Tuesday, June 18, 2024
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What’s next for Nuggets? Why there are no big changes — or easy answers — coming in Denver

The key to beating Nikola Jokic, prior to the 2024 postseason, had been to beat his teammates. When the Nuggets lost to the Portland Trail Blazers in 2019, they did so despite winning the minutes Jokic spent on the floor in that series. For as ballyhooed as their 3-1 comeback over the Clippers was a year later, that series might not have even gone seven if the Nuggets could have just survived Jokic’s rest minutes. He played the 2021 postseason without Jamal Murray. In 2022, he was without both Murray and Michael Porter Jr.

For the past half-decade or so, that was all you could really hope for against the Nuggets. If Jokic and his team were at full strength, he’d clobber you and you could only hope to clobber his teammates harder when he went to the bench. If those teammates were hurt? Then you might have a shot after all. That — and the fact that the Nuggets had a 20-point lead in the second half of Game 7 — is what makes Denver’s second-round loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves so jarring. There’s no caveat here. Minnesota didn’t win this series when Jokic rested. Jamal Murray was playing hurt, sure, but at least he was playing. Every Nugget in the rotation was available to play in all seven games of this series. Jokic had his teammates. It didn’t make a difference. The Timberwolves didn’t just beat the Nuggets. They beat the best version of the Nuggets.

Denver’s starting lineup of Jokic, Murray, Porter, Aaron Gordon and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has been more or less infallible since it was assembled. It has outscored opponents by a combined 483 points across the past two regular seasons. It won its minutes in last year’s playoff series against the Suns, Lakers and Heat by 69 combined points, and in this year’s first-round series against the Lakers, it outscored Los Angeles by 27 points while on the floor. The one slight blemish? Last year’s first-round series against the Timberwolves. Denver’s starters lost their minutes to the Timberwolves by a single point in the 2023 playoffs. This time around? Denver’s starters were outscored by 50 total points in the first six games.

This creates something of an existential crisis for the Nuggets. There’s not an easy answer for them. They aren’t like the Knicks, who can shrug and say, “well, next year we’ll be healthier.” They aren’t like the Thunder, either. They didn’t lose to outlandish 3-point variance, and they don’t have a clearly fixable hole like the Thunder do with rebounding. 

Even if they did, they don’t really have the resources to fix it. They owe first-round picks to other teams in 2025, 2027 and 2029. They can still trade their 2031 pick as well as their 2024 pick after draft night, but those are relatively meager assets especially when you consider how little tradable salary they have. Outside of their starting five, their biggest salary next season belongs to Zeke Nnaji at just under $9 million. You probably aren’t getting a difference-maker in that salary range. Even if you could, the Nuggets are already over next season’s projected second apron, so there are a whole mess of new rules geared specifically towards preventing Denver from upgrading.

In all likelihood, Denver is going to bring back a version of the same roster next season. That roster, at something resembling its best beyond Murray’s injured calf, just got outplayed, plain and simple, by a Minnesota team it will probably have to face again next postseason. The answers here are going to have to be internal.

And, well, the Nuggets tried to prepare for that eventuality. Their bench is overwhelmingly young. Christian Braun, Peyton Watson and Julian Strawther have five combined years of experience. Rookies Jalen Pickett and Hunter Tyson barely played this season, but remember, Watson barely played during the 2023 title run. Denver is used to bringing youngsters along slowly. They traded future draft capital for extra picks last June with an eye on developing a whole batch of young players to serve as their depth during this championship window. 

From that perspective, this loss was a tad predictable. Those young players are still in the earliest stages of their careers, yet Denver needed them to fill in for Bruce Brown and Jeff Green, who left in free agency. They obviously weren’t prepared to do so. That doesn’t mean they won’t be next season. If you were to chart out Denver’s expected trajectory over the next five years starting last summer, you probably would have picked this season as the lowest point, not because they weren’t capable of repeating as champions, but because their youth was designed less to maximize this year’s odds and more to keep the window open as long as possible.

Of course, depth didn’t cost Denver the Minnesota series. Their starters lost to Minnesota’s starters. That’s where this gets a bit more complicated, and the answer becomes something as simultaneously simple and unsolvable as “they need to play better.” Denver is paying Porter Jr. a max salary primarily for his offense. He’s never averaged even 18 points per game in the postseason, and was well below that during their championship run at 13.4 points per game. The Nuggets need him to generate more of his own shots rather than relying strictly on the system. Their 3-point volume as a team needs to improve. Their offensive rating fell all the way to No. 9 this season because they took the fewest 3’s in the NBA. They weren’t much better at getting to the line either, ranking 29th in the NBA in free-throw attempts.

These aren’t major changes, but they aren’t easy fixes, either. They require intention. The Nuggets became such a stable juggernaut over the past few seasons that it would be hard to deny that they developed a bit of complacency. Think of all of their frantic, flip-the-switch comebacks. It’d be easy to miss the occasional flaw in an otherwise perfect system. The Nuggets didn’t improve over the course of the year because they didn’t need to.

Well, now they need to. They lost to the better team in Minnesota, and if they want to correct that next season, they have to start by finding the best version of themselves.

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