The Denver Nuggets are coming off a third straight losing season, going 33-49 under new head coach Michael Malone. That 40 percent winning clip matched the team’s winning percentage during the disappointing Brian Shaw era for the prior two seasons. Denver tied for 10th in the Western Conference standings but were a full eight games out of the playoffs.
Despite the familiar losing, optimism is on the rise in Denver. Danilo Gallinari returned to form following his lengthy knee surgeries and recovery, putting up career numbers as the Nuggets’ first option on offense.
Emmanuel Mudiay—the team’s No. 7 overall pick from the 2015 draft—struggled with turnovers and shooting, but showed marked improvement in both as the season closed. Second-rounder Nikola Jokic was a revelation at center, posting the team’s best on/off splits and showing unexpected polish on both sides of the court.
The offseason was a quiet one, save for cashing in three (!) first-round picks. Jamal Murray looks like he could push for significant backcourt minutes, while Juan Hernangomez and Malik Beasley will likely spend most of their rookie campaigns on the bench. Denver’s roster is otherwise very stable from last season: Joffrey Lauvergne (traded) and D.J. Augustin (free agency) are gone from the rotation, and the Nuggets just cut deep reserves JaKarr Sampson and Alex Toupane.
The momentum is positive, so where will it take them in 2016-17?
One Key Question: Can Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic play together?
The Nuggets are extremely young, so the development of a half dozen players is important. But no developmental issue is as pressing as the Jokic/Nurkic dynamic. Nurkic was absent or hobbled for the entire 2015-16 campaign, giving Jokic room to shine. But Nurkic was a bright spot as a rookie in 2014-15 and has earned a starting role by plowing through opposing frontcourts in the preseason.
Presuming both players are as good as they’ve shown, they both need starters’ minutes to maximize their on-court impact in a league-low on post talent. Both players are natural centers and were barely paired together by Malone last season. Nurkic has also vented some frustration due to a lack of playing time over the last year. Unless they can coexist in against-the-grain oversize lineups, the team would be wise to crown one their franchise center and move the other for value elsewhere on the roster.
The answer to the Jokic/Nurkic question will have a domino effect for the Nuggets overall plans. While Jokic is a relatively nimble big with outside shooting ability, Nurkic’s presence demands a more bruising, deliberate style of play. The shape of Denver’s offense and defense will look very different if the latter stays or goes.
The other major domino is incumbent starting power forward, Kenneth Faried. Faried is the team’s second-highest paid player and a frequent subject of trade rumors. If he’s supplanted among the starters, the team could either get serious about trading him or forming a high-energy second unit around his skillset.
Best- and Worst-Case Scenarios for 2016-17
Stagnation is the greatest danger for this team. If Mudiay’s shot doesn’t continue to improve, he’ll slide into Michael Carter-Williams territory as a physically gifted but ineffective point guard. And while Malone has met or exceeded expectations as a head coach in difficult situations in his young career, a failure to coax gains from his team’s defensive performance (sixth-worst in 2015-16) and/or offense (11th-worst) would be a red flag.
More than a set amount of wins or losses, Denver needs to have enough confidence in the potential of both the roster and coaching staff to commit to many years of continuity and growth. With the right breaks and developmental leaps, the Nuggets could make the playoffs with a modest record over .500. They’d be easy pickings for their first-round opponent, but winning play from a roster this young would bode incredibly well for years to come in Denver.