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.

Center Rotation

  • Starter – Nikola Jokic
  • Rotation – Zeke Nnaji
  • Reserve(s) – DeAndre Jordan, Jay Huff (2W)

Nikola Jokic

Expectations entering 2023-24: “With Jokic playing at the level that he is, I don’t think there’s any question that he’s the top guy.” – Pickaxe and Roll

Reality: Entering the season with the best player in the NBA title, Jokic didn’t disappoint, winning a third MVP in the last four seasons and leading the Nuggets to 57 wins in a brutal Western Conference. Jokic played 79 games, replicating his previous numbers and adding to a historic run of seasons played at the highest possible level.

But even independent of MVPs, Jokic’s legacy will be defined by championships going forward, and the Nuggets fell short this year. They lost in seven games to a team built to stop them in the Minnesota Timberwolves, and the Nuggets were up 20 points in Game 7 at home and collapsed. Jokic wasn’t the reason they lost, but he had opportunities that he missed.

You can’t win every championship in your prime in the modern NBA. There have been no repeat title winners in the last six years. The Nuggets had as good a chance as anyone to repeat, but they ultimately fell short. Jokic’s playoff numbers (28.7 points, 13.4 rebounds, 8.7 assists, 2.1 stocks per game) highlight his individual dominance. This season will ultimately be considered a failure for Jokic and the Nuggets because of no championship at the end, but Jokic’s individual season was still special.

Season Grade: A

What’s Next for Jokic: For Jokic’s sake, I hope this year was his last MVP season. The talent in the NBA is spectacular right now, and there are several young stars that will challenge him for the individual award next year. Jokic’s individual run of dominance has been great, but the Nuggets need him to be as fresh as possible heading into the playoffs for the rest of his career, and playing 79 games and a career high in minutes after a championship run the previous year may not have been smart.

Jokic remains undecided about the Paris Olympics with the Serbian National Team. If he decides to play, the Nuggets should be cautious about his early season workload next year. He will want to play every game, but the Nuggets can help him by adding a backup center and for other stars to assume more playmaking responsibility, even when he’s on the floor.

I expect Jokic to play at a similar level next year, and perhaps after losing in this season’s playoffs, he and the Nuggets can rekindle the fire that drove them to their first championship win.

Zeke Nnaji

Expectations entering 2023-24: “Nnaji will start the season in the Nuggets rotation, and he might be averaging as many as 20 minutes per game by the end of the season if things go right. If things go wrong, then it’s a contract figure that isn’t exactly the end of the world with the new TV rights deal being signed that will increase the salary cap by a significant margin.” – Why the Nuggets extended Zeke Nnaji

Reality: Well, the theory of the take was good. The reality? Not so much. Zeke Nnaji struggled for much of the 2023-24 regular season on the offensive end, and his role on that end ultimately devolved into setting screens and grabbing offensive rebounds by the end of the year. He shot 58.4% inside of three feet, a poor number for a center. He also shot 26.4% from three, a poor mark for anyone.

The biggest issue: the Nuggets lost their minutes with Nnaji on the floor so badly (-11.9 Net Rating in 576 minutes) that they had to pivot to DeAndre Jordan playing more frequently and Aaron Gordon sliding over to the five more often in the regular season.

Nnaji’s defense remained good, and he actually made some strides as a traditional center defender playing a variety of different coverages. Unfortunately, his weaknesses as a defensive rebounder, combined with a bench unit that lacked size, led to Denver posting some of the worst defensive rebounding numbers with Nnaji on the court in the entire NBA.

Season Grade: D

What’s Next for Nnaji: Expectations for Nnaji were for him to make good on the extension the Nuggets signed him to last October. A similar extension around that same time was Payton Pritchard and the Boston Celtics. Pritchard this year played all 82 games for the 64-win Boston Celtics and played three times as many minutes as Nnaji. That’s what the Nuggets were hoping for when they made the deal, and they didn’t get it.

Can both parties reconcile this offseason and figure out a way to make it work? Should the Nuggets and Nnaji want to reconcile? Despite signing the contract, it seems that both player and team could use a change of scenery. Nnaji needs more time to develop and shouldn’t have his minutes cut short every time because the MVP is returning to the floor. The Nuggets need a center they can count upon on both ends of the floor, and with limited financial resources, the Nuggets can’t have Nnaji simply sitting on the bench and doing nothing. They need to make a decision.

DeAndre Jordan

Expectations entering 2023-24: “The Nuggets don’t need a ton of minutes to be filled behind Nikola Jokić, who averaged 39.5 minutes per game during the championship run. What the Nuggets do need is optionality, and Jordan provides a veteran voice that can step in and grab some rebounds when the Nuggets need him.” – Nuggets re-sign DeAndre Jordan and Reggie Jackson

Reality: After winning a championship with Jordan as a veteran voice, the organization and fans were more than happy to welcome back Jordan as the team’s sage vet, a guy who doesn’t need to play all the time but can make sure the team’s heading in the right direction. Jordan played 39 games his first year in Denver, and he played 36 games on fewer minutes this season.

It wasn’t about the playing time as much as what Jordan did for the team from the bench area and in between games. Jordan was once again an essential member of the group, even if the minutes when he was on the floor weren’t much better than Nnaji’s minutes. Still, his performance against the Los Angeles Clippers back in November, bringing back Lob City with Reggie Jackson, was one of the best moments of the season for the Nuggets.

Season Grade: C+

What’s Next for Jordan: DeAndre Jordan might be back on the bench next year as the 15th man. He might decide he wants to retire. Jordan’s played over 1,000 games, got his first championship ring last season, and is entering his Age-36 season. If the Nuggets have an open roster spot, he brings value as a veteran leader. The Nuggets will have to weight that against their need to improve at the backup center position though, and that could mean Jordan departs.

Right now, the ball is in Jordan’s court. No matter what happens, he will be celebrated for his work with the Nuggets.

Jay Huff

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

Reality: Huff played just 49 minutes for the Nuggets this year and was never in consideration to fill the backup center role. That should say everything about his likelihood to play moving forward.

Season Grade: C-

What’s Next for Huff: I’m copying the same blurb used for Braxton Key yesterday. Key Huff 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.

Final Thoughts

The center position for the Nuggets will always be a polarizing topic. Nikola Jokic plays the most valuable center minutes of any player in the NBA. Only a select few in NBA history have been better. A drop-off behind Jokic is reasonable, but what happened with Nnaji and Jordan was untenable. Denver went from the best center minutes in the NBA to possibly the worst, and that added a lot of regular season mileage to Jokic when Denver needed to keep him fresh for the playoffs.

I’d expect the Nuggets to change things up at backup five if they can. The CBA is a limiting factor, but there are options for Denver to pursue in the draft, free agency, and trade market. Look for more consistent offensive production and a player that can see the floor a bit better to replicate some of the great things Jokic does as a playmaker.