The Denver Nuggets were the story of the NBA bubble. Arriving with no backcourt, they played five-centre line-ups, they went into the playoffs without Will Barton, yet they still made it to the Conference Finals. Denver was the first team in NBA history to overcome two 3-1 deficits in a single postseason.
Looking ahead to 2020/21, the Nuggets’ chances are being downplayed. Jerami Grant signed with the Pistons. He was replaced by JaMychal Green. They missed out on the long-rumoured Jrue Holiday trade. Where the Lakers and Clippers seemingly got better, Denver supposedly didn’t.
The Nuggets are no strangers to being written off. It happened in the first two rounds of last season’s playoffs. Nikola Jokic defied expectation to go from second round pick to All-NBA, Jamal Murray emphatically proved his doubters wrong in the postseason.
Denver isn’t the exciting choice to come out the West next season, but they will be in the mix. Here are three reasons they can topple the Lakers…
Michael Porter Jr was on the shortest of leashes last season. Michael Malone’s caution limited Porter’s minutes, and it was understandable given Porter’s lowlight reel defence and wince-worthy injury history. Porter is the great upside of this Nuggets roster. We’ve seen what Murray and Jokic can be, but can Porter became that ceiling-lifting third star? Keeping, rather than trading, Porter could be a sliding doors moment for the franchise.
Only a couple inches shy of seven feet with a high release point, Porter can shoot over quite literally anyone. He was over 40% from deep last season, and he showed good touch on driving finishes. If that handle tightens, he will become pretty much unguardable.
Becoming a passable defender is a must for Porter to see major minutes. If he can improve on the defensive end, Malone will trust him in crunch time. He will take this Nuggets offence from very good to spectacular.
Will Barton was the Nuggets’ third-best player before the hiatus. He had a career year from three (37.5% on five attempts per game) and often took the toughest defensive assignment. Barton’s athleticism was sorely missed on the wing in the playoffs.
With Gary Harris‘ future uncertain, Barton is the all-important three-and-d guy on this roster. Harris’ offensive limitations took him off the floor for fourth quarters throughout the postseason. Barton can slot in at the two or three if he continues to shoot the ball as he did last year. Defences will respect him as a shooter – teams no longer take Harris seriously as an offensive player after two difficult seasons on that end.
Barton’s absence unfairly went under the radar in the bubble. His presence wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the Lakers series, but the Nuggets are a better team with him and maybe put up more of a fight.
There’s been little news on his injury status ahead of the new season. If Barton can get healthy, and play at the level he did last season, it’s a massive boost for Denver.
Legitimate big two
Regardless of what happens with the rest of the roster, Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray proved they are a serious big two in the 2020 playoffs. Denver has star power. Outside of the Lakers, how many teams in the West have a better duo than Jokic and Murray?
They took turns to hit clutch shots. Murray was draining stepbacks and executing barely believable finishes at the rim. Jokic’s playmaking was picking defences apart, his floaters were falling and he drained an array of leaners, fadeaways and hook shots. The Clippers and Jazz had no answer for the Nuggets’ big two.
Murray is on All-Star, maybe even All-NBA, trajectory if he keeps up his bubble standards. Jokic is again an MVP candidate. Denver has two premier talents, two players who are likely to improve further. No team with two elite players should be overlooked even with the Lakers and Clippers standing in their way.