It’s hard to say something that defines the Denver Nuggets. Young probably best describes them, with Jamal Murray, Emmanuel Mudiay and Nikola Jokic among their key players, and Mike Malone trying to take what he started last season and mold it into a success.
The Nuggets were 33-49 last season. Not too bad, nothing special too, beginning their way back from the awful mistake of believing in the Brian Shaw hype. That hype crashed and burned as players were actually celebrating once he got fired. The Nuggets decided first round playoff exits with George Karl aren’t what they’re looking for, despite the consistency in having him around. Shaw derailed their plans, but pushed them into a quicker rebuild accidentally.
So who is in this rebuild? After a turnover filled season, the expectations are much higher from Emmanuel Mudiay, averaging 5.5 assists per game last season, scoring 12.8 a night. He turned the ball over 3.2 times a game, and that’s where the Nuggets would love to see him improve. Having Jamal Murray next to him, the 7th overall pick in the draft, should help, but it puts the Nuggets in the hands of two inexperienced guards, which could mean exciting things, but also a steep learning curve.
The Nuggets also have someone they feel can become one of the best big men in the league. Nikola Jokic had a very promising rookie season, doing a terrific job in just 21 minutes a night, and posting some of the most impressive per 36 minute numbers among rookies. This season he’s expected to take another step towards consistency and dominance, while the Nuggets focused on the perimeter in the draft, also adding Malik Beasley and Juan Hernangomez of Spain.
Danilo Gallinari, if he finally stays healthy for an entire season, will remain the team’s best finisher and main offensive option. However, with Murray arriving, Mudiay and Jokic a year older, things might be easier for Gallinari, and Malone will slowly shift the offense away from him. It makes the Nuggets more unpredictable, and considering how fragile Gallinari is, it slowly sets up the Nuggets for the day when he’s no longer on the team.
Best Case Scenario
Making the playoffs. It’s always tempting to keep adding more high draft picks and tank a little bit, but I think the Nuggets are in a solid position with their young players, and there should be no calculations about winning less or more. Besides the bottom line of wins and losses, seeing Jokic and Mudiay develop into dependable players, while Murray has a smooth rookie season, Gallinari stays healthy and Kenneth Faried doesn’t miss 15 games while adding a bit to his limited game, will be fantastic for a team that should be on the rise this season. Not a contender, but not too many pieces away from it.
Worst Case Scenario
Jokic doesn’t put up KAT numbers with more minutes, Faried remains the limited, frustrating player he is, Gallinari gets injured again, Mudiay can’t stop turning the ball over and Murray struggles to co-exist with Mudiay in the backcourt. Missing the playoffs isn’t a disaster if the Nuggets see they’re on the right track. Having a season of middling results and zero progress personnel-wise could throw the Nuggets into another spin of making too many changes very quickly.