The Nuggets are trudging through yet another injury-riddled season, and have started their road trip with two losses. Can things get worse?
Science says that the occasional scream can be beneficial to one’s mental health — let’s provide everyone an opportunity to vent about the Nuggets right now, à la Michael Malone chucking a stationary bike.
Gage Bridgford (@GbridgfordNFL): Whoever is the training staff for this team needs to reevaluate their process. Having games where you’re missing seven or eight of your top 10 players is ridiculous, and it’s been that way for the last two weeks. Malone also needs an adjustment. Congratulations on relying on your MVP center to carry you, but you’re not doing anything to help him. You have too short of a leash on some players and too long on others. Get guys in motion. Draw up plays for someone other than Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. You have other guys that can make plays, but you’re not putting them in position to make them. Until he makes those changes, this team won’t be turning it around.
Gordon Gross (@GMoneyNuggs): Gage is out here hogging the talking points. I’m incredibly frustrated that the only players who get long leads are the MVP and the busted-up PG who needs a break. But Murray starts off 6-for-15 last night and gets to shoot his way out, almost pulling this game out for Denver. MPJ has had more than 15 shots in a game twice this year. Denver doesn’t need to know if he can get up 9 shots a game, they need to know if he can take this crushing scoring burden off Jokic and Murray – but they are specifically gearing their attack to avoid finding that out. Denver’s front office is adding young, raw offensive players who need time to play, and Malone is marginalizing those players because he wants veteran defensive players that he has not been given. For two+ years now, the Nuggets have made Murray/Jokic the only thing they know how to do. As their defense gets steadily worse due to injuries and youthful inexperience, they’re going to have to come up with something else – fast.
Reid Howard: Do we have any proof that Adam Silver and Vince McMahon are not the same person? Their products are starting to feel eerily similar. Star and market driven narratives are clearly more important than competition. They might as well start putting those foldable chairs on the bench to good use.
Also, did our front office forget small forward is one of the five basketball positions? Every player we have playing that position is either a guard or a power forward.
Ryan Blackburn (@NBABlackburn): I need to vent about Nuggets Twitter, which has increasingly become a reactionary hellscape of emotion at every minute of every game. Things aren’t going Denver’s way right now, and it’s okay to be upset, but the season is still SO early. Three really great teams in the Western Conference have emerged thus far, and only three. The Nuggets beat two of those teams—the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers—in last year’s playoffs, and I have full confidence they could beat everyone else in the playoff bracket outside of the Los Angeles Lakers. People want the season to go perfectly according to plan, but it rarely does. This is the challenge the Nuggets have to navigate, and it feels like everyone is jumping ship way too soon because things aren’t going their way.
Besides Nikola Jokic, what is a strength of the 2020-21 Nuggets?
Bridgford: R.J. Hampton and Zeke Nnaji are hits. Could they be overperforming early on? Maybe, but I think Denver crushed a draft that we all thought was going to have minimal effect on the roster. Instead, you have two players that have extended your rotation and make your roster even more dangerous when fully healthy. Depth was this team’s calling card for the last few years, and we thought that was going to change this year. Thanks to Hampton and Nnaji, among others, that is not the case.
Gross: Nothing. They have no other strengths. Monte Morris is a good player they locked up long-term, but if you’re crowing about your bench point guard as your second-best strength then you’re damning the team with faint praise. Nikola Jokic is luminous this year, and everyone else is rolling around in the mud. Denver’s depth at guard? Not helpful, they’ve all gotten injured and no one can take the pressure off Murray (who is also hurt). The rookies can’t be strengths because they won’t play on a less-injured team. MPJ is regressing and his role is staying unclear and unsupported. Health is definitely not a strength, and neither is consistency. Even so, having Jokic morph into his ultimate Basketball Deity form is almost enough! Just not quite.
Howard: Youth? Some see this as a weakness, but I still prefer it over being an older team in a similar situation record wise. You have teams like the Trailblazers and Warriors whose stars are aging out of their primes and frankly, their time is running out. Then you have the Nuggets best players, who are still not even at the average age that most NBA athletes begin their primes. Denver has gone through one of the quickest, most successful rebuilds in recent years and it’s easy to forget that. Now they need to figure out how to take the last step forward to the promise land.
Blackburn: Overall, I think point guard play is a strength. Though Jamal Murray has been up and down to start the season, I still firmly believe in his talent and level of impact. Murray ranks 29th in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus wins added metric and tied for 40th in BBall Index’s LEBRON wins added metric. He has still been good, despite the raw production numbers appearing similar. Behind him, Monte Morris (and lately Facundo Campazzo) have given the Nuggets a steady lift running the offense, facilitating things, and playing pesky defense all the while. Without that trio of three players, the Nuggets would be in a world of trouble, despite Jokić being the incredible playmaker he is.
Gary Harris has played more than 75% of the games in a season once since he became a starter. Have fans already seen the peak of Harris’s career?
Bridgford: Yes. His 2017-18 season was a massive outlier, and it was just extremely unlikely he would ever approach those levels, especially scoring, with Jokic and Jamal Murray emerging as budding stars. It would be nice for his 3-point shooting to get back to that level, but it’s becoming clear that’s not going to be the case. His defense has also been inconsistent at best since that year. He gets boosted up when compared to the guys around him that struggle on that end, but he would likely look like an average defender next to guys that are defensive aces. He’ll be a role player for a while, but he’ll never be at that level again.
Gross: As a starter, yes. His body can’t hold up to playing long starter minutes, but as one of Malone’s few capable defenders he’s going to keep being thrown out for those deep minutes, and having his body break down. Harris needs a bench role where he doesn’t have to overload his frame and can contribute as a role player, but until that happens he will keep struggling with his shot due to his legs, and with his availability.
Howard: Almost certainly, yes we have. I wanted to play devil’s advocate because I don’t believe it can be completely ruled out, but the odds are very low that Gary matches or improves upon that version of himself. I’d actually argue his defense has gotten slightly better since 2017-2018, but it’s not nearly enough to make up for the drop off in offense and inability to stay healthy.
Blackburn: Unfortunately, I have to agree. There was a level of consistency and inevitability to Harris’ game back in 2017-18. The DHO game with Jokić on the wings was one of the most consistent plays in the NBA that season, and they truly ran it to perfection because of Harris’ ability to shoot with confidence, drive with confidence, and settle for nothing less. Now, Harris is settling, inconsistent and too selective with his looks, and almost always nursing an injury that prevents him from attacking the rim mercilessly like he did three years ago. In addition, we’ve seen the defense slip. Though Harris is smarter than ever, he doesn’t have the lightning quick reflexes to break up plays with his speed and agility as much as with him brain. That has hurt in top level matchups this season.
The NBA has seen teams win championships behind the strength of star trios — Warriors, Cavaliers, Spurs — who is the Nuggets third-best player right now?
Bridgford: Right now? At full strength, I think it’s Will Barton. Part of that is experience, and part of it is the freedom he’s given. Barton still leaves a lot to be desired on the defensive end after the progress he showed last season, but, when he’s clicking on offense, he is the clear third-best player on the roster. He’s fluid, and he can handle the ball better than Michael Porter Jr., who is struggling for a few reasons. Some are in his control, and some of them aren’t. Until Porter works through his issues on defense, Barton has a firm hold on the third star spot.
Gross: Monte Morris. The problem is that Morris will never be a high-volume shooter, so having him as your third best player caps your scoring potential when either Jokic or Murray struggles. He can’t be Denver’s third-best player on a championship team. The guy who needs to be their third-best player is MPJ, as Gage said – but Porter is atrocious on defense and has anything but a green light on offense, which caps his contributions at both ends. Until Denver either figures out how to help Porter be effective – and keep in mind he’s only had 1400 minutes for his career, or about half of Carmelo Anthony’s rookie year – this will be a continuing problem, both for his ability to carry any kind of load for Denver and for his trade value if they have to go another way.
Howard: I don’t believe they have one currently. They have a bunch of players that are playing at such a similar level that there is no clear third best player. A case can be made for any of Millsap, Barton, Gary, Porter, or Monte. This is not a good thing, however, as they’re all preforming how you you would want your 5th or 6th best player to be.
Blackburn: It will be Michael Porter Jr. at the end of the year, and that’s what I care about. Right now, things feel bleak because of a string of games where Porter hasn’t been himself; however, I believe he will return to normal and even improve as the year progresses. He has to, for himself and for the team. The Nuggets know it. The NBA knows it. He knows it. At some point, things will click into place. Until then, it’s probably Monte Morris who has been the third best guy. That can’t continue if the Nuggets are to have championship aspirations.
Piggybacking off that last question, how do the Nuggets get that third piece in order to elevate them from a mid-pack playoff contender to a championship contender?
Bridgford: Internal development and health are huge, but the most important factor seems to be coaching in my opinion. This roster has plenty of talent on it, but Malone just isn’t getting the most out of them. The offense has just one or two plays drawn up for players other than Jokic and Murray. Everyone else is expected to spot up or somehow create your own shot. If Malone can’t figure out how to scheme for players on offense, they’re not going to be engaged on defense. Every player on the roster feeds off the offensive end. If they’re not engaged there, they’re not going to try as much on defense. I don’t know that they need a coaching change, but they need a scheme change for sure. If Malone can’t do that, maybe they do need a switch.
Gross: Agreed – they either need to change philosophy or personnel. This squad has very few defenders but a lot of offensive talent. Unfortunately, Denver’s offense is designed to only feature Jokic and Murray, and the kickouts to the perimeter pale in comparison to the offensive load those two men have to carry. Denver’s offensive trust has fractured and they’ve fallen into the only thing they’ve consistently done well in both the regular season and playoffs – but it’s breaking Murray physically to carry that much of a load in the regular season. A Mike D’Antoni offensive philosophy would be interesting with this team, but it invites mistakes and requires players to make open shots. Malone can’t handle the first part and the rest of Denver’s roster is struggling with the second part – in part because of that lack of consistent touches that Gage brought up.
Having a defensively-fixated coach with an offensively-constructed roster is a problem. Having every vet as an injury-prone nightmare is also a problem. Denver doesn’t know if it has the potential “third-best player on a championship team” on the roster already in MPJ. They won’t find out unless they scheme touches and twice as many shots for him and see what happens. They don’t have the trade value on their roster to go out and get another top-tier piece at the moment, but they may need to take a swing for a player who is good somewhere else but might be able to be great here. Their current construction is not helping, and it feels like LeBron James carrying the Cavaliers right now, honestly. The problem is Denver doesn’t play in that version of the East. They may have to be willing to take a step back in the win column to test out some approaches in order to take future steps forward, but nothing about their approach has indicated a willingness to do that so far. Until they get their philosophy to match their personnel and increase the contributions of the roster outside of Jokic, they’ll be stuck in this middle ground.
Howard: I agree with what Ryan, Gordon, and Gage wrote; nothing more to expand on.
Blackburn: It’s either going to be “Michael Porter Jr. improves” or “earth shattering trade that changes Denver’s identity” because there is no in between. Teams need three high level impact pieces, offensively or defensively, to make things work. It’s easier to surround three players with role players than to surround one or two players with role players because of the nature of the playoffs. A playoff environment asks the basic question related to baseball: “if I take away your fastball, do you have a secondary or tertiary pitch to throw?” The Nuggets have a good secondary option in Murray. If teams take away that too, then Denver needs a third piece either offensively or defensively (preferably both) to impact games. Porter has the talent to be that guy. I’m not sure anyone else on the roster does. There are players Denver could acquire that could be that third guy, but then the mix of role players would be off. It’s a tough balance to strike, and the Nuggets are living through the consequences of readymade plans falling through after Jerami Grant bounced in free agency.