The Denver Nuggets Are Only Beginning Their Assault On The Western Conference

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After Denver lost Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals, there was a popular narrative that the Nuggets had squandered the best chance of getting into the NBA’s final four, derailing some of their momentum heading into the offseason.

Although it may be true that Denver missed an opportunity against an injured Portland team, that’s an unfortunate oversimplification of a fantastic Nuggets season, one that puts that them in excellent position moving forward. While the rest of the league began the season looking at Utah as the next best team in the West, now it seems like everyone was just ignoring the sleeping giant in the room. The Warriors and Rockets may rule today, but Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets are the team of the future, and they’re already better than most teams in the present.

The Nuggets hadn’t made the playoffs since 2013 entering this season, when they served as a sacrificial lamb to a then up-and-coming Golden State group. They missed the postseason in 2017 and 2018 by one game, were roundly ridiculed for trading the pick that became Donovan Mitchell, and didn’t do anything to upgrade their roster this summer. Instead, Denver traded draft picks to shed salary in the form of Wilson Chandler, Darrell Arthur, and Kenneth Faried while selecting Michael Porter, Jr. with their first-round pick, a player who didn’t see the court for a single minute this season.

What the Nuggets did do was ink Jokic to an extension and choose to rely on their internal improvement to propel the team forward. And it has worked supremely well. Regardless of the outcome of Denver’s second-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers, this season has been a resounding success, both for how the Nuggets have performed now and how they have set themselves up for the future.

First of all, Denver has Jokic, who was a top-5 player in this postseason after a regular season that may have put him on the top five of the MVP ballot. He was able to control the pace during the playoffs, using five fewer possessions per 48 minutes than he did during the first 82 games, which allowed him to be on the court more often. Jokic’s shooting was better, he assisted more frequently, and he turned the ball over less, all against opponents who had the opportunity to scheme specifically for him.

Then there’s Jamal Murray, the Robin to Jokic’s Batman. Murray demonstrated that no moment was too big for him in the playoffs, whether that was the Nuggets facing a potential 2-0 deficit in the first round on their homecourt or needing game-saving free throws in Portland in Game 4. He took over a larger share of the offense in the playoffs while maintaining his efficiency and arguably winning his matchup with Damian Lillard in the Western Semifinals, something nobody saw coming after Lillard’s tour de force in round one.

Jokic and Murray are the tandem to beat among young players in the NBA. They have unrelenting offensive firepower in large part to their funky inverted pick-and-roll combination and have proven competent enough defensively despite their physical limitations. Denver’s extension talks with Murray this offseason should start and end fairly quickly, as the former Kentucky Wildcat is arguably more accomplished than his peers who have already earned maximum contracts.

Then, there’s the rest of the deep Nuggets roster, starting with the ever-so-smooth Gary Harris. Torrey Craig proved worthy of a rotation role on the wing, though Denver would be happier moving him to the bench and finding a player more capable of providing spacing around the Murray-Jokic two-man game. Will Barton is probably slightly overpaid as a microwave scorer, but his willingness to move to the bench and still contribute during the postseason suggests a strong Nuggets culture that prioritizes team. There’s also everyone’s favorite backup point guard Monte Morris and his overwhelming efficiency.

Unlike so many other playoff teams who are currently playing with tremendous stakes, such as the entire Eastern Conference, the Nuggets core is locked in. Murray is up for an extension, but Denver exercises full control, as it does with Paul Millsap’s team option. The highest-salaried player entering free agency is Trey Lyles, who is restricted and has been almost completely excised from the rotation.

Due to their offseason maneuvering last year, the Nuggets have the flexibility to add real depth pieces this offseason as well, both through the mid-level exception and the trade exceptions they created from Chandler and Faried. Wings are always in short supply in the NBA, but someone like Bojan Bogdanovic or Rodney Hood could make a lot of sense in Denver. Veteran free agents like to join up-and-coming franchises where they can be the missing piece, like David West in Indiana or Andre Iguodala in Golden State. The Nuggets fit that template to a tee.

Denver had the talent to get past Portland, and this loss will loom as a missed opportunity. But the Nuggets have shown over the past few years that they are able to build on their past experiences and grow from failure. They have another opportunity to do so next season, and with a collection of talent that rivals almost any team in the league. This has been a rough week for Denver, but better days are on the way.