Season Preview: The Denver Nuggets have some work to do in order to contend

Oct 13, 2021; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA; Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) goes to the basket as Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) and center Derrick Favors (15) look on during the second quarter at Paycom Center. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets are entering the 2021-22 season with true NBA Championship aspirations. But before they can claim to be contenders, they have some questions that need answers.

First off, with Jamal Murray out for the the foreseeable future after tearing his ACL last season, the Nuggets need both Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon to take a large step forward as players in order to succeed at a high level. Without Porter helping fill in for the loss of Murray’s scoring and also helping pick up the defensive slack, the Nuggets will have a tough time being the best version of themselves. 

Additionally, will the Nuggets have a high enough defensive ceiling to truly compete with the league’s elite? Losing Wes Unseld Jr — who took the head coaching job with the Orlando Magic — is a massive blow, but the issues don’t stop there. The Nuggets are now without Paul Millsap who helped anchor their defense the past few seasons and they have no true backup center on the roster. Finding ways to improve defensively is going to be a difficult task.

Lastly, will Denver decide to rest players more often and sacrifice regular season wins for the hope of more postseason success? It was very clear Denver ran out of gas against the Phoenix Suns last season. Even Nikola Jokic, one of the NBA’s Ironmen, looked more exhausted on the court than ever before.

None of these questions have simple answers, but whether Denver can find solutions to them or not will ultimately dictate the direction of the season.

Can Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon take a leap forward?

If you do not believe me when I say that the Nuggets season will mirror the production of Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon, allow me to let Nuggets head coach Michael Malone set the record straight.

“Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter Jr. need to be great for us if we are going to have a chance to be competitive and be a team that can be a playoff team and maybe have home court, but that is only going to happen if Michael and Aaron have a great season,” Malone clearly stated at practice. “If Michael and Aaron don’t play great, we might be in a play-in game — if that.”

It is hard to get much more clear than that. So what can each player do to elevate their games in the way the Nuggets need?

For Porter, the catalyst in his game is going to be his development when playing with Jokic. When things go wrong for the Nuggets offense, they always fall back on the Murray and Jokic two-man game whether it is in the pick and roll or dribble handoff. With Murray out for the foreseeable future, Denver needs Porter to step into that role, but he still has a long ways to go. It is not easy blending together two different styles of play into one synchronized possession. There have been hiccups and hurdles throughout the preseason which makes sense. The only thing that can help harmonize their games is repetition. In addition to growing alongside Jokic, Porter has to grow as a defender, learn to be more consistent, and show that he can take advantage of mismatches or opportunities when staggered with the bench unit.

For Gordon it is more difficult to define exactly where he needs to grow for the Nuggets to contend even with Murray out. There is not one specific way he can elevate his game that would put the Nuggets in a different tier. To start, Denver needs him to impact the game on defense more dramatically. During the regular season last year, the Nuggets defensive rating had no change with or without Gordon on the floor and during the postseason. Gordon’s presence actually hurt the Nuggets defensive efficiency. With that being said, he had some spectacular possessions defending the opposing teams’ best player. It is without a doubt in his skillset to be a lockdown defender, but the consistency is lacking.

Gordon’s three-point shooting also is going to be an important indicator of the Nuggets success. During his 25 regular season games with the Nuggets last year, he shot just 17-of-64 from beyond the three-point arc which is good for 26.6 percent. His inconsistencies as a shooter also plagued him in the postseason. Against the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the playoffs, Gordon shot 9-of-15 from deep, but followed up that 60 percent showing with an ugly 0-of-8 against the Phoenix Suns in the second round resulting in Denver being swept out of the playoffs.

“I am just trying to state the importance of those two and what they mean to our group with Murray out for the foreseeable future,” Malone stated at practice. “I think both Aaron (Gordon) and Michael (Porter Jr.) understand that.”

As Malone stated, without great seasons from both Gordon and Porter, Denver’s chances of having a great season becomes significantly thinner.

Can the Nuggets find a high enough gear defensively?

Without a doubt, Denver’s defense is the most under-the-radar concern for the Nuggets entering the 2021-22 season because of two offseason losses: Wes Unseld Jr. leaving the Nuggets for a head coaching job with the Orlando Magic and the loss of Paul Millsap who was arguably the Nuggets defensive anchor when on the floor.

Let’s start with the latter. Letting Millsap walk was not the wrong choice by the Nuggets, but there could be some repercussions when losing someone with his outstanding defensive IQ. Even as Millsap slowed and struggled to cover lots of ground as he aged, his ability to keep the Nuggets defense connected even when scrambling is something they will sorely miss. Can Gordon step into that role? Will Denver get more defensive impact from JaMychal Green? Will the added athleticism of Jeff Green make up the difference? With Denver’s porous perimeter containment, having big men who can provide coverage in the paint if guards get blown by are going to be essential and Denver lost one of those players in Millsap. Simply stated, that will hurt their defensive ceiling.

Losing Wes Unseld Jr. is an entirely different issue. Not only was Unseld one of the most beloved coaches on the bench by his fellow coaches and the roster, but he was the architect of the Nuggets aggressive defensive scheme which allowed them to compete with other contenders despite having players with defensive limitations. When Malone was asked about the loss of Unseld, he did not hold back explaining just how big of a loss he was.

“A tremendous loss,” Malone said when asked about Unseld accepting the head coaching job with the Magic. “It is a great opportunity for him and I am so happy for him and his family, but that is a big loss for us.”

With Unseld now in Orlando, Nuggets assistant coach Jordi Fernandez is now the Nuggets de-facto defensive coordinator. So what goals are the Nuggets looking to accomplish this season? 

“Our goal is to be better. We were 11th in defensive efficiency last year and 23rd in transition defense so we want to be better across the board,” Malone said at practice on Monday. “It does start in transition, our ability to be disciplined with our game plan and personnel, to sit down and guard one on one, and fly around and just give great effort. We want to be a top-10 defensive team and we feel we have that within us.”

Needless to say, Fernandez has his work cut out for him in his first year as the Nuggets lead defensive coach, but the organization has faith in his ability to lead Denver’s defense forward. Every inkling of information that comes out of Denver’s front office in regards to Fernandez is a glowing endorsement. 

Now he has his time to prove himself.

Will the Nuggets prioritize resting their main rotation players?

This is the most straight-forward question leading into the season and it essentially boils down to one choice; will the Nuggets risk regular season wins for the possibility of greater postseason success or will they attack each game as if it is their last?

For the entirety of the Malone era in Denver, the Nuggets have played each game as if it could be their last which has allowed Denver to improve their winning percentage every season outside of the 2019-20 season which was shortened due to COVID-19. The Nuggets have embodied Malone’s tenacious attitude and it has manifested on the court every season thus far, but this might be the season when things shift — and for good reason.

When the Nuggets reached the second round of the Western Conference playoffs last season and faced off with the Phoenix Suns, they simply ran out of gas. Would Denver have won if healthy and rested? No one will ever know, but it is clear Denver’s roster was exhausted by the time it got there. So after that experience, Malone and the Nuggets have vocally been much more willing to rest their players.

Still, the Nuggets have a thin line to walk. If they rest their players too much and sacrifice too many regular season games, they could find themselves flirting with the Play-In Tournament which could prematurely end their season. But if they choose to try and win every game, they could run into the same issue they had against the Suns last season.

Only time will tell what Denver will do.

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