The Denver Nuggets are ready to level up

The Nuggets have been steadily improving for the past four seasons, culminating in 54 wins and a No. 2 seed last season. And they’re just getting started.

Michael Malone has been the head coach of the Nuggets for four seasons. Over that time, they’ve shown steady improvement with each passing season, raising their win total, pace-adjusted point differential (Net-Rating), and schedule-adjusted point differential (Basketball-Reference‘s Simple Rating System) from one year to the next.

The progression has been steady, with the Nuggets raising their win total by three in Malone’s first season (from 30 to 33), then seven in his second (to 40), sixth in his third (to 46), and eight in his fourth season (to 54), when they finally made the playoffs as the Northwest Division champions and Western Conference’s No. 2 seed. Denver has slowly climbed from the deep negatives in pace and schedule-adjusted point differential to being plus-4 or better in both, making the Nuggets one of the top teams in the league last season.

via Basketball-Reference

Any team progressing as this Nuggets squad did over the course of four years would be impressive; doing it with players as young as Denver has is almost unheard of. The Nuggets had a minutes-weighted age of just 24.9 years last season. A team with that age profile, according to my Wins Above Age-Derived Expectation (WAADE) metric, would be “expected” to win 33.68 games in an average season. Instead, these Nuggets won 54. Their 20.32 WAADE ranked 28th out of 1,170 team seasons since 1977. That’s ridiculous.

The Nuggets are returning almost the entire core of last year’s team for the 2019-20 season, with NBA.com’s John Schuhmann noting that they are currently set to bring back players who accounted for 92 percent of their minutes played a year ago — most in the league.

With the Nuggets still presumably on the upswing as their core ages into its prime, it’s worth asking the question of what it might look like if they actually level up from their performance a year ago — and what it would take for them to get there. Luckily for the Nuggets’ sake, there are clear avenues to improvement on both sides of the ball.

Let’s start with defense, if only because it’s there that personnel figures to play the largest role. Simply getting healthier seasons from a few of their better defensive players like Paul Millsap (12 missed games, 17 missed starts) and Gary Harris (25 missed games, 34 missed starts) should provide a higher baseline. Even having an average-ish defender like Will Barton (39 missed games, 44 missed starts) around more often will help by not necessitating that the Nuggets be quite as small on the perimeter quite as often. Similarly, not having a 12-game stretch where Isaiah Thomas is shoe-horned into the rotation should alleviate some of the issues that cropped up toward the middle of last season.

And replacing the minutes played by Trey Lyles with minutes for recently-acquired Jerami Grant should provide an even bigger boost. Grant is the kind of player the Nuggets did not really have in their front-court — a long-armed uber-athlete who covers large swaths of the floor and can easily play next to either of their starting big men on both ends of the floor. His ability to slide over for help-side blocks plays next to Jokic, as does his ability to play on the perimeter. His length and quickness play next to Millsap, as that duo can be a bit switchier than when Jokic is in the game.

Grant has been an important piece for the Thunder defense over the past couple years, and though his role figures to be a bit smaller in Denver, he should be a big help. His length and quickness should especially aid the Nuggets in forcing turnovers, which along with interior defense seems like the area with the greatest potential for improvement. Cutting off access to the rim and spending more time with a shot-blocker patrolling the paint will help on both fronts.

Denver’s offense was a bit better than its defense last season (sixth in the NBA vs. 10th, per Basketball-Reference), but there might actually be more room for improvement on that side of the ball.

First of all, Nikola Jokic should only get better. He is already perhaps the best passing big man in the history of the game, a facilitator from all areas of the floor like nobody we have ever seen. As he grows more confident in his perimeter jumper, post moves, and ball-handling, he should have even freer access to the most dangerous areas of the court, and in turn, should be able to create even more efficient shots for himself and his teammates.

Jokic’s chemistry with Jamal Murray on pick-and-rolls is already wonderful, and the two should continue to develop their mind-meld as they spend more and more time on the floor together. Murray also has room to grow as a pull-up shooting threat and pick and roll passer, and the Nuggets dotting the floor with even more threats with better health (Millsap, Harris, Barton, and potentially Michael Porter Jr.) should help him find his groove.

There’s plenty of room for Harris and Barton to have more efficient seasons with full health. Monte Morris is now heading into Year 3 and is a definitive part of the rotation. Malik Beasley is, too. If any or all of the young players improve, Millsap should be more open, more often, and see his shooting numbers rebound.

The Nuggets can also just take better shots. They ranked only 15th in the league in effective field goal percentage last season, and that was with a largely subpar shot distribution. Denver ranked 12th in the percentage of its shots that came within three feet of the rim, and 17th in the percentage of its shots that came from beyond the 3-point line. Nudge both of those numbers into the top 10 and your offense is better for it. (As an added bonus, taking shots from those areas of the floor could even help the Nuggets boost their already-league-best offensive rebound rate.)

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Perhaps the greatest area of potential improvement for this team on either side of the ball, though, is their free-throw rate. Denver had the fourth-lowest free-throw rate in the entire league last season, ahead of only the Magic, Heat, and Celtics. If they can find a way to get to the line — and thus win free points — more often, that could take the offense from very good to elite. For a player as dominant as he is, Jokic needs to be trudging to the line more than 4.4 times a night. Murray needs to improve his dribble-drive attack and come up with more than 3.0 free-throw attempts per game. Attacking the rim more often in an effort to get those close-in shots will help, and if they can draw the fouls early, they’ll spend more time in the bonus, thus earning even more free points.

All of these things are achievable for the Nuggets. Improvement isn’t typically linear for players, let alone teams, but it has been for this group. If they can keep up the trend, they can be even better by next summer.

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