MHS Roundtable: Denver’s regular season if officially here

Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) celebrates his basket in the fourth quarter against Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center.
Apr 11, 2018; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) celebrates his basket in the fourth quarter against Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

With training camp and preseason now in the rear-view mirror, the Denver Nuggets 2018-19 season if officially upon us. The Nuggets open the regular season on Wednesday night against the Los Angeles Clippers.

After a preseason filled with highs and lows, the Nuggets now embark on a regular season full of expectations. With that thought in mind, the scribes at Mile High Sports got together to shed some light on what we might see from the Nuggets this season.

So without further ado, let’s dive in.

What is the Nuggets biggest question mark going into the 2018-19 regular season?

T.J. McBride: This may be a low-hanging fruit type of an answer, but there should be only one worry heading into the regular season — make the playoffs at all costs. Anything less than making the playoffs makes the 2018-19 season a failure in my eyes.

Dev Johnson: The Nuggets biggest question heading into the new season is if they will finally end their five-year playoff drought. With so many expectations heading into the season, it does not matter what happens so long as they make it back to the postseason. The starters will have to be focused and play with effort for the entire season. The bench will have to grow from being a negative into passable at the very least. The defense will have to be played with more aggression and determination. Denver is constructed to make the playoffs, they just have to put all of the pieces together and prove it.

Brandon Ewing: The biggest question mark going into the season has to be the chemistry amongst the starting unit. Through three preseason games, there was almost no cohesion amongst the starting five. That chemistry didn’t materialize till the Nuggets final two preseason games against the Los Angeles Clippers and Chicago Bulls. But, even in those games, the connection wasn’t all there.

For a team that thrives so much on offensive production, the Nuggets need their starting unit to be in sync in order to have success. The second unit bailed the Nuggets starters out far too many times in the preseason, which is something that can’t happen in the regular season. Hopefully for the Nuggets sake that chemistry starts to materialize on Wednesday night – but if it doesn’t – this question mark may grow into an even bigger problem.

Do you expect the defense to jump into the top-20?

T.J. McBride: If the Nuggets want to gran a top-four seed in the Western Conference, they will need to jump up into at least the top-20 in terms of defensive rating and there are multiple reasons why that goal could become realized.

First off, having a healthy Paul Millsap will be a big boon. He missed 44 games in 2017-18 due to injury, but he is fully healthy and looking to help Denver on defense this year. Secondly, Malone has decided to play a more aggressive brand of defensive basketball. Each and every player on the roster wants to play more up the floor and get into passing lanes and Malone is empowering his team to do so. Thirdly, there is a communal determination to improve on defense that has percolated through every player in the Nuggets locker room. If all of those reasons are displayed on the hardwood, there is a strong chance that Denver could at least jump up into the top-20 defenses in the NBA.

Dev Johnson: Denver’s defense showed that they are capable of putting it together in the preseason. There were even times last season that there was progression made on that end, just not on a consistent basis which makes sense with Denver not having their best defensive weapon for half of the year in Millsap.

With Millsap back to full health, Denver will surely be better on that end of the floor. There were times last season that the Nuggets just did not have the defensive players on the floor, especially when it came to rim protection as well as switching onto smaller and quicker players. With Millsap back in the fold, those issues should be mitigated to some degree. Malone is a coach who has preached defense for his entire tenure in Denver, but he has fielded a defense that is consistently towards the bottom of the league each season. This should be the year that Denver’s defensive struggles finally disappear.

Brandon Ewing: If the Nuggets defense is going to take that next step forward and be in the top-20, I think this is the year they do it. Searching for their first playoff berth in five seasons, the Nuggets won’t be able to outscore every opponent on a nightly basis. We’ve already seen an improvement in the Nuggets defensive rating, as they posted the seventh best percentage (97.5) in the preseason. Last season, the Nuggets finished with a rating of 109.9, which put them 23rd in the NBA.

The aggression Denver played with in the preseason opened our eyes to their ability to force turnovers and create havoc on the defensive end of the floor. With a fully healthy season from Paul Millsap and potential improvements defensively from Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Gary Harris, I feel like the Nuggets could absolutely be a top-20 defensive team. It is not going to happen over night, but Denver just missed out on being a top-20 defense last season. If the Nuggets can stay healthy, the defense could improve dramatically.

What is the best-case scenario for the Nuggets 2018-19 season and why?

T.J. McBride: The best-case scenario for the Nuggets is finishing as a top-five offensive team, a top-15 defensive team, and conclude the 2018-19 regular season with 54-wins and the three-seed in the Western Conference.

For that to happen, Denver would have took improve by leaps and bounds defensively, but that may not be as crazy as it seems. Denver’s defensive rating of 109.9 last season ranked them as the 23rd best defense in the NBA. If Denver allowed one less three-point make per 100 possessions, they would find themselves as the 12th best defense in the NBA.

Getting back a healthy Millsap, altering the defensive scheme to play more aggressively, and getting the rest of the roster to play with more urgency on the defensive end of the floor are all thing that should happen in the 2018-19 season. If all three of those things do happen, there is no reason Denver couldn’t be in the top-half of the league in defensive rating.

There are plenty of reasons why Denver could fall short of this best-case scenario, but if everything breaks right for the Nuggets, they could surprise the entire league.

Dev Johnson: Best case scenario for Denver is they make the playoffs and surprise a team. That means winning 50 games in a very tough Western Conference. Not making the playoffs for a sixth-straight season would brutalize the development of the Nuggets organization and how the team is portrayed on a national scene. There is excitement heading into the season and Denver is picking up some national attention with anticipation for a big year and emergence of Jokic as possibly seriously being considered a star player in this league. Anything less than making the postseason would be a bust.

Brandon Ewing: The best case scenario goes like this: win 50 games and win a playoff series. In order to accomplish that, the Nuggets need solid seasons from each of their starters and a number of bench players. Each of the starters will play a major role in the Nuggets success, but bench players like Mason Plumlee, Trey Lyles, and Isaiah Thomas could play just as big a role.

If a player like Lyles or Thomas emerges off the bench, it’ll give the Nuggets another deadly weapon when the starters are off the floor. On nights when the starters are struggling, the bench unit has to be there to pick up the slack just like they did in the preseason. Complimentary basketball will be key to Denver’s success, and its something the bench unit will play a major part in.

A playoff berth would certainly help their case, but the Nuggets have an opportunity to take over the Denver sports scene. With the Broncos struggling and the Rockies season now complete, the Nuggets have the potential to become the best sports franchise in Colorado. For a franchise that has struggled with attendance the past few seasons, a winning season will almost certainly put more people in the seats. If the Nuggets find a way to eclipse the 50 win plateau, a home court playoff series would certainly accomplish that goal.

On the flip side, what is the worst-case scenario for Denver’s season and why?

T.J. McBride: Denver not making the playoffs would be the absolute worst-cast scenario. It does not matter what happens leading to that point — if the Nuggets are not in the playoffs, it is the definition of worst-case scenario.

Dev Johnson: Adding another year of not missing the playoffs is most definitely the worst-case scenario. If Denver misses the postseason for a six-straight year, there will likely have to be negative repercussions for the organization. Even worse would be Denver also having one of the worst defenses in the NBA yet again. Defense will be deciding factor on the type of season that the Nuggets have. It is known that the offense can play well and could be one of the most explosive units in the league once again, but not progressing on the defensive end will lead to another disappointing season.

Brandon Ewing: Worst case scenario would be a sixth-straight season without a playoff berth. The fallout would be catastrophic for a franchise desperately searching to make it back to the promised land. A lot would have to go wrong for the Nuggets to not make the postseason, as they seem to have all the pieces in place to have a successful season, but that does not mean that Denver is a shoe-in for a playoff spot.

An even worst case scenario would be if the Nuggets missed the playoffs by just one game, again. After back-to-back seasons of missing out on the postseason by just one game, a third season of that could cause pandemonium amongst the Nuggets fan base.

For a team looking to rejuvenate their franchise, another lost season would leave the Nuggets on the back burner once again.

Did the preseason alter your thoughts on a final win total? What is it and why?

T.J. McBride: After seeing Denver’s bench play with swagger and aggression in four of the Nuggets’ five preseason games, my win total has been increased by one win.

Denver’s biggest issues last year was the uninspiring play of their bench unit and their struggles on defense. Now that Millsap is back to 100 percent healthy and the Nuggets bench unit looks much improved, I have Denver winning 51 games and nabbing the fourth seed in the Western Conference.

Dev Johnson: The preseason did alter my thoughts on the Nuggets final win total. I understand that directing a team based on the preseason is not always a great indicator of what is to come, but there were things that honestly worried me.

The way that the starters performed was alarming. This is a team that cannot go into cruise control and then just flip a switch and go back to being dominant. Denver is not a team that can play relaxed and then have a second half where they beat a team they are supposed to beat. They need to be focused and come out with effort regardless, regardless of if it is preseason or not. The Nuggets need to show that this year is different and that they have learned from their mistakes. If Denver doesn’t turn around soon, they can very well be on the way to another disappointing season where they fail to make the postseason.

I have Denver finishing with 46 wins as they did last year.

Brandon Ewing: The preseason altered my thoughts, but in a good way. The biggest question I had going into the preseason was what type of production the Nuggets would get from their bench.My concern going into the regular season now has to do with the starters and not the second unit. Since I believe the Nuggets starters will figure it out, I actually feel better above my prediction for next season.

I predict that Denver will go 51-31 and finish with the third seed in the Western Conference. A 51 win season will put the Nuggets back on the map and make Pepsi Center the place to be come April. Add in an All-NBA season from Jokic and breakout seasons from Murray, Harris, and Lyles and suddenly the Nuggets would be the hottest ticket in town.