Last year went pretty well for the Denver Nuggets. Despite a laundry list of injuries, namely in the backcourt, the team made its way to the second round of the postseason behind the trio of Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, and 2020-21 NBA MVP Nikola Jokic. Entering this year without Jamal Murray for some period of time, there seems to be optimism that the Nuggets can continue to build on what it has so that when Murray gets back into the fold, their hat will be tossed in the ring with the other teams that have hopes of winning a championship. So long as Jokic is in town and playing at the level he’s capable of reaching, that’ll be the expectation, and the big man is more than capable of getting them to the promised land some day. Could 2021-22 be that day? It might be hard without Murray for a lengthy stretch, but these Nuggets are good, nonetheless.
Petr Corneilie (two-way)
Michael Porter Jr
Projected Vegas Win Total: 47.5 wins
Biggest Addition: Jeff Green
Unless you’re a huge fan of rookie guard Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland (which, his name is BONES HYLAND and he’s quite good, so no one would blame you), the team’s biggest addition is Green. A perpetually steady hand who can provide them good minutes in just about any role, Green can slide into the starting lineup at the 4 or give them backup 5 minutes to keep Nikola Jokic a little fresher ahead of next postseason. With how much the Nuggets decided to lean into running it back, Green is a safe option here.
Biggest Loss: Jamal Murray
Paul Millsap is the biggest free agent loss, but man, potentially not having Murray for this entire season stinks. It was in a very small sample size, but following the Aaron Gordon trade last year, Denver looked like it was going to be a straight-up juggernaut. And then, Murray tore his ACL in April. Perhaps he’ll be able to return at some point this year, but even if he does, it’s hard to fully imagine him coming back and being Jamal Murray right away. On that note…
Biggest Question: How high is this team’s ceiling without Murray, or with a rusty Murray?
Denver is far more well-equipped to survive without Murray than it was last year, when its backcourt was super worn down by the time the second round of the playoffs rolled around. There is more than enough here — between their guards and the ability that guys like Nikola Jokic (definitely) and Aaron Gordon (as a complimentary piece) have as playmakers — to be able to win a ton of games while he’s out and as he’s getting himself back up to speed post-injury.
The question, though, is whether he’ll be able to contribute to the point that Denver can be a legitimate title contender. At his best — with Jokic doing everything he does, Michael Porter Jr. providing nuclear scoring, and Gordon doing all the stuff he does on both ends of the floor — Murray is such a perfect fit in this offense that it’s hard to imagine anyone stopping them all that consistently. But coming back from a torn ACL takes time, both in getting onto the floor and finding your form once you’re on it. Perhaps this means Denver won’t be a legitimate title contender until 2022-23, which would be totally fine. Without Murray, though, they should still be a very good team, one that does not need to play-in tournament to make the postseason.
What Makes This Season A Success: Championship contenders. This doesn’t necessarily win a ring. Heck, Denver can probably afford to make the playoffs and lose in the first round depending on the matchup they draw and how well they play. But they need to be in the hunt for a championship and look like a team that, when fully functional, is right there with anyone.
What Makes This Season A Failure: A wholly unconvincing year. Maybe Nikola Jokic can’t get back to being an MVP-level player. Maybe Michael Porter Jr.’s contract talks linger and he seems distracted all year. Maybe Aaron Gordon falls back into some of his bad habits from Orlando, or Jamal Murray doesn’t come back at all, while none of their role players do more than tread water. This is still a playoff team almost regardless — Jokic is just that good — but “playoff team” and “championship contender” are two things, and it’d be a failure if Denver doesn’t look like it’s trending towards the latter.