It’s a special time for Denver Nuggets fans.
After rebuilding in the most patient of ways, finally it’s time to get excited. It would seem that since the infamous game 82 overtime heartbreak they experienced in Minnesota back in 2018, Denver has propelled itself to unimaginable heights. The question remains, how much higher can they climb?
The 2018/19 season saw the mile high crew grab a very respectable 54 wins, earning them the second seed in a super stacked Western Conference. This left them matched up with Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs in their first playoff series in five seasons. Not ideal for a young group of players with little to no experience of what playoff basketball is like.
This was apparent throughout the series. After relinquishing that precious home court advantage in the very first game, Denver eventually managed to take it back in game 4, levelling the series at two apiece. Gregg Popovich had his players ready to ball, and that they did, teaching the Nuggets many lessons along the way.
Then came the nail-biting game 7. Could the team that nobody saw coming actually make it to the final four in the West? This was undoubtedly the biggest test, especially mentally, that this young group of players were to experience.
The rest is history. They answered the call, overcame their lack of playoff familiarity and triumphantly marched in to the Western Conference semi-finals. Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and co gave the Nuggets their first playoff series win since, to quote the great Chris Marlowe, Hector was a pup. Well, since Carmelo Anthony led them to the Western Conference finals in 2009.
Portland turned up the heat and showed the young Nuggets that the playoffs only get more challenging the deeper you go. Another game 7? How would they cope under the pressure of another one? Being up 3-2, fans were sure that Malone’s boys would be able to close out and proceed to face the Golden State Warriors, the first and second seed match up that no neutral wanted.
Well the neutrals got their wish. CJ McCollum had one of the best solo performances of the series, maybe the whole playoffs, on both ends of the court, which sent the Nuggets in to their summer. Fans were left heartbroken, yet proud of how far they’d managed to go.
Into the 2019/20 season
General manager Tim Connelly bases every decision he makes around one key factor. How does this player fit with superstar centre Nikola Jokic?
The Joker posted mouth-watering numbers in his first stint of playoff basketball, averaging 24.8 points, 13.0 rebounds and 8.9 assists. Nikola Jokic solidified to the NBA world that he is the real deal, consistently posting powerhouse numbers, influencing the game throughout and delivering in crunch time when under the gun.
This leads to our question: Are the Denver Nuggets genuine contenders out west? Or are they #FraudCity?
Denver are currently sitting in the two seed, boasting an impressive record of 38 wins and 16 losses, 3 games back from LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. If the Nuggets are to become a true contender, here are some of the key factors they’ll likely need to address in order to do so.
Issues to address
The first is the consistency of their number two guy, Jamal Murray. Murray is undoubtedly the Nuggets best shooter, especially now with Malik Beasley being shipped off to the Minnesota Timberwolves. His ability to create space and find a shot, either in isolation or working off the dribble hand off has been invaluable for the Nuggets. In the summer he earned himself a whopping 5 year, $170 million max contract extension that will ensure he stays in Denver until at least the 2024/25 season.
His next step has to be finding a way to deliver on a consistent basis. Murray is a special offensive talent, we’ve all seen that throughout his time in the NBA. If he can find a way to deliver night in and night out, the NBA better watch out.
The entire Nuggets offence runs through Nikola Jokic, and GM Tim Connelly has done an excellent job finding players that compliment him on the court. Mike Malone also has to be credited for his role in establishing an offensive structure that gives each player a specific role within that. Too often this season, the Nuggets have lost sight of that, settling for contested three-point shots and tough looks at the end of the shot clock. Although Denver do have some stellar shooters in their ranks, they need to stay true to their identity.
If they can consistently force the switch, there’s little to nothing opposing defences can do to stop the Nuggets gaining a high percentage look. Firstly, if you send the double team to Jokic, you ignore his lethal passing and ability to find the open man. If you fail to send the double team, he’s only going to feast in the paint.
Another huge part of that identity relies on the guards and wing players remembering one hugely important factor: Cut, cut, cut!
Jokic has deft vision and the passing ability to go along with it. The Nuggets are at their very best when the smalls are cutting and the ball is popping. The supporting cast has to keep this in mind every night that they’re on the floor.
For as long as I can remember, Denver have used a run and gun style offence. During those times, the thing that was lacking most was arguably the most important factor when it comes to success: defence.
You won’t find many who look at Denver and think of them as a historically good defensive team, however last season they made huge leaps in that department. This season has been more of the same. The energy levels on the defensive end have been stellar and if they can keep it up, it will only serve to help them as they look to progress throughout the season and in to the playoffs.
When the defence is good, the offence tends to follow suit. This stems from effort and a willingness to leave it all on the floor, which so far the Nuggets have done well, save for a few forgettable games.
With all of this being said, I think it’s fair to say that the Denver Nuggets as a whole have improved greatly under Mike Malone. Will this be the season that they force people to sit up and really take note? If they stay healthy, I see no reason why they cant continue to turn heads. The sky really is the limit for this group of young, hungry players.