The Nuggets improved at the trade deadline, with their eyes set on returning to the Western Conference Finals.
It’s been one week since Aaron Gordon was traded to the Nuggets. How do you feel about the trade now that we’ve seen him play in games?
Gage Bridgford (@GbridgfordNFL): I still wish Denver hadn’t given up R.J. Hampton in the deal, but, after waiting so long to trade Gary Harris, they had no choice. However, they definitely could have been forced to give up more, and it seems like Gordon is going to be a great fit. He allows them to play faster on offense, and he’s more fleet of foot to stay with bigger wings than Paul Millsap brought them. If he’s able to keep this level of play up, he’s going to mean a ton to them in the playoffs.
Tommy Knowlton (@TommyKnow303): I think this deal has bred a certain level of confidence among Nuggets fans that Denver is finally all-in on winning a championship. Not just making a deep run, but actually holding the Larry O’Brien trophy when it is all said and done. Throughout these last two games, we have seen a different energy from this Nuggets group, and I think Gordon has a lot to do with that. I think some Nuggets fans should temper expectations a little bit if you think he is going to average 20 PPG and 10 rebounds, but that is not what the Nuggets need. They needed a strong, athletic wing who can defend while playing selflessly within their offensive system and Gordon gives you exactly that.
Reid Howard: Initially I was only viewing this trade through the lens of someone that is a big believer in R.J. Hampton. I saw him becoming a valuable rotation player off the bench next season and eventually, about as an ideal of a starting backcourt partner there is for Jamal Murray. At the same time, I was pessimistic on if Aaron Gordon would be more interested in attempting to rise to stardom or if he would just try to fit in.
Well, it’s safe to say early returns are encouraging and the Nuggets are a better team than the one they had pre-deadline. As cliché as it sounds, only time will tell if the trade was worth it.
Daniel Lewis (@minutemandan): Oh, it’s a great time to be a Nuggets fan. Getting Aaron Gordon for Gary Harris, RJ Hampton, and a future first is a grand larceny. He’s been an incredible fit so far, and looks like a better fit than Jerami Grant was. We haven’t even seen a big game from him yet and I’m already ridiculously hyped.
What is the path for the Nuggets to return back to the Western Conference Finals to give the team a chance to make the Finals?
Bridgford: The defense and bench have to get better. Denver has a deep bench, but it is an inconsistent one. They should have beaten the Philadelphia 76ers by 25 points, but the bench gave up a huge run. Whether it’s health or scheme they have to be able to get stops or score points, and they can’t do either right now. On defense, Denver just has to be better. They’re a middle-of-the-road team on that end, and they have to at least get into the top 12. With their offense, they’re going to outscore most opponents, but a defensive improvement would make life a lot easier.
Knowlton: I think the majority of it is mental with this group. The Nuggets cannot get complacent with their success because this is professional basketball and it can be taken away from you any given day. Denver needs to send a signal to the rest of the NBA that when they hold a double-digit lead, that game is over. As Gage pointed out, we’ve seen nearly 30 point leads dwindle back to single digits. Part of that is the Nugget’s inability at times to guard the 3 point line. Denver needs to be engaged on the perimeter, remain in an athletic stance, and have a good shot contest.
Howard: I can’t lie, my first thought was, “Do everything in their power to avoid playing the Lakers round one or two.” Upon further speculation, however, I came to a quick conclusion; this isn’t the mentality that wins championships. I truly believe the Nuggets should be trying to win as many games as possible. They shouldn’t be afraid of any team. While this many not be the “easiest”, “smartest”, or “safest” path to a deep playoff run; it’s not supposed to be easy.
Lewis: Embrace their role as the aggressor in matchups. This team needs to continue to refine that killer mentality, to try to not just win games by a few points but to dominate their opponent. They don’t have to play at that level for 48 minutes, or throughout the remainder of the regular season, but they need to be able to flip that switch against the elite teams in the conference.
The bench has struggled as of late — what needs to happen for the Nuggets to get that right?
Bridgford: One big thing that would help is Monte Morris getting healthy. After being one of their iron men for the first three months of the season, Morris has now missed 10 straight games. Morris brings a steadying presence to the second unit that they don’t have right now. Facundo Campazzo and P.J. Dozier can be exciting, but Morris has a calming effect with his ability to run the offense. Bringing him back would allow Michael Malone to adjust the rotation more, and we could see the bench make a big jump with just that.
Knowlton: The NBA is a make or miss league. The bench cannot afford to give the opponent a 12-0 or 14-4 scoring run. It is simple, but they must find someone to put the ball in the basket. Monte Morris seems to be the heartbeat of that bench unit so missing him is almost like losing your captain in battle. He is a fantastic floor general and always among the league leaders in assist to turnover ratio. Yes, Facu also provides those duties, but Morris gives the defense much more to think about because he has the ability to score from nearly anywhere on the court.
Howard: As has already been alluded to, Monte Morris is our best player that will presumably be coming off the bench once he is fully healthy. The bench is full of defensive players, but they are missing the offensive spark that Monte provides. That may be all they need, but one other potential solution is to stagger the starters in with the reserves even more. Just one of Jamal or Jokic with the bench certainly helps, but if Malone can find an effective way to also give MPJ, Gordon or Barton some run with the bench, that might pay dividends.
Lewis: Get Monte Morris back in the rotation so that Facu doesn’t have to play. I already know that Morris can pass the ball to Jokic, so he’s already capable of replicating what Campazzo’s main contribution has been lately. The bench can be a really solid defensive squad, but they need more scoring help, and Morris can bring that. I’d also explore signing a free agent off the street to try to help provide shooting (someone like Allen Crabbe) who can come in and shoot a few 3-pointers each game.
On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad do the Nuggets miss Monte Morris right now?
Bridgford: It’s an eight right now. The starters are playing a crazy high level of minutes, and they could be more rested if the bench could hold a lead. Morris’s ability to create his own offense while setting up others is something they don’t have a ton of consistency with right now. He’s not going to solve all of their issues, especially on the defensive end, but he would dramatically boost their bench’s offensive output.
Knowlton: I give it a six. The Nuggets went 11-3 in March, so I do not think there should be any panic, but the starters cannot carry much of the load for too long. Monte is a key contributor to this team and someone the Nuggets cannot be without come playoff time. There will come times throughout this second half where players’ legs are tired and the bench might need to put up 50-60 points to squeak out a win.
Howard: To me, this essentially boils down to another question: How much more valuable are blowout wins where the starters don’t play over 30 minutes compared to a game that comes down to the wire? Monte being healthy may have bumped the Nuggets record up to 12-2 in March, but the larger difference, I believe, is a few more of those games wouldn’t have been close at the end. Put me down for a 6.5.
Lewis: It’s not a 10 for me, that would be too dramatic. But I do think it’s like a 6 or 7. We all saw how much Jamal Murray struggled when he had to deal with injuries early in the season, and we don’t want that Jamal Murray going into the playoffs. It will be nice to have Monte back so that Jamal doesn’t have to play 40 minutes a night and carry the offense with the second unit as much.