The Nuggets are getting close, but they’re not there yet. With a foundation around Nikola Jokic set, where do the Nuggets go from here? Welcome to our offseason roundtable, with Nuggets beat writer Mike Singer, deputy sports editor Matt Schubert and columnist Mark Kiszla answer six pressing questions facing the franchise.
What did you learn about Michael Porter Jr. on the heels of his second full season in the NBA? How much did his tweaked back play a part in his second-round struggles against Phoenix, and where does his game need to improve the most dramatically? Most importantly, should the Nuggets give him an early max extension?
Singer: I think Porter’s tweaked back hampered him far more than the second-year forward was letting on. Does that mean a healthy Porter could’ve done anything more to stop Phoenix from exploiting him in the pick-and-roll? Simon says: probably not. Porter made significant strides on both ends of the court this season, and outside of the Phoenix series, he was healthy and durable. Though no one with the team would ever admit it, Porter getting attacked isn’t the worst thing to happen to him. One, it highlights the need to improve his mobility and defensive acumen. Two, after Murray went down, this wasn’t the year when the stakes were the highest. The Nuggets tend to hammer out negotiations early. Call it a show of good faith. I’d expect something similar to happen with Porter.
Schubert: MPJ’s offensive potential is as sky-high as we’d imagined — if not higher. The shot is pure. The confidence is supreme. And the ability to create off-ball opportunities vis-à-vis Nikola Jokic dimes is promising. The ball-handling and post game need work, but this is a second-year player we’re talking about. Of course things need work. Which brings us to MPJ’s biggest issue: Opponents hunting mismatches against him on the defensive end. Did Porter’s back tweak have something to do with Phoenix’s laser focus on exploiting Porter’s defensive limitations? Perhaps. But it’s hardly a new development. That, coupled with warranted injury concerns, gives me pause about offering an early max extension. Would it really be so bad to wait until restricted free agency in 2022?
Kiszla: We all love MPJ. There aren’t five shooters in the NBA who own a sweeter long-range jumper than Porter. But the rest of his game? It can be a hot mess. His handle is suspect, so weak it has prevented him from adding any truly dangerous slashing or post-up isolation to his offensive arsenal. He complements Jokic extremely well, and that alone could make Porter an integral piece of the starting lineup for years to come. But at this point in his young career, MPJ is closer to being a taller version of Bojan Bogdanovic than anything resembling a replica of Klay Thompson. On defense, he dives in and gets beat instead of moving his feet. MPJ will improve, because his desire to be great is genuine. I like my star players to bring more of an edge to the floor, though. So here’s my bottom line: I do love MPJ, but my fondness wouldn’t stop me from shopping him in trade.
We saw two-plus months of Aaron Gordon since Denver’s March 25 deadline deal. For two weeks following the trade, the Nuggets internally believed they were title contenders. After Jamal Murray tore his ACL, the season took on a different perspective. What were your impressions of Gordon, and did he show you he can be a part of a championship core? Would the Nuggets be wise to reach an extension with him now, while the price may be lower?
Singer: I think a lot of people were surprised at how limited Gordon’s offensive game was, especially in the Phoenix series. I’m confident his showing didn’t sit well with him, either. It seemed like most of his points came via transition, off-ball movement and the offensive glass. If he can come back with a trustworthy 3-point shot, and dedicate time to his post game instead of relying on low-percentage fadeaways, his offensive game will take on a new dimension. Defensively, I think he did exactly what the Nuggets needed him to do. My gut says extension talks would only get serious if the Nuggets were comfortable starting at $20 million per year. There’s always the possibility of a shorter deal, too, as both sides continue to learn each other.
Schubert: If the idea is to get Gordon on the most reasonable deal possible, now might be the time to strike — after his value took a hit with a shaky second-round performance against Phoenix. It’s pretty clear what Gordon is at this point: A high-value role player who probably shouldn’t be much more than the fourth option on the offensive end. There is real utility in that sort of player — one who makes the right cuts, knocks down the occasional corner 3 and makes life difficult for the opponent’s top offensive threat on the other end. If the Nuggets can get him slightly below the $20 million-a-year deal the Pistons bizarrely threw at Jerami Grant, they should pull the trigger.
Kiszla: I miss Grant, but not nearly as much as the Nuggets do. If you tell me Grant was bound and determined to get out of Denver and refuse to assign any blame to Tim Connelly for watching him take the money in Detroit, I won’t quibble at this point. Then again … the loss of Murray was indeed devastating, but I think the championship make-up of this roster had already vanished when Grant and Torrey Craig left town. I’ve got nothing against Gordon, other than he’s not more than an average NBA starter. When the Nuggets pushed their chips to the middle of the table and acquired him at the trade deadline, I applauded the move. Nevertheless, I was thoroughly underwhelmed by his contributions. Gordon seemed incapable of stepping up in any truly meaningful way to fill holes when Murray was forced to the sideline. I think it’s OK to be disappointed, as well as OK for the Nuggets to admit they gambled and lost. My vote? Hard pass on an extension.
Michael Malone has led the Nuggets to, at least, the second round of the playoffs on three consecutive seasons. They’re the only team in the Western Conference to have earned home-court advantage in the last three years. His star players, Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, both sing his praises. And yet, he was the first to admit, Phoenix’s Monty Williams outcoached him. After six seasons, where does Malone need to improve?
Singer: I think Malone did a fantastic job with the patchwork group of guys he had to end the regular season and playoffs. It’s why I voted him third for Coach of the Year. You can criticize the Nuggets’ inability to solve Chris Paul, although I’m not sure Denver had the personnel to do so anyway. Perhaps using JaVale McGee earlier in the series might’ve made a difference. Who knows? In general, I think Malone is a bit too regimented, both with the guys he relies on and his rotations. McGee is one example. Perhaps Zeke Nnaji warranted more of a look this year, too. I’m not suggesting it’s easy to coach in the flow of a game, but I think he could stand to take more risks throughout the day-in, day-out grind of the season.
Schubert: In Malone’s defense, it’s pretty easy to outcoach a guy who’s missing the second-best player on his roster. (Something Monty has done twice now against the Lakers and Nuggets, respectively). My only complaint with Malone is the same one I’ve always had, and it’s one that’s hardly unique to the Nuggets head coach: His leash is way too short with his young players. Zeke Nnaji should’ve seen much more time on the court than what he received this year. And given what we saw from Markus Howard in the playoffs, one might argue the same thing about the Marquette guard.
Kiszla: I’m a huge Malone fan. He has worked to form a strong bond with Joker, absolutely essential when there’s a legit superstar on the roster. George Karl liked to remind his stars he owned the hammer, a stance naturally born of male ego, but often counterproductive to building a championship dynamic. Malone understands Jokic can send his message to the locker room far more effectively than the words uttered in a coach’s halftime speech. The natural feistiness of Malone, however, does establish a put-up-or-shut-up mentality embraced by a team in our fly-over NBA city. But can Malone improve? No question. In defeat, he plays the lack-of-professional-effort card too often. Careful, Michael. Throw players under the bus too often and they’ll start tuning you out.
Will Barton and JaMychal Green both have player options this offseason. Barton returned midway through the Phoenix series and gave the offense a jolt. Green had a turbulent year with regard to his role, but was a steady, veteran presence nonetheless. Which player matters more to the Nuggets moving forward?
Singer: I’m going to say Green. The Nuggets need some nasty, and I think Green is poised to have a bounceback season assuming he has a clearer role. The musical chairs of he, Paul Millsap and McGee did not work. Joker has said Green’s the type of guy he wants to play with his whole career. That is not light praise. And as important as Barton has been to the Nuggets’ culture, he sounded eager to see what awaited in free agency. If P.J. Dozier can assume a larger role, and MPJ can take another offensive leap, the Nuggets might be able to replace Barton’s scoring. But Barton’s player option is worth $14.6 million. After a slew of injuries, that won’t be easy to leave on the table.
Schubert: Not to answer a question with a question, but there’s a couple of things I’d like to know first: 1) Is P.J. Dozier ready to take on a larger role, perhaps maybe even start full-time, next year? And, similarly, 2) Is Zeke Nnaji ready to take over a spot in the big man rotation? If the answer to one or both of those questions is “yes,” then you’d have my answer. Without knowing for certain, however, I’d have to lean toward Barton. The Nuggets are going to have to find a way to survive without Jamal Murray for the first six months of the season, and Barton’s ability to work off Nikola Jokic in the high pick-and-roll might be the closest thing Denver has to replicating Murray and Joker’s exquisite two-man chemistry.
Kiszla: OK, call me a fool rushing in, but I ain’t afraid to answer the question. Green is my answer, without a doubt. At roughly $10 million per year, he can bring a team that needs more toughness real bang for the buck. The Nuggets under-utilized Green this past season, if you ask me. Barton is a fearless competitor and can get white-hot offensively when on a roll. But his injury history is sketchy at best. So please don’t take this as criticism of Will the Thrill: We all want to be loved, and sometimes the only way to feel loved in pro sports is by admiring the big numbers in your paycheck. So here’s guessing Barton would rather get big bucks in Sacramento or Minnesota than play a secondary role with the Nuggets.
Austin Rivers, Facu Campazzo, Monte Morris, Shaq Harrison and Markus Howard made up the motliest backcourt in the entire NBA. Rivers was a promising story for several months but is now an unrestricted free agent. Should Denver bring him back, and if so, can the Nuggets survive on this backcourt until Murray returns next season?
Singer: Rivers practically won them a game in the Portland series. To go from out of the league, to winning a playoff game on the road, is a stunning about-face for the feisty guard. It was never about talent with Rivers. It was more about attitude and perception. The Nuggets were pleased to sign a guard eager to improve his reputation. Rivers told me earlier this season he loves it in Denver and would like to be here moving forward. Given how strapped the Nuggets will likely be in free agency, I’d bet he’s back. A healthy offseason and a backcourt of Monte Morris, Facu Campazzo, Dozier and Rivers, could probably survive a few months in the regular season, even if it didn’t hold up in the playoffs.
Schubert: As noted in my answer above, finding a way to survive the non-Murray months is likely the biggest challenge the Nuggets will face next season. Rivers was a decent stop-gap for a couple of months, but there’s also a reason he’s bounced around the NBA as much as he has. Could it be that he hadn’t found the right landing spot, and that the Nuggets’ culture was exactly what he needed to thrive? The last two months suggest that may be the case. That being said, if the Nuggets are confident Dozier and Barton can maintain their health, I’m not sure Rivers is worth more to Denver than a bargain-level deal.
Kiszla: OK, let’s start here. Rivers can fall prey to large swings between big clanking swagger and self doubt of Hamlet proportions. He’s a fascinating person, whose need for love after being abandoned by the league makes Rivers desperate to prove he can fit in. The holes in his skill set begin to get exposed at anything beyond 20 minutes per game. But I really like Rivers as a key role player off the bench, for both his quick hands on defense and a jumper that sizzles when cooking. I think Rivers is prepared to accept being just one of the boys in the band, in a way Gary Harris was not when the Nuggets traded him to Orlando.
It feels strange to omit the MVP of the season in an offseason roundtable. Anybody have any strong feelings about Nikola Jokic bypassing the Olympics in favor of rest, or should we just let Joker disappear into the Serbian offseason?
Singer: Let the man go quietly in his chariot!
Schubert: Outside of letting himself go with a two-month horse-and-vodka bender, Nikola can do whatever he wants. There probably isn’t a man on the planet who’s played more basketball than him over the past 10 months. If he doesn’t feel like he has the energy to devote another summer to championship-level basketball, who am I to judge?
Kiszla: Joker did the absolutely best thing for himself and the Nuggets by making the tough call not to play this summer for his beloved Serbia. During these playoffs, we’ve seen too many strong players break down under the strain of too much basketball on insufficient rest and recovery time. Winning another Olympic medal would’ve been cool, but it couldn’t ease the agony of Jokic going down with a serious injury in December or January.
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