For a team that missed the playoffs, the Denver Nuggets are in an excellent position. They finished fourth in the NBA in offensive efficiency this past year, they finally have some stability on the sidelines with Michael Malone as head coach, and they have one of the best young players in the league in Nikola Jokic.
Jokic compounded his rookie season with an even better sophomore campaign, finishing with 16.7 points, 9.8 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game. He isn’t a premier defender, but he’s good for his position. Offensively, he’s the central hub that makes them go – and arguably the best player they’ve had since Carmelo Anthony.
However, with a 40-42 record this past season, Denver has room for improvement. Can the Denver Nuggets find a way to avoid the plague of the Anthony era and add another “star” to join Jokic and end a four-year playoff drought?
You’ll notice the term star in quotes because the last time Denver added a big-name player, it was Andre Iguodala, a rather unconventional star player who didn’t light up the scoreboard, but did a bit of everything – scoring, defense, creation – to take Denver up a level and make them a Western Conference contender in his lone season in Denver.
At the time, the Nuggets didn’t give up that much to acquire Iguodala, fleecing him in the four-team trade that saw Dwight Howard head to Los Angeles and Nikola Vucevic move to Orlando. With several pieces on the roster, can the Nuggets find a way to get another top-tier player to join Jokic and take a step forward in the Western Conference?
After Jokic, Denver has a solid group of young players, but no stars at the moment. Gary Harris is a nice shooting guard, capable of playing solid defense and providing excellent offense without a high usage. Jamal Murray had the normal ups and downs of a rookie season, but flashed everything you want in a potential combo guard, including working well alongside the central offensive hub that is Jokic.
I’m also bullish on the upside of Juancho Hernangomez. His per-game averages weren’t interesting, but his PER-36 numbers were: 13.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.2 steals. He didn’t set the world on fire as a passer – 29 assists to 31 turnovers – but he knocked down 41 percent of his threes and he’s just 21 years old. Tuck his name away for next season.
Along with Denver’s young players is the perfect set of veterans. Danilo Gallinari, a pending free agent, is a perfect power forward in today’s NBA. Wilson Chandler plays three positions and provides a positive impact on both sides of the ball. Darrell Arthur is a stretch big and Will Barton is a microwave off the bench.
Free agency will be the most fascinating area for Denver, as they don’t usually land the big-name free agents. Nevertheless, there’s enough big-name players to go around that someone will see Denver as a legitimate option. They expressed interest in Paul Millsap during the season and could go after him again as an ideal complement to Jokic. Ditto for Blake Griffin.
The guy that’s most desirable for Denver is Jimmy Butler. Even after giving the Boston Celtics a scare in the first round of the NBA Playoffs, it sure seems like Butler and Chicago are on the fast track to a divorce. If that is indeed the case, the Nuggets should be right there to offer a package of players and draft picks to pair him with Jokic.
Denver doesn’t have a buffet of picks like the Celtics, but they do own all of their first-rounders for the foreseeable future. They also have a treasure trove of youth. Outside of Jokic, the Nuggets can put together a package of young players and draft picks to make a deal work. The issue, however, is that Denver doesn’t have that one centerpiece, making a potential trade tricky. Especially if the Celtics win the lottery.
Because of their roster, the Denver Nuggets are one of the most intriguing teams to follow this offseason. They have to bring back Gallinari, but outside of Gallo, the Nuggets have a set roster with several good players, but only one star. With cap space and several assets, the Nuggets have the tools to be aggressive and make a splash in the offseason.
Time will tell if they can land one of the big fish of free agency, or push in some assets for Jimmy Butler.