Stiffs writers join together to discuss the Denver Nuggets start to the 2020-21 season.
The Nuggets are 5-6 through 11 games and currently sit on the outside looking in competing in an extremely competitive Western Conference. Should we be concerned about Denver’s start?
Brandon Ewing (@B_Skip1717): I would put my level of concern at a solid 7 out of 10. I’m not concerned about the regular season Nuggets because I think they will be fine. One way or another the Nuggets will find a way to make it to the postseason, it’s impossible not to with a superstar on your roster like Nikola Jokic. My concern level really starts and ends with the Nuggets championship aspirations. This is not a roster that is going to come anywhere close to competing for a championship and if they don’t find a way to upgrade the roster throughout the season, I think we could see an early exit come playoff time.
Gage Bridgford (@GbridgfordNFL): Yes. For one, this team can’t figure out how to play a full game. Against the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday, they were cooking in the first half to 70 points compared to just 46 in the second half. They shot near 57 percent in the first half and 43 percent in the second half. The defense is also tied to right to the offense. When the offense is cold, the defense is slow and unengaged, and teams are taking advantage. With a defense that currently ranks in the bottom five of the NBA, that can’t happen. When the offense goes cold, the defense needs to pick up the slack. The same thing goes for the offense, when the defense is struggling, the offense has to work to get good shots and keep up their scoring.
Ryan Blackburn (@NBABlackburn): The same concerns I had at the beginning of the season are rearing their head now. I will discuss more of the actual problem in the next question, but I expected more from Denver’s starting unit to cover for missing Michael Porter Jr. among others. The Nuggets have had consistency from Nikola Jokić and inconsistency from everyone else, including Jamal Murray. He has taken a backseat in terms of dictating the offense, and it has put more pressure on others to make plays. Gary Harris, Will Barton, Monte Morris, and JaMychal Green have each had their moments lately, but those moments have come when the defense has been lacking. Denver has yet to put together a complete performance against a good team, and until they do that, I will continue to have concerns about their long term prospects.
Daniel Lewis (@denverstiffs): I’m not too concerned. They are missing key rotation players from last season, have had to deal with injuries/COVID absences, and mixing in new players. I don’t really care how many points they give up per game, just how many points they give up per possession, and I trust their offense to click eventually. I’m optimistic because of the growth I’ve seen from players like Monte Morris, PJ Dozier, and how well JaMychal Green has looked at times.
What do you think has been the cause for the Nuggets slow start?
Ewing: The Nuggets added seven new players to their roster this offseason and it’s going to take time to work those guys up to speed. That is not going to happen overnight and the Nuggets have to find a way to speed up that process or they are going to continue and struggle. Denver has also lost a fair amount of close games to start the season, which are games they have won in seasons past. If the Nuggets were able to squeak out just a few of those close games, their record would look a WHOLE lot better.
Bridgford: I think the team is a little worn out from the playoff run, but I also think there is a lot of feeling out happening. Facundo Campazzo is playing significant bench minutes. Isaiah Hartenstein is playing a new role as the backup center. Michael Porter Jr. has been dealing with Covid-19 and has missed the last seven games. With more chemistry, the offense could get a bump which would elevate the defense in the process.
Blackburn: There’s a distinct lack of versatility and athleticism at the forward position without Michael Porter Jr. in the fold, and because the Nuggets have consistently had either him or JaMychal Green out to start the season, the Nuggets haven’t been able to utilize some of their best lineups to cover up for potential issues. Would that have helped them defend Luka Doncic or Kevin Durant? Probably not, but it might have helped to have both of them against the Sacramento Kings or the Phoenix Suns. Denver will eventually right the ship, but it’s clear that they need additional help on the wing at some point, and Porter’s return to complete the rotation isn’t a guaranteed solution.
Lewis: Michael Porter Jr. not being able to carry water defensively, and then being irresponsible and getting COVID-19 a second time. Let’s call a spade a spade — he hasn’t done what was expected of him so far this season. If he was able to play to his talent level, the Nuggets would be fine. He needs to be better so he can get game minutes and continue to improve.
What is it going to take for the Nuggets to turn things around and who is the one player that has to step up?
Ewing: These questions go hand in hand and I think it’s clear, this team goes as Jamal Murray goes. Sure, Jokic is the star of the team, but as we have seen a few times to start the season no matter how solid a performance Denver puts together they still need someone else to step up. In Murray’s defense, he just looks exhausted, which is understandable considering how well he played in the Nuggets run to the Western Conference Finals last season. One thing is clear through 11 games though and it’s that Murray has to start being more assertive if the Nuggets want to have more success moving forward.
Bridgford: Excluding Porter, who’s not been playing, it’s Murray. He’s supposed to be the second budding star on this team, and he’s just not fully taking on that role. He’ll grab it for spurts here and there, but he has yet to play a complete game at that level. Nikola Jokic is averaging a near triple-double. Paul Millsap is canning 44 percent of his 3-point shots. Will Barton has excelled in a reduced role, including keeping the team in the game on Tuesday night. Gary Harris needs to step up as well, but Murray is the main guy. He’s paid the money to be the second superstar. We saw him do that in the NBA playoffs. Now he just has to do it again. Even if he’s not going to play all the way up to that level, he needs to show it wasn’t just a flash in the pan.
Blackburn: I don’t have concerns about Denver offensively. They’re second in the NBA in offensive rating with Porter having played four of the first 11 games. They will be fine on that end. Where they have struggled is defensively, and Porter is going to have a lot placed on his shoulders when he returns. Nuggets players cannot account for him mishaps defensively on top of their own. The last seven games have proved that. Porter has to be responsible for his defensive assignments and become a cohesive part of Denver’s defensive scheme. Nikola Jokić went through it. Jamal Murray went through it. It’s time for Porter to be thrown into the fire and learn how to play defense on the fly. Denver needs someone with his athletic profile to guard opposing forwards. If he can’t do it, the Nuggets are dead in the water with their current personnel by the time the playoffs come around.
Lewis: Murray needs to step up in the time being and become the lethal scorer he was in the playoffs. He doesn’t need to dominate the ball like he did against the Jazz, but he can’t be out there hesitating on wide-open 3-pointers like he has been lately. The team needs him to put points on the board, and there are enough creators on the team that he should be able to find opportunities on offense without having to score 1×1 all the time. That’ll allow him to reserve some energy for defense too, because the team needs him to be good on that end too.