Rather than undergo the usual Denver Stiffs mailbag on Thursday, I decided last night that this wasn’t the right time for Denver Nuggets fans to be asking questions.
This is the time to vent.
The Nuggets have struggled over the past two weeks, and really the whole season. They are 4-6 in their last ten games, despite Nikola Jokić playing some excellent basketball. After going to the Western Conference Finals last season, the Nuggets have taken a step backward. For some fans, it’s just a small step. For others, it feels insurmountable.
I asked folks on Twitter to send me their hot takes so I can either support those takes or talk fans off the ledge. If you want to see more of these in the future, let me know!
Now, let’s get into it:
As a fan base we were told years ago to be patient and not to skip steps. Last year finally looked like the year that elevated this team only to have the front office pull it away in the “off-season”. We are frustrated and have every right to be.
— Jason Voorhees wants a Nuggets championship (@JayTylerC) February 18, 2021
I’d say this is a pretty unfair take toward the front office, though I will indulge it. Let’s talk about the off-season.
The Nuggets were blindsided by Jerami Grant’s decision to depart in free agency. Every move the Nuggets make prior to and during the NBA Draft was done with the expectation that Grant would be back in a Nuggets uniform. The Nuggets did have a Plan B if that didn’t happen, but they didn’t think it would be necessary.
Then, Grant signed in Detroit.
Denver pivoted. They signed JaMychal Green as their primary Grant replacement. They re-signed Paul Millsap. They opened up time for Michael Porter Jr. (and potentially Bol Bol) to fill roles if they were ready. So far, Porter and Bol have probably been the biggest disappointments when comparing expectations and reality. Denver did sign Greg Whittington to a two-way contract, but he had arthroscopic knee surgery earlier this year and has yet to play a single minute.
Had the Nuggets known prior to free agency that they needed to go a different direction, I believe they would have done so. Robert Covington was traded from the Houston Rockets to the Portland Trail Blazers prior to the draft, and that’s a deal I thought Denver might be interested in at the time as a Grant replacement. Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option for the Nuggets when they needed it to be.
Right now, Denver’s biggest roster weakness is at forward on both ends of the floor. Denver has enough guards, and they have Nikola Jokić, but Porter hasn’t been ready to assume the larger role the Nuggets needed him to shoulder. That’s part of the process of development though, and it should be expected to take time. Denver probably needs another 30 minute per game forward on their roster though, and not having that option has really limited Denver’s rotation options from game to game.
So, should you be frustrated with the front office? Sure. It’s not clear whether they could have done anything about the hole at forward right now, so I’m not sure how to assign blame. Grant’s departure blindsided everyone and drastically changed the ready made plans the Nuggets had that made the mantra “We Don’t Skip Steps” a possibility.
MPJ isn’t going to be the star that we all think he will be with the Nuggets
— Josh Tempany (@joshtemps) February 18, 2021
I don’t think anyone should be giving up on Michael Porter Jr. right now, and if you are, I will definitely be buying that stock.
Right now, Porter is struggling with so many things, but none of them have to do with how physically imposing he can still be while on the basketball court. Against the Washington Wizards, he began the game with a major dunk, grabbed two steals and a block, and even hit a couple of threes. It wasn’t the greatest performance of his career, but he showed some resolve after having maybe the worst game of his career the night before.
Porter wants to be great. He has struggled lately, but every word we have heard from him has been positive despite the struggles, and the words we are hearing from Michael Malone and his Nuggets teammates are also positive. They trust in his talent. They want him to improve. They know it’s going to take some time and some bumps along the way, but they have all commented in some way, shape, or form that they aren’t worried about Michael Porter Jr., despite the feelings of horror that Nuggets fans have experienced in recent weeks.
There are definitely still parts of Porter’s game that I get frustrated with from time to time. Ill-advised shots, clogging up the spacing around the rim because he wants to get involved, and letting that boil over to his focus on the defensive end. Again, it’s going to take some time. Part of that time is just waiting for Porter to grow up a bit. So many of his mistakes and blunders can be attributed to youth and inexperience. Many more can be attributed to time that he will spend in the weight room, improving his functional strength in his back, legs, and hands that will help him become more fundamental.
But he has the other stuff down. The difficult stuff. The dribble moves to gain separation, the ability to get off his shot, and the star mentality needed to be a great player. I firmly believe in his ability to bounce back. I think it’s going to happen fairly soon. The Nuggets know how much they need him too.
Denver is absolutely screwed if they don’t win the next two games. Convince me otherwise.
— Nugglyfe Ventspace 15-13 (38-34) (46-26) (@NugglyfeV) February 18, 2021
We haven’t even reached the midway point in the season and you want to panic?
Let’s be clear about something: the Nuggets are going to be fine. How do I know this? They have Nikola Jokić. They have Jamal Murray. Both of those two are incredible in the playoffs, which is what matters more than anything from now to the end of the regular season. People are worried about All-Star games, MVP awards, and how aesthetically pleasing and consistent and dominant the Nuggets are from game to game. I’m not worried about those things. I’m worried about the process of finding an identity, cultivating that identity, and surrounding key players that fit said identity with the right complementary pieces.
If it becomes clear that the complementary pieces are wrong, then it will be on Tim Connelly and co. to fix what they can at the trade deadline. They have the latitude and trade assets to make such a move. If it’s something more, then Denver will probably have to wait until the off-season.
There’s no reason to believe it’s anything more than the complementary pieces though, because they just beat the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers in the postseason last year. Who the hell cares that it happened in a bubble environment? This regular season is far more weird than the bubble in which almost no players missed time due to COVID-19 protocols.
I’m just not going to panic. I refuse to. The Nuggets were without Gary Harris, Will Barton, Paul Millsap, Monte Morris, and PJ Dozier against Boston. They got back both Harris and Morris against Washington, but both struggled mightily. The sky isn’t falling. Denver just doesn’t have their full cast of characters.
Jamal is a 2! Facu or Monte at 1?
— YMCAndreMiller (@strictlynuggetz) February 18, 2021
The last few games have definitely sparked a trend for Jamal Murray, who looks pretty comfortable when he isn’t having to walk the ball up the floor every single possession. Often what happens when Murray is the sole point guard on the floor is that he dribbles past half court, gives the ball to Jokić, and then moves off-ball to allow the action to happen. That means Gary Harris and Will Barton get involved, and they aren’t exactly facilitators in their own right. They can pass, but it’s not their primary role.
With Monte Morris and Facundo Campazzo out there, those two are handing the ball off to Jokić, who then dribbles into a set with Murray to attack the defense. Murray appears very comfortable in that role both offensively and defensively. Murray has done a nice job this season defending bigger players, whether he’s simply guarding Jayson Tatum or getting switched onto Kawhi Leonard or Luka Doncić. Murray has taken those matchups seriously and found success, which leads me to believe that Denver could survive with another point guard on the floor more frequently.
Lineups with Murray and Morris on the floor together have yielded a +10.1 net rating in 326 minutes. Lineups with Murray and Campazzo on the floor have yielded a +7.8 net rating in 108 minutes. Statistically, it works well enough that it can and should be explored further. It would probably work best if Denver could find a different point guard option that was bigger than Morris or Campazzo, because I don’t know how well those options work in the playoffs. Perhaps PJ Dozier should get a larger look next to Murray? Dozier has played almost exclusively small forward and power forward this season, and I wonder if getting him back to a more traditional look might also be a good option.
Okay, tweeted this one a few days ago: One of R.J. Hampton or Zeke Nnaji will be the Nuggets’ 4th best (or alternately 4th most important) player by the end of the 2021-22 season.
— Joel Rush (@JoelRushNBA) February 18, 2021
This is a pretty spicy take, considering that Monte Morris just signed an extension in the off-season and has looked mostly good. I respect it though. I like what I’ve seen from both R.J. Hampton and Zeke Nnaji in a small sample size.
If I had to pick one to take a surprising leap forward, I would probably pick Nnaji. As a 6’9” forward, Nnaji has the physical profile teams are looking for to really change a game, even change a playoff series. His shot appears silky smooth, and his instincts on both ends of the floor appear pretty good. Right now, the Nuggets aren’t really looking to optimize him, though if that’s something they decide to do, I think he has a better chance of cracking Denver’s starting lineup and doing important things than Hampton does off the bat.
Hampton, though he has also shown a lot of valuable tools, is inexperienced doing the starting caliber guard things the Nuggets need him to do. He’s getting by on hustle, drive, and hitting open shots right now. The step it takes from being a fully complementary option to handling the ball, operating a two-man game with Jokić, and striking the balance between scoring enough and not trying too hard is going to be very difficult for Hampton. Maybe he gets it done, but those things take more time than the forward/big man things Nnaji has to learn before becoming impactful.
Hot Take. The Nuggets will be ok, this is just a rollercoaster right now.
— Jeremy Tanguma (@DenverRocket) February 18, 2021
This is exactly how I feel. As I mentioned above, I refuse to panic until the Nuggets give me a reason to panic. The mix hasn’t been right of late, and I still feel like a trade is coming to bolster the rotation (or at least reshuffle some pieces) because that’s just what teams do when they don’t start strong. Last season, the Utah Jazz started really slow with their bench, so they added Jordan Clarkson via trade and it helped stabilize their bench rotation. Now, they are reaping the rewards for that. I can see the Nuggets making a move like that.
But even if they don’t, they still have time to figure out the right mix. As of now, 13 players have played at least 100 minutes this season. Jokić and Murray are leading by a large margin. Michael Porter Jr. has yet to crack 500 minutes on the season and yet people are already drawing sweeping conclusions about him on both sides of the ball. Denver will eventually get healthy, find a rotation that suits them, and reap the benefits of Jokić, Murray, and Porter having to go through growing pains in Game 28 rather than in the playoffs.
It’s up to Michael Malone to try everything though. That means relying on stars, veterans, and young players alike. It’s going to be difficult to find the right mix, but I’m not convinced the right mix of players for Denver is the one with the most veteran talent. That feels like a bandage on a bullet hole. The Nuggets need the athleticism, energy, and ceiling offered by some of those young guys. Maybe not all of them, but definitely some.
But I’m not panicking yet. Not by a long shot.