GM: Arturas Karnisovas
Head coach: Mike Malone
2016-17 record: 40-42 (9th in the Eastern Conference)
2016-17 result: Didn’t make the playoffs
Key departures: Danilo Gallinari
Key acquisitions: Paul Millsap, Tyler Lydon, Trey Lyles
The Denver Nuggets made one of the biggest splashes in free agency, signing four-time all-star Paul Millsap to a three-year, $90 million deal.
They did lose Danilo Gallinari, and his 18.2 points a game, in free agency, but signing Millsap should push the Nuggets to the playoffs after they came just a hair short in 2016-17. It’s something that they can blame themselves for after trading Jusuf Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers, the team that would grab their conference’s final playoff spot.
But by moving the Bosnian Beast, it allowed Nikola Jokic to seize his opportunity as one of the game’s most dynamic players, which included six triple-doubles by the end of the 2017-18 season. At 21 years old, he has the 2017-18 season to prove he’s the franchise’s cornerstone, something they haven’t had since the days of Carmelo Anthony.
The Nuggets also have a young star in Jamal Murray and a solid glue guy in Gary Harris, to go along with a pair of dynamic scorers in Will Barton and Wilson Chandler.
While the Nuggets have their eyes set on the playoffs, don’t be surprised if they overachieve behind one of the most complete rosters in the league as they look to break their four-year playoff drought.
Potential Breakout Player
Nikola Jokic might have started to garner attention last season, but at this point he’s only every basketball junkie’s favourite up-and-coming star. And for good reason.
After Jokic was made a permanent starter in December, he went on to post the most complete stat line of any big in the league, with averages of 19.2 points on 58.9 per cent shooting, 10.9 rebounds and 5.8 assists over 51 games. The only person to match those numbers for an entire season is Wilt Chamberlain.
If the former second-round pick can hold that high level production in 2017-18, he should breakout to the national spotlight with at least an all-star appearance and perhaps even a nod on an All-NBA team.
What a successful 2017-18 would look like
After starting the 2016-17 season with a 14-23 record, the Nuggets flipped the switch by going 26-19 in their final 45 games. Only the Warriors, Spurs and Jazz had a better record through that stretch in the West.
Denver should be able to carry off their momentum and benefit from having a perennial all-star next to Jokic. Reaching the postseason would make 2017-18 a successful year, especially with the Timberwolves and Pelicans also looking to get in on the playoff picture.
But if the Nuggets want to focus on themselves to take their team to the next level, they’ll need to up their defence, which in 2016-17 finished second last in defensive rating (110.5), only slightly higher than the Lakers (110.6). The complete opposite of their offence, which finished with the league’s fifth highest rating (110).
The Nuggets need a point guard. Emmanuel Mudiay, their seventh pick in the 2015 Draft, hasn’t worked out, shooting 36.9 per cent from the field over the past two seasons. Jameer Nelson, at 35 years old, is too old to be their starter.
Jamal Murray will need to continue to fill that void for the Nuggets this season, after spending 41 per cent of his minutes last year at point guard. As a rookie, Murray was solid while playing the majority of the time off the bench, averaging 9.9 points which included two performances with at least 25 points. He fits the NBA’s modern mould of a combo guard, and should be the Nuggets’ future on the wing as he forms a one-two punch with Jokic.
But Murray is also better suited as a shooting guard. With Will Barton and Wilson Chandler set to become free agents in the summer of 2018, the Nuggets could try to trade them for a more experienced point guard if they want to make a serious dent in the playoffs.