Coming off a surprise run to the conference finals, the Denver Nuggets are in the thick of the West’s top tier. Can they meet these new expectations?
1. Who leads the Nuggets in scoring this season — Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray or Michael Porter Jr.?
Murray. His performance in The Bubble was incredible: 26.5 points and 6.6 assists per game on a red-hot .505/.453/.897 shooting line over 19 playoff games. He was precisely what the Denver Nuggets needed in a half-court shot creator, and to maintain that level of volume and efficiency for that long is no joke.
Other than the ridiculous 3-point clip, nothing about Murray’s performance seems unsustainable. He’s always had the smooth moves and slick handle to be that primetime scorer; we just needed to see it more often. Three high-stakes playoff series provided plenty of evidence that his best stuff is here to stay — and that it could get even better.
2. Which offseason departure will the Nuggets feel more: Jerami Grant or Torrey Craig?
Grant. He was the closest thing Denver had to a switchable defender, and the front office did everything it could to retain him. He simply wanted a bigger role with the Detroit Pistons. His absence will be felt most in the playoffs, when the Nuggets hope to be battling with the big boys at the top of the West. He was by no means a LeBron James stopper, but he was their best option to defend those superstar wings.
Attempting to replace him will be Paul Millsap, who re-upped with Denver for one year and $10 million. His age and skill-set don’t exactly line up with the rest of the team’s, but he’s a 4 who can somewhat defend, somewhat shoot and somewhat fill the Grant role. Millsap isn’t the most ideal fit at this point in his career, but he’s a quality veteran who is now on a modest deal.
3. Is this finally the season Jamal Murray becomes an established star?
Based on my answer to No. 1, this is a yes. He finally seems ready to put it all together.
The counting stats won’t bolster this argument — the most generous projections have him approaching an average of 22 points per game — but late-game scenarios will. He will be “The Guy” for Denver — the ball-handler who can score from all three levels and make plays for others. In crunch time, Murray will be the man the Nuggets count on.
4. How do you think Nikola Jokic turned into skinny Nikola Jokic? (And could it be a new fad diet?)
The Jokic we saw in the NBA bubble was pretty awesome. He looked much more spry and mobile, able to keep up with various defensive coverages while carrying a solid secondary scoring role on offense.
Like Murray’s improvements, Jokic’s seem sustainable. Even before this slim-down, the Joker was capable of significant workloads, most notably two 45-minute outings in 2018. The numbers don’t lie: Even when looking goofy or out of shape (by NBA standards), he’s a top-3 center in the world.
How’d he do it? Sometimes the biggest dietary changes come from simply eliminating the bad. According to ESPN’s Zach Lowe, he drank three liters of Coca-Cola per day before coming stateside. It’s not crazy to assume that wasn’t his only vice, and that other parts of his daily portion were modified when the NBA season shut down.
Joker, like many stars, is also famous for playing himself into shape midseason. Maybe shutting the season down, with several weeks or months elapsing before the NBA and NBPA agreed on a return date, forced him to treat it like an extended season (with controlled rest).
Maybe it was just a random circumstance of the pandemic, and we’ll never get Skinny Jokic again. That’s okay too. Whatever gets him out of bed is good enough for us.
5. This season Gary Harris will be ______.
Healthy. Recent evidence isn’t on his side, as he’s missed at least 15 games each of the last four seasons, but a long break before and after the bubble equates to a very long offseason for the oft-injured Harris. He’s ready to go for opening night, and the Nuggets will be glad to have him.
Harris makes a lot of sense in Denver’s lineup. He’s a pesky defender who sticks with his man constantly, and his impact on that end was evident early in the LA Clippers series. Offensively, he’s a great fit just by being a hyperactive cutter; Jokic will find you if you’re open. Add in a capable and willing trigger (36.0 percent career 3-point shooter on 4.1 attempts per game), and you’ve got an ideal complementary piece — if healthy.