NBA Season Preview 2019-20: The 5 biggest questions for the Denver Nuggets

Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images
Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images /

While the rest of the Western Conference made major changes over the summer, the Denver Nuggets opted for continuity and internal growth. Here are their five biggest questions for 2019-20.

1. The Nuggets finish     th in defensive efficiency this season.

Long answer: Measuring by league-wide rankings for defensive rating, the Nuggets made a massive leap last season, when their 10th-best defense improved leaps and bounds over their 23rd-ranked D in 2017-18. Despite jumping 13 spots in the league-wide rankings, however, their actual defensive rating only improved from 110.0 to 108.1.

The NBA‘s increased focus on faster pace, 3-point shooting and high-powered offenses means it’s taken less defense to rise up the ranks in defensive efficiency with each passing year. For example, the 108.1 points per 100 possessions Denver surrendered last year would’ve ranked 16th in 2017-18, and tied for 15th in 2016-17.

All of which is to say, accounting for another slight uptick in pace, 3-point attempts and ever-advancing offenses, the Nuggets could hover around the same mark — or even slightly improve — as long as Paul Millsap only misses 10-20 games, Gary Harris suits up for more than 57 contests this time and Jerami Grant is incorporated properly.

Short answer: Let’s say 10th again. The Milwaukee Bucks, Utah Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder, Miami Heat and Orlando Magic — top-10 defenses last year — probably aren’t going anywhere. The Philadelphia 76ers (ranked 14th) added Al Horford and Josh Richardson. The Los Angeles Clippers (19th) bagged Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, while the Los Angeles Lakers, despite all their question marks, were actually a respectable 13th in D-rating. Throw in a surprise team or two and the Nuggets will probably be on the fringe of top-10 territory again.

2. Who is the third-most important player on the Nuggets this season?

Assuming Jamal Murray follows up Nikola Jokic as Denver’s two most important players, the answer here is pretty easily Gary Harris. Grant is an incoming X-factor (especially if he can log minutes at the vacant 3-spot) and Michael Porter Jr. could be a secret weapon depending on what he’s ready to contribute, but Harris is what will elevate the Nuggets from the talented regular season upstart they were in 2018-19 to a legitimate Western powerhouse.

Last season, Harris missed 25 games due to injury, only started in 48 of the 57 contests he appeared in and largely underwhelmed on both ends of the floor before finding more of a groove in the postseason. His regular season numbers fell off across the board compared to his borderline breakout season the year before:

  • 2017-18 Gary Harris: 17.5 PPG in 34.4 MPG, .485/.396/.827 shooting splits
  • 2018-19 Gary Harris: 12.9 PPG in 28.8 MPG, .424/.339/.799 shooting splits

Imagine Denver’s seventh-ranked offense, only with a healthier, more potent Harris. Imagine if he goes back to near-40 percent accuracy from 3-point range, and now put an equally efficient Jerami Grant alongside him. Opposing defenses will have no chance, and that’s saying nothing of the stifling D Harris can provide on the other end. The gap between Denver’s ceiling and its floor is Gary Harris-sized.

3. One year from today, how are Nuggets fans feeling about Jamal Murray?

Like he’s their second-best player, and a legitimate franchise cornerstone. Skeptics have harped on his extremely hit-or-miss postseason, his defensive shortcomings and his production coming on volume, but Murray is only 22 years old. It was just his third year in the league and his first trip to the playoffs, and he still managed to up his production despite facing an unfamiliar pressure.

In the regular season, Murray posted career highs in points (18.2), assists (4.8) and rebounds per game (4.2). He upped those numbers to 21.3 points, 4.7 assists and 4.4 rebounds a night in the playoffs despite uneven performances, late turnovers and his efficiency dipping to 42.5 percent from the field and 33.7 percent from downtown.

Heading into year four, Murray no longer faces the questions about his facilitation and point guard skills, since he’s improved and Jokic has that front covered anyway. He can simply focus on producing with more efficiency, refining that long-range touch and becoming Denver’s go-to scorer. With the playoff ice broken and a five-year, $170 million max contract under Murray’s belt, the Nuggets are going to empower their young bucket-getter. More than likely, it’s going to pay off.

4. Two years ago, Jerami Grant made 29.1 percent of his 3s. Last year, he made 39.2 percent. What’s his 3-point percentage this season?

We’ll set the bar at 37.5 percent. That 39.2 percent feels entirely unsustainable, especially without an attacking fiend like Russell Westbrook sucking defenses in on every foray to the rim.

However, Jokic is more than adept as a playmaker, and while a near-40 percent conversion rate isn’t going to happen again, Grant proved his 3-point progress wasn’t some fluke, as he jumped from 1.4 attempts per game the year prior to a career-high 3.7 per game last season.

Most importantly: 287 of his 293 attempts from long range were of the catch-and-shoot variety, and he made 39.7 percent of those looks. Of those 287 catch-and-shoot attempts, 285 of them were classified as either “open” (nearest defender 4-6 feet away) or “wide open” nearest defender 6-plus feet away), per In a high-powered offense with plenty of scorers and more than a few threats from long-range, Grant should enjoy another season of canning relatively uncontested 3s.

5. Compare Michael Porter Jr.’s rookie season to your favorite movie from this summer.

I mean, Avengers: Endgame came out in April, but let’s not pretend like it wasn’t the movie of the summer.

Much like the final entry in Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Denver Nuggets’ upcoming season will still be focused on the cornerstones of its franchise. Iron Man, Captain America and Thor took centerstage for the ultimate showdown with Thanos, just like the emphasis will be on Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Paul Millsap as they duke it out with the mad titans of the West.

So where does Michael Porter Jr. fit in? Well, as much as the spotlight will be on the biggest stars of Denver’s roster, there’s already an eager eye fixated toward the future. MPJ could very well become a mainstay of that future, and he could even be the X-factor no one saw coming as a rookie, a la Nebula in Endgame.

Next. Meet the 2019 NBA 25-under-25. dark

Porter’s rookie year is basically any supporting character in Avengers who will soon be asked to carry the MCU in Phase 4: Ant-Man, Black Panther, Doctor Strange, Fat Thor, take your pick. (Maybe Spider-Man is most apt since people love him and are so excited to have him back?) There’s reason for skepticism about what his long-term future will look like when the prominent players are no longer around, but for now, audiences are going to get a kick out of whatever MPJ can provide in his supporting role.