Mile High Makeover: The Nuggets are on the Brink of a Major Personnel Shakeup

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Mile High Makeover: The Nuggets are on the Brink of a Major Personnel Shakeup


Mile High Makeover: The Nuggets are on the Brink of a Major Personnel Shakeup


In the 2019 season, Nikola Jokic made his first all-star appearance while leading Denver to their first playoff appearance in six years. Two seasons later, Jokic established himself as league MVP, a race he’s been firmly a part of in every season since. Yet for a team led by a perennial MVP candidate, a high degree of postseason success hasn’t followed in pattern.

Just a year after Denver’s 2019 campaign, they had a great run in the Orlando bubble. Mike Conley’s missed three as time expired helped Denver edge out the Utah Jazz in a crazy seven game, round one series. The Nuggets followed that up by storming back from a three games to one series deficit against the Los Angeles Clippers. They eventually fell short to the Lakers in fairly swift fashion with a Western Conference title on the line, but that’s okay. This was a young, blossoming core that had showcased playoff resilience and exceeded expectations.

Unfortunately, Denver has failed to exceed, or even reach those heights again. They were severely outmatched by the Suns in round two of the 2021 postseason, followed by a quick exit in round one to the Warriors last year. In all fairness though, context is necessary. Against Phoenix, the Nuggets were without co-star Jamal Murray, and that Suns team went on to win the Western Conference title. When they went up against Golden State just a year later, Denver was without both Jamal Murray & Michael Porter Jr., and that Warriors team went on to win the title.

When factoring this context in, the results truly aren’t as bad as they may seem. We haven’t seen Denver with all its key pieces since that bubble run in which they went above the call of duty. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. For one, a bit of frustration has tempered considering injuries have completely thrown away two MVP caliber seasons from the franchises superstar. On the other hand, many flaws – particularly on the defensive end – have prolonged for Denver, something many believe will forever hold this team back in the playoffs.

Looking back at the past 20 NBA champions, none of those teams ranked any lower than 11th in defensive rating during the regular season. This season, the Nuggets ranked 15th in that department. Last year, they were also 15th. To make matters worse, their rather average regular season defense has often collapsed in the playoffs. 

The Warriors stuck Denver in dead last amongst all 16 teams in defensive rating last postseason. The year before that, they ranked 13 out of 16 teams. Even during their run to the Western Conference Finals in the 2020 Orlando bubble, the Nuggets ranked 12th out of 16 teams.

Nikola Jokic is an excellent offensive player. As a matter of fact, one could easily claim he’s been the NBA’s most impactful offensive virtuoso over these past few seasons. The same can’t be said on defense, though. Jokic is neither a switchable perimeter defender or an impactful rim protector. The Nuggets make it a priority to hide Jokic and his liabilities on defense. When dragged into the pick and roll, Denver utilizes a “level” coverage. This has Jokic come high enough into the action to ensure the ball-handler can’t turn the corner off a screen. Not a complete switch, but not a drop either. Just hold things in place until the defender being screened is able to recover.

Jokic has gotten quite good at this coverage, maximizing his length and reading positioning to deter entry passes to the rolling screener. He’s averaging 3.1 deflections per game, a near top ten mark this season.

Regardless, Jokic still limits Denver’s coverage versatility, doesn’t offer a positive impact in many defensive areas, and in-turn, puts extra stress on the four teammates around him. You need versatile, locked-in defenders that can wear many hats on defense to get this defense over the hump come playoff time. And I’m talking about the entire box of hats here (or at least close to it); communication, keyed-in rotations, helpside rim protection, on-ball versatility, and screen navigation.

Some of you may be starting to think, “is he suggesting a Nikola Jokic trade?” No, absolutely not. I know I mentioned a “major personnel shakeup” in the title, but trading Jokic would be far greater. Maybe a nuking, perhaps? When you have a 28 year old that’s the best offensive player in basketball, anything but keeping him on the roster is a last resort. Even with his defensive struggles, you find ways to cover up those issues. You find a way to make this thing work.

This forces us to have a serious conversation about two of Denver’s best players: Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. First, let’s start with Murray. A 26 year old guard that still isn’t 100% after suffering an ACL tear last season, but is far & away Denver’s second foremost source of offense. An expansive bag of ball-handling moves, efficient off-the-bounce shooter with deep range, tons of craft in close quarters, and expanding feel as a playmaker.

Then there’s Michael Porter Jr. He’s a tantalizing shooting weapon, as his 6’10” stance with a 7’0” wingspan arms him with an unblock-able release point. And whether it’s spotting up, firing of screens, creating off the bounce, from three or midrange; it doesn’t matter. Porter can hit them all. For reference, he’s shooting over 41% from downtown this season on 7.3 attempts per game. He’s still not much of a creator for others – partially due to extremely spotty decision-making – but at just 24 years old with so many high-level flashes of talent and shooting versatility, there’s hope Porter will grow into an even larger role moving forward.

The offensive outlook is bright for these two youngsters, but there’s two recurring themes that raise cause for concern: durability and defensive impact. On the injury front, Murray missed over 20 games in 2020, and was absent for each of the past two Nuggets playoff runs, including the entirety of last season due to an ACL tear. 

Injuries have haunted Porter to an even greater degree. He was unavailable for his lone college season due to back injuries that doctors found concerning enough to have him slide in the 2018 Draft. He then missed the entire 2019 season, played just 55 games in a limited role for the 2020 campaign, and was held to just nine games in 2022. At just 24 years old, Porter has already been through multiple back surgeries and years of missed experience.

On the defensive end of the court, neither Murray nor Porter have benefited the Nuggets on a consistent basis. Murray has nice stretches when locked in, but they’re far from frequent. His size doesn’t give him much versatility, and his lack of elite foot speed & athleticism leads to his fair share of lapses on the perimeter. As for Porter, he’s got a really nice frame, but it doesn’t translate to defensive success. His off-ball rotations are all over the place, and on-ball fundamentals tend to be sloppy.

Can you build a championship core around three subpar defenders?

The history of title winning teams would suggest that building around Jokic, Murray, and Porter probably won’t equate to a championship, especially when factoring in durability issues. And if Jokic is untouchable, that puts Murray & Porter’s future with the franchise in question.

One of general manager Calvin Booth’s best moves to date was trading for Aaron Gordon at the 2021 trade deadline, sending Gary Harris, R.J. Hampton, and a protected 2025 first-rounder for the forward. Gordon has completely been unleashed in Denver. A versatile defensive weapon that can roam off-ball and has the size plus athleticism to switch onto a variety of different players. 

Offensively, he was asked to do far too much during his days with the Orlando Magic, but that hasn’t been the case in Denver. In his new role with a more focused scope on play-finishing, Gordon’s efficiency numbers have skyrocketed. He’s thriving as a screener, cutter, part-time slasher, and spot-up shooter. These skills are only enhanced when playing next to Nikola Jokic, and Denver has cut the inefficient pull-ups & pick-and-roll reps from Orlando out of Gordon’s diet.

This type of archetype is exactly what I’d expect Booth and company to target again over the offseason. Guys that can rotate and play well on the defensive end to help cover up for Jokic, and in-turn, Jokic can help elevate them on the offensive end to supreme efficiency in their watered down roles. 

Now that’s not me saying all the on-ball creation can fall on Jokic’s shoulders. Despite my earlier speculation, I think Murray is safe from the trade block unless an opportunity for a grand star arises. Some great offensive player in many facets – including on-ball creation – with more two-way juice than Murray. 

If anyone is falling on the sword, it will be head coach Michael Malone first. He’s done a nice job in Denver thus far, but if ownership is beginning to grow impatient, that’s not great for a lead man in his eighth season. Insiders have even said that a disappointing postseason may have some serious personnel changes to follow.

“I don’t know if it’s championship or bust, but if this team loses before the conference finals, it’s going to be a disappointment. If they lose in the first round, it’s going to be a catastrophe that I think will push some changes.” – NBA Analyst Zach Lowe

So it doesn’t sound like a title or bust year for Denver, but anything short of a Western Conference appearance would be considered a disappointment. Right now, I’m projecting the Nuggets for a round two exit against the Phoenix Suns. 

Even if this projection comes true, maybe I’m jumping the gun by a year on all this shakeup speculation. Perhaps Denver keeps this core intact, adds a piece or two, and they run it back for one more season. In all honesty, it’s extremely dependent on how this postseason run shakes out for them.

At the very least, keep a close eye on Denver. Some people see Jokic’s MVPs and the Nuggets regular season success, thus turning a blind eye to this team making any major noise come offseason time. Make that mistake, and you may find yourself jaw-dropped at some point within the next year and a half.


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