards — to get acclimated to the speed of the game, how athletic their opposition is, and the longer 3-point line. Hyland has already overcome that which is evidenced by his jump in efficiency over the Nuggets last 15 games where he took 6.6 3-pointers per game, the highest on the Nuggets roster, and made 39.4% of them despite many of them being high-difficultly looks.

Offensively, the future is bright for Hyland. His finishing will only improve as he gets stronger and learns how to use his body. His 3-point shooting will only improve as the talent around him improves which should lead to easier looks from deep.

That being said, Hyland has a long way to go on defense where he is currently a step away from disaster on every possession, but no rookie lead guard ever enters the NBA complete. Denver knew there were rough edges that needed to be sanded down and, frankly, Hyland is much further along than anyone could have expected.

The future is bright for the young, fearless and energetic Hyland.

Without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., Denver does not have the ceiling to keep up with the league’s best teams

This is a hard truth, but also an obvious one. Of course contending teams are worse without their second and third best players, but for Denver, it was particularly rough.

Without Murray, Denver did not have enough creators on offense. Murray’s sheer scoring prowess would have dramatically opened up the floor for everyone else, taken pressure off of Jokic and he would have been one of the only players on the team who could drive to the rim and actually finish in the paint with or without a screen. He is also another bona fide star-caliber threat for defenses to pay attention to which would help create space for the likes of Will Barton III, Gordon and anyone else sharing the floor with him. Even on defense, Denver could have used him. He would have been a much better option than Monte Morris to defend any of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson or Jordan Poole.

Porter simply allows everyone on the Nuggets roster to fall into their natural positions. Gordon would slide back to playing power forward; giving him a quickness or strength advantage over the majority of opposing power forwards while allowing Jeff Green to slide into the bench unit as a forward who can in bigger units or a center in small-ball lineups. Plus, adding a shooter of Porter’s ilk to the floor makes it much more difficult for defenses to match up with the Nuggets.

Denver needs the skills both Murray and Porter provide and until they get both back and playing at their best, Denver will be handicapped.

Denver needs more defense

Anyone who watched the Nuggets take on the Warriors in the first round of the playoffs saw how outmatched Denver’s defense was.

Denver did not have the perimeter defenders to keep the likes of Jordan Poole, Klay Thompson and Steph Curry in front of them. Denver did not have the rim protection to eliminate shots at the rim. Denver did not have the weak side help defense to alleviate their bad perimeter defense. Denver could barely even defend without fouling.

There was little to nothing that worked for Denver on defense beyond being physical and forcing Golden State into turnovers every once in a while. Until Denver can get the requisite defensive production, their ability to beat good teams in a playoff series is dramatically minimized.

For example, when Golden State played their Poole Party lineup of Curry, Poole, Thompson, Wiggins and Draymond Green, Denver had no chance. That five-man pairing had a ridiculous 141.2 offensive rating which is virtually perfect.

How the Nuggets add more defense is another conversation. Does Denver look to move on from Will Barton III in order to add a dominant defensive wing or do they look to bolster their bench with versatile defenders?

That is a question president of basketball operations Tim Connelly will have to answer this offseason.

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