Denver Nuggets: 2017–18 NBA Season Preview— October 18th 2017
The Denver Nuggets enter the season with their highest expectations in recent memory. What questions remain and what can we expect from the NBA’s newest hipster team?
By: Brendan Vogt
The Denver Nuggets are in the national conversation. There’s a certain irony to that—this team has finished dead last in attendance for consecutive seasons now. Meanwhile, their peers at Mile High Stadium—not more than a mile and a half away from the Pepsi Center—have made a home for themselves in the top-10 of the NFL’s attendance report.
This team is trending upwards, but they can’t seem to get anyone in Denver to notice.
The Nuggets have a chance to end a four year playoff drought and perhaps recapture the attention of their city’s sports fans. The expectations are high for a reason, this team is loaded with talent. But the roster is far from complete and the Western conference playoff race will be nothing short of a bloodbath.
Let’s address some of the key questions that remain surrounding the 2017–18 Denver Nuggets: the NBA’s newest hipster team.
Who will start at point guard on opening night?
This is by far the most important and frequently asked question surrounding this team. At the start of the preseason, head coach Michael Malone announced that there would be a position battle at point guard throughout training camp. Emmanuel Mudiay, Jamal Murray and Jameer Nelson. Those were the three candidates.
Of course, the Nuggets have reportedly signed veteran forward Richard Jefferson and according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, who broke the news, Denver will likely waive Nelson to make room. So he’s out.
But he was never likely to grab the starting role. It was always down to the youngsters. Most members of the Nuggets media believe that Murray is sure to start, and that Malone has known this for some time and simply preferred not to share it with us.
It makes sense, Murray has by far the most offensive upside of the three. The former Kentucky Wildcat can light it up and he put up some impressive per-36 numbers in his rookie season.
Jamal Murray rookie #s: .483 eFG%, 16.6 pts/36 min. Here, rook Gs <21 w/in +/- .015 eFG% & +/- 1.5 pts/36 of Murray. https://t.co/ScjgMHgPMS
It gets more impressive. The rookie was playing through a double sports hernia, yet he still appeared in all 82 of Denver’s games. With a year of NBA experience under his belt and a successful offseason surgery behind him, the sky’s the limit for the 20-year old.
Is it too late for Jamal Murray to win ROY of the year? I’m just going to remove the suspense right away: no. It’s not. All it takes is one sick performance near the end of the year (because the voters, just like every human on earth, are reactionary), and a player can win easily.
The case for Mudiay is not about what he has done on the court, so much as what the team hopes he can do. He’s clearly bigger and more athletic than his peers and he profiles as the best defender of the three guards on Denver’s roster. When asked what he was looking for in his starting guard, Malone keyed in on defensive ability.
“(I’m looking for) which point guard can defend his man one-on-one and can guard the pick and roll defense”
That’s what’s kept Mudiay in this conversation. Unfortunately, his inability to cut down on turnovers have made it hard to envision him as the starter on opening night.
He’ll likely run the offense for the second unit, where he may struggle depending on who he shares the court with. Good spacing is vital to Mudiay’s game—he’s limited out on the perimeter, and his best offense comes when he attacks the basket. The spacing will be less than ideal with the back ups, especially if Kenneth Faried is the power forward.
For Nikola Jokic, the hype is officially real. Can he live up to the sky high expectations?
Nikola Jokic may have been NBA Twitter’s most polarizing player this offseason. The 6’11” center out of Serbia has become the poster boy of a raging war between the keyboard warriors of “eye-test Twitter” and “analytics Twitter.”
The analytics will tell you that Jokic has already arrived as an elite center in this league, thanks to his uncanny ability to create shots for his teammates. The eye test crowd insists that the defense is lacking and the passing ability pales in comparison to the athleticism and scoring ability of Joel Embiid and Karl Anthony-Towns.
Of course, you don’t have to pick a side. If you’re really watching Jokic, then you know this – both parties are onto something here.
The passing is no gimmick, Jokic’s ability to play quarterback combined with his elite interior finishing and deft shooting touch create a virtually unstoppable threat on offense.
After becoming the starter on December 15th, Jokic averaged more assists per game than any other center in the league for the remainder of the season. He would finish the year with the fourth most triple doubles in the league as well.
Jokic ranked fifth in box plus/minus (8.4), ninth in value over replacement player (5.3) and 9th in win shares per 48 minutes.
If that was too stat heavy for you, here’s this sweet video:
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No team created more points per 100 possessions than Denver did after they handed Jokic the keys to the car. And perhaps no player, save James Harden, had a greater individual impact on their team’s offensive identity. Jokic is a star. The numbers tell you that and the eye test will confirm it.
But the defense is a serious problem. Denver’s porous defense was far too inept for the blame to fall on any one player’s shoulders. But often great defense starts with protecting the paint. Unfortunately, Jokic is far from a stopper.
Minnesota Timberwolves star Andrew Wiggins throws it down over Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets.
Of all centers that made at least 30 appearances from 12/15 on, not one of them has allowed more field goals per game than Nikola. In fact, despite his own efficiency on the other end, he has the worst DIFF% of all such players.
There are 54 centers who have made 30 appearances and averaged at least 15 minutes per game since mid-December. Only three of those players have a worse DEF Rating than Jokic. He’s in the bottom-11 for DEF Win Shares as well.
Some of this is effort and some of this can be chalked up to his athletic limitations. But the intriguing question is how much of this is because of his poor conditioning?
Jokic’s old dietary habits aren’t exactly conducive with success in athletic endeavors. The big man reportedly consumed up to three liters of coke a day back in Serbia, which makes it hard to like, be alive—let alone play professional basketball. When he arrived in the states, he was overweight and his lifestyle in need of some serious adjustments.
Jokic has changed his diet and got to work on changing his body significantly this offseason. He’s slimmed down big time and now we’ll see what fruits those efforts will bear. If the change in conditioning results in a better defensive season then Jokic will creep into the conversation of the league’s best players, not just centers.
Will Millsap get Denver over the hump?
Defense should be a little easier for Jokic this season. In addition to his new physique, he has a new partner alongside him down low. The Nuggets shed their well documented inability to land stars via free agency and added the All-Star forward Paul Millsap.
Millsap instantly becomes the best defensive player on Denver’s roster. What he brings on that end is hard to measure and rarely shows up in box scores. We’re talking about one of the smarter and more
active defenders in all of basketball.
Paul Millsap was the only player to average at least 1.7 blocks and 1.7 steal per game this past season. He was rewarded with a second team All-Defense nod, and finished 5th in Defensive Player of the Year voting. He led the league in Defensive Win Shares at 6.0, ahead of DeAndre Jordan and DPOY winner Kawhi Leonard (both at 5.5).
He provides much of what Jokic can do offensively as well. The team can differ to him without changing much of what they like to do on offense.
The two combine to make up one of the more talented and intriguing front court pairings in the entire league.
Mike Malone stressed the importance of being able to rely on Paul Millsap from time to time offensively, which should help save some energy for Nikola on the defensive end:
“Last year, when we had Nikola out there. We were solely playing through Nikola Jokic. It doesn’t always have to be: play through Nikola and let him make a play … that’s why you go out and spend $90 million to get a guy like Paul Millsap … I think hopefully not wearing Nikola down on offense where he has to make every play will maybe give him more energy on the defensive end.”
Millsap brings much more to the table than defensive prowess and high offensive IQ. He’s a veteran, an all-star and one of the all-no nonsense guys in the league. Malone has stressed that this is a team that needs to start being vocal and holding each other accountable.
They’re young, and they need a leader. Millsap may not be vocal, but he leads by example and he knows far more about what it takes to compete in this league than most of the Nuggets. Millsap is a virtually perfect fit with this roster, and depending on how you feel about Jokic, he’s the best player on the the team.
The team lost their leading scorer to free agency in Danilo Gallinari, but they added far more by bringing Millsap aboard. This is a better basketball team than last year.
So what can we expect?
There’s no world in which Millsap makes Denver contenders overnight. The Nuggets are still several years away from making any real kind of push for the conference crown. But Denver doesn’t need to make the Finals to call this a successful season. They’re just looking for a playoff birth and despite playing in the best division in basketball, they should accomplish their goal.
Denver missed the playoffs by just one game last season. No one on the team will provide any excuses for the finish, but there are a litany of factors that serve as both an explanation and an indicator that things will be different this time around.
Last year’s Nuggets got off to a slow start. It took them months to sort of the Jokic-Nurkic situation and by the team they discovered their offensive identity they found themselves playing catch up.
The Nuggets had a winning record from the 15th on, and as mentioned before, possessed the league’s most lethal offense. They’ll begin the year with a clear understanding of who they are as a team and the way they should be playing basketball. They’ll need to get off to a hot start this year, as the back end of the schedule is brutal for Denver.
By now, you’ve surely heard a lot about the defense. Denver has caught the attention of bloggers, writers and fans across the country, but there seems to be a near consensus opinion that they’ll fall short of their lofty expectations if they can’t produce a league average defense.
It’s true that defense is the x factor for Denver. But it’s unfair and unlikely to require a jump to league average from where they were last year. Denver won’t make that big of a jump defensively, but they won’t have to either.
They won’t jump to middle of the back, but a bottom three defense was enough to get this beaten and battered crew within one game of the playoffs last year. They’ll likely remain a bottom ten defense, but if they can keep that closer to ten than one, then one of the 6–8 seeds has a spot reserved for them.