The Denver Nuggets see no need for wholesale changes after steady improvement and a 50-win season in 2018-19.
2018-19 record: 54-28, lost in the second round of the playoffs
Key additions: Jerami Grant, forward (trade); Bol Bol, forward (draft)
Key subtractions: Trey Lyles; Isaiah Thomas
The steady growth of the Nuggets was evident in a 50-win season and a first-round victory in the playoffs over the more-experienced San Antonio Spurs, which was clearly a step forward; then the journey ended with a sour taste after Denver lost a Game 7 at home to the lower-seeded Portland Trail Blazers.
In all, the Nuggets received almost everything they had hoped for from a developing contender, especially in the form of Nikola Jokic. The multi-skilled Serbian center established himself as the league’s most talented big man, if not the best period, with a stellar performance that attracted some MVP notice.
Jokic roars in celebration during Denver’s series win over San Antonio
He averaged 20 points, almost 11 rebounds and seven assists in an offense that ran through him, rare in today’s spread-the-floor league where centers are being phased out or pegged as role players and pick-setters.
Jokic reminded many of Bill Walton or maybe Vlade Divac for his precise and sometimes entertaining passing skills from the high post.
Murray is congratulated after leading Denver’s Game 2 fourth-quarter rally
His co-star was Jamal Murray, who made generous strides as a leader and shot-maker and fit well with Jokic. The Nuggets also played some of the best defense in the league for much of the season and had solid back-court depth with Monte Morris and Malik Beasley averaging a combined 21 points off the bench.
There were mixed reviews, however, from Gary Harris; the starting two-guard didn’t improve and in some areas actually regressed as he struggled with injuries in a 57-game season. Same for Will Barton, who shot 40 per cent and played 43 games.
But those were nit-picks. The Nuggets finally arrived after going a league-leading 34-7 at home, reaching the second round of the playoffs for the first time in a decade, and using the draft and trades to remake the roster over the last few years to stay in the attic in the very competitive West, which was no easy task.
When an NBA team reaches a critical stage of the development process and checks all the necessary boxes, it’s time to keep the continuity. Which means, time to pay up, and the Nuggets did just that this summer with two of their important figures: Murray and GM Tim Connelly, and both were easy calls.
Denver Nuggets’ star duo Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic discuss their on-court chemistry
Murray went from a rookie who played behind Emmanuel Mudiay to a dependable, sometimes clutch-shooting guard in just three seasons. While he’s obviously the starter at the point for the Nuggets, Murray’s value lies in his flexibility; he can play off the ball and be just as valuable whenever Jokic assumes the ‘point-center’ role. He averaged 18.2 points and 4.8 assists and showed growth despite struggling at times in his first postseason. He also doesn’t turn 23 until February.
So the Nuggets gave him $170m over five years, banking on his continued growth, which appears to be a safe investment. Therefore, Denver’s two most important players, Jokic and Murray, are under contract together for the next three seasons.
Connelly replaced Masai Ujiri in 2013 and repaid the Nuggets’ faith by overseeing a basketball operation that has run mostly smoothly ever since. He drafted Jokic at No 41 and hired Mike Malone as coach. The Nuggets have gone from 33 wins in Malone’s first season to 54. Even better, the meat of the roster is trending in the right direction and there’s no dead weight.
This summer, the Wizards, after firing Ernie Grunfeld, chased after Connelly, a Baltimore native who attended college in DC. Connelly broke into the business as an intern for the Wizards and has family ties to the DC area, so the prospect of leaving Denver was a real threat.
Jamal Murray said he feels like the Denver Nuggets ‘go-to’ guy after signing a $170m extension with the team.
Ultimately, Nuggets boss Josh Kroenke was successful in persuading Connelly to stay. Usually that comes with a promise of a significant raise, but more importantly, Connelly saw what he’s building in Denver and couldn’t leave unfinished business. Denver have a solid mix of youth and vets and are coming off a season where they were the No 2 seed in the West. Hard to walk away from that.
Paul Millsap also cashed in when the Nuggets agreed to pick up his 2019-20 option year for $30m. There was some question whether the Nuggets would tie that much into a soon-to-be 35-year-old forward who, statistically anyway, is coming off his worst season since 2009-10 and his fewest minutes since 2008. But Millsap still brings a solid defensive mindset and experience, and anyway, the Nuggets were all about maintaining the flow this summer. Plus, Denver will remain under the luxury tax with Millsap’s option.
Paul Millsap throws a pass against Dallas
Millsap’s minutes could be reduced this season because the Nuggets traded for a more athletic option in Jerami Grant. With the Thunder, Grant improved his three-point shooting last season and became more of a well-rounded forward. If used correctly by Malone, he can thrive in Denver, who badly need his physical gifts.
Of course, there’s also the wild card: Michael Porter Jr. The club’s first-round pick two summers ago sat out all last season while recovering from a back issue, then was scratched from summer league play in July because of a minor knee issue which was more of a precautionary move. In a best-case scenario, Porter stays healthy and gives the Nuggets three options at power forward.
Bol Bol in college action for the Oregon Ducks
Connelly didn’t have a first-round pick this summer but swung a deal to fetch a second-rounder once Bol Bol dropped to No 44 in the draft. The son of former NBA player Manute Bol, he suffered a foot injury last season at Oregon and NBA teams were wary of his potential for recovery. Well, Connelly and the Nuggets will essentially treat Bol as they did Porter; Bol will be an injury red-shirt and prepare for 2020-21.
And so, the Nuggets’ summer wasn’t about making wholesale changes, but keeping the pace they’ve set over the last three seasons and rewarding some of the key personnel responsible for it. Patience has allowed the Nuggets to get this far and so there was no reason to panic or rush the process this offseason.
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Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/Powell2daPeople
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