Time for Nuggets to answer some big questions

The Denver Nuggets have high expectations for the 2017-18 season. They added All-Star Paul Millsap to a lineup full of both young, promising players and seasoned veterans. Okay, it’s a crowded team, but we’ll get to that.

The organization fully backs this current direction.

They handed out a long-term contract to Gary Harris.

The franchise supports their leadership team, consisting of President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly, recently promoted General Manager Artūras Karnišovas and head coach Michael Malone.

Even better, they are starting Nikola Jokic this year. It took until December of last season for the Nuggets to realize that the superstar they were waiting for might be the 6-foot-10 Serbian at the end of the bench.

The Nuggets have high expectations – they came into the season ranked as high as the seventh best team in the league. Some observers believe that this is a team on its way to greatness in the next few years.

For that to happen, they need to clear up some of the questions swirling around the team. The Nuggets’ “potential,” heralded since the firing coach George Karl and loss of GM Masai Ujiri, needs to turn into results.

Missing the playoffs and not winning 45 games this year would be a huge disappointment. Here are the questions that must be answered through the regular season to turn the Nuggets into a success.

Can Michael Malone be a longtime coach for the Denver Nuggets?

I have concerns about Malone’s ability to lead the Nuggets long term. He’s been described as one of the NBA’s best assistant coaches, but how does that translate to managing assistants and players as a head coach?

Malone needs to become a more cohesive leader, on and off the floor. This is a complicated roster, but Malone’s task is to manage the game to get the most out of his players.

The strikes against Malone are his handling of personnel. The biggest error was the Jokic problem, but the list doesn’t stop there.

Emmanuel Mudiay’s regression from strong performances in his rookie year is troubling. Both Kenneth Faried and Wilson Chandler spoke last year about not having open channels of communication with the coaching staff. Then there was the handling of Jusuf Nurkic. Nurkic was disgruntled, and the Nuggets could not ease tensions.

With an overcrowded bench (not his fault) and NBA players’ egos, Malone has a tall task ahead of him to prove that he’s a long-term option at head coach.

If the Nuggets miss the playoffs this year, it may be time to move on.

Are the Denver Nuggets efficiently managed?

Part of the burden put on Malone is the fault of Nuggets President Connelly and General Manager Karnišovas. Heading into the offseason, everyone knew that the Nuggets needed to clear some space on a crowded bench. Instead, Denver entered this season with even more congestion for playing time.

They have a dozen guys who could legitimately see NBA minutes, plus the likes of Darrell Arthur hanging onto the NBA bench. Depth is important, but it creates constant open competitions and easy resentment among players. The Nuggets have a lot of assets, and they’ve added even more good ones. It’s causing a coaching headache.

This front office has yet to make the playoffs. That’s the biggest knock against them. They’re heralded for what they’ve done, but it needs to lead somewhere. They also have to deal with the looming Jokic contract negotiations.

Can Nikola Jokic become a true star?

Jokic is the most dynamic offensive player the Nuggets have had outside of Carmelo Anthony in decades. His ability to pass and create chances on the court is electrifying.

Still, Jokic has a DeAndre Jordan problem. For Jordan, it’s free throws. For Jokic, it’s defense. The Nuggets can’t afford to have a superstar on the court that is such a liability defensively in close late-game situations. If Jokic can significantly improve his defense, he’ll be on track to be a true star.

Apparently, Jokic worked hard on his conditioning in the offseason. This will be the first year where he is truly the focal point of the team from day one. If he can develop chemistry with Millsap, the Nuggets could be a hard matchup every night.

Will players become great?

The Nuggets are hoping that a second star truly emerges. The bet is on Jamal Murray, who has the shooting potential of other marquee NBA players. While this expectation puts a lot of pressure on a second-year player, the Nuggets need that shooting ability to show up consistently.

They have other guards that could still make jumps this year including Gary Harris, Will Barton and Emmanuel Mudiay. They need it to be someone.

Maybe it’s Mason Plumlee? No, it’s probably not.

The real question: Can the Nuggets win consistently?

When facing so many stars in the Western Conference, can they steal some wins?

Can they reestablish home dominance? They won 22 home games last year. In 2012-13, they won 38.

Will they continue to collapse late in games?

Can they take care of business against the bad teams in the NBA?

Can they make the playoffs?

Let’s hope the answer to all of these questions is yes.