Today is 25 days until the start of the 2022-23 NBA season. In preparation for the highly anticipated year in the Denver Nuggets franchise history, Ryan Blackburn asks and answers 20 burning questions facing the Nuggets ahead of Media Day on Monday, September 26th. One question each day of the week for the next four weeks.
Question 20: Do the Denver Nuggets have what it takes to win?
In Mile High City, there’s a feeling that the Denver Nuggets are starting to look more and more like a team of destiny.
For a long time, Denver just wasn’t there. Dating back to their ABA days, the Nuggets have yet to win a championship. Every time they get close, something goes wrong or the team just hit a glass ceiling that they have yet to smash through. In 1985, Alex English, the top scorer of the 1980s, injured himself. In 2009 it was incredible inbound passes against the Los Angeles Lakers. In 2020, those same Lakers were fortunate to rest a little more in a bubble environment, outperforming the Nuggets in dominating the color.
Now, after a bit of a break from championship talk, the Nuggets are hoping to reintroduce themselves to the NBA world. They haven’t reached an NBA Finals yet, but this looks like the Denver Nuggets’ best shot in franchise history.
Jamal Murray was recently ranked as the 50th best player in ESPN’s annual player rankings. The reasoning was simple: No one has any idea how good Murray will be when he returns to the hardwood. Of course, the nuggets get very excited internally. You’d scoff at such a low rating for the returning star:
— AltitudeTV (@AltitudeTV) September 21, 2022
The Nuggets know they need Murray at his best to be a true title threat. Every team that won a championship had at least one perimeter star threat. The Nuggets long ago believed Murray could be that guy, and his playoff averages — 33 games, 24.3 points, 5.8 assists, 4.6 rebounds, 47.3 FG%, 40.9 3P% – seem to confirm this. If he just put up his average performance in the 2022-23 playoffs, the Nuggets would be very comfortable with their title chances.
Jokić and Murray are pretty stable. Barring a slower recovery for Murray or a surprise setback for one of them, the Nuggets know they have one of the most dynamic duos in the NBA today. Any player can win Denver a playoff game. Jokić has already proven that a strong run from him can carry Denver’s chances of winning. The Bubble proved the same of Murray. These two are Denver’s pillars on offense.
The third and admittedly shakier pillar of offense is Michael Porter Jr., although there’s no doubting his talent. Several seasons lost to injury have brought to light some reliability concerns. While Porter is healthy, he’s had far bigger playoff fights than Murray so far. Many of these problems can be traced to growing pains in an NBA environment, but until he outgrows some bad traits (poor ball handling, poor isolation defense), teams will continue to exploit his weaknesses as a player.
The Nuggets are yet to fully unleash MPJ’s abilities alongside Jokić and Murray and yet it didn’t really matter. According to PBP Stats, those three have tied the court for 1,139 career minutes in regular season and playoff games. In those games, they have maintained a net rating of +12.1. For comparison, the career net rating for Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green is +14.8. The nuggets are not far away.
Large-scale insults will almost certainly be dealt with by this trio. However, defense will be what determines Denver’s chances for the competition.
The Nuggets have never had an above-average playoff defense during the Michael Malone and Nikola Jokić era. Each season, other teams have found ample opportunities to take advantage of Denver’s personnel and plan to overtake Denver’s playoff offense. Putting Jokić on an island and forcing him to defend in space to the three-point line was a good strategy for opposing teams. There were also enough defensive weaknesses at other positions (Murray early, Porter lately, and Will Barton last season) to give opposing teams confidence that they could score points against Denver at any time.
The Nuggets can no longer make it easy for their opponents to score points, which is why they made off-season changes. They added Kentavious Caldwell-Pope via trade, Bruce Brown via free agency, and Christian Braun via the 2022 NBA draft. The three wings represent Denver’s best collection of wing defenders to date. Adding them (or at least KCP and Brown) to a rotation that already includes Aaron Gordon gives the nuggets plenty of length and versatility in key positions.
In previous seasons, the Nuggets were tied to different lineups due to defensive concerns, a lack of depth, or the need to sell out on the offensive end. For the first time, however, Michael Malone can look at his rotation and see a variety of options for every situation. Can’t play Porter due to a specific defensive matchup? Use Brown, Jeff Green, or Zeke Nnaji as alternate defensive options. Need some extra offensive on the ground? Bring in Bones Hyland and push Porter into power instead of Gordon. Do you need extra energy? Braun and Ish Smith are on hand to shake things up.
There’s no doubt that the Nuggets need a variety of things to run right for them to win a title. But that’s the case with every team. The Golden State Warriors needed Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Poole and Kevon Looney to move up in various parts of the playoffs to get past the opposition. The Milwaukee Bucks needed Kevin Durant’s toe to be on the three-point line in their Game 7 matchup in 2021 to win a title this season. Every champion has had help and luck along the way, and the Nuggets will be no exception.
However, it feels like a gap has opened up in the West. The warriors, while clearly still dominant, are on the decline of their dynasty. The Phoenix Suns had their best shot in 2021, watching it slip away and seeing cracks slowly developing in their armor. The Los Angeles Clippers, while impressive when healthy, are a team the Nuggets have had a history of success against. Also, they have to prove their health just like the nuggets. Other West teams either have too many questions or not enough top-end talent to be serious contenders for the title this year.
That leaves Denver, a team hungry to prove themselves after multiple chances were missed due to injuries. They are healthy now and have improved on more than just getting the old band back together. This roster is more ready than ever to challenge the NBA hierarchy. They might even succeed.
To date, however, the Nuggets have not shown the resilience needed against the NBA’s best teams to execute their game plan on either end of the parquet. Against the Lakers in 2020, the Nuggets were disrupted on the defensive end by the Lakers’ inside-outside attack. Against the Suns in 2021, the Nuggets couldn’t solve high pick and rolls from Chris Paul or Devin Booker. Against the Warriors in 2022, the Nuggets failed to stay disciplined in their three-point defensive principles and let Golden State’s shooters roam without challenging them in any way.
Finding the next gear mentally will be key to Denver’s success. It takes a certain amount of experience, commitment and discipline to really compete for a title. Maybe the Nuggets will reach that level offensively. Achieving it defensively will be the swing factor of Denver’s season.
However, Jokić has given Nuggets fans no reason to doubt. He’s getting better and better, finding new ways to excel on offense and improve on defense. Expect the nuggets to follow his lead as his lead continues to make strides forward. They still have progress to make, but there are many reasons to believe they will.
As long as Murray and Porter get and stay healthy, the Nuggets can win a championship. I predict they will, and as such, I predict the Nuggets deserve a ring this season.