The Nuggets are quickly climbing up the NBA sleeper rankings, but their roster depth too uneven to be considered a playoff ready product. The wild Western Conference got even better with the additions of Paul Millsap, Paul George, and Jimmy Butler. All eight Western Conference playoff teams remain legitimate threats to make it back there. Minnesota improved dramatically and New Orleans has had a full offseason to implement their twin tower strategy. Denver is right in the mix, but a few significant roster questions have to be answered before we can anoint them as a playoff lock.
Who is the Nuggets point guard?
Point guard is the biggest hole in Denver's lineup. After a season where Jameer Nelson started 39 games, Denver did nothing to add to their point guard depth this summer. Nelson was far and away the most reliable option last season. He played an astronomical 27.3 minutes per game, taking away meaningful developmental time from the other guards. To be honest, the other guards deserved it. Nelson was the only one who could be trusted to consistently run the offense.
For Denver, Nelson has always been a stopgap option. Now age 35, his greatest value is his consummate leadership and professionalism. Ideally, that should equate to 8-12 minutes of playing time per game with a lot of mentoring in between. The more Nelson plays, the less time Denver has to solve the long term point guard identity problem.
That future point guard was supposed to be Emmanual Mudiay. The future was supposed to come last year. It didn't, but it's still early. 2016-17 was a mess for Mudiay. His scoring and assist numbers were down, and his player efficiency rating also dropped. In theory, he should be a dominant defender. Mudiay is longer and agiler than most guards, yet his advanced metrics fell off last season. Per Basketball-reference, Mudiay's defensive rating dipped 4 points from his first season and his defensive win shares dropped by 0.7. Because of his unrefined yet promising athleticism, I'm not ready to give up on Mudiay as a potential defensive standout.
To an extent, I attribute the Nuggets' system as the main culprit for Mudiay's inconsistent development. He's a ball dominant guard on a team that runs the offense through a playmaking center. Mudiay was drafted to quarterback the team, but Nikola Jokic's emergence has forced Mudiay into an imperfect off ball role. He's an underwhelming threat off the catch and shoot, where he converted just 36.4% per NBA.com. His 31.5% 3-point rate is way too low to permit enough floor space for Jokic to operate. If Mudiay can't improve his shooting, he might be better off with the second unit floor spacers. Something has to give.
Mudiay is a fearless driver of the basketball, but his ability to score at the rim has been disrupted by the overabundance of non-floor spacing bigs. Mudiay was a square peg in a round hole, exacerbated by Malone frequently experimenting with lineups featuring two traditional bigs. Jusuf Nurkic is now gone. Mason Plumlee might be too. With the more versatile Paul Millsap and Trey Lyles in the fold, Mudiay will have much more opportunity to take the ball to the basket. Mudiay led the Nuggets in drives per game with 6.9.
Jamal Murray is a trendier choice. The second year combo guard intrigued in his initial season after being drafted out of Kentucky. The #7 pick in the 2016 draft, Murray is a fantastic off ball shooter. Per NBA.com, Murray shot a promising 37.1% on catch and shoot jumpers last season. Murray's ability to space the floor and work off of screens increases practical space for the Nugget offense. He's a better natural fit playing alongside Jokic.
A starting lineup of Murray, Gary Harris, Wilson Chandler, Millsap, and Jokic would offer legitimate shooting threats at all five positions. Per NBAwowy, Jokic posted a better usage rate (27.4) with Murray and Harris on the floor, than he did playing alongside with Mudiay and Harris (20.7).
The real concern is whether Murray can initiate an offense. He has to improve his ability to consistently feed the wing or high post with at least 18 seconds on the shot clock. Murray averaged just 4.7 assists per 100 possessions, which was 130th amongst all guards, and significantly lower than every starting point guard. He will undoubtedly see a big uptick from his 21.4 minutes per game during his rookie season. And Nikola Jokic will carry much of the decision making burden. But Murray still has a long way to go with his handle and pick and roll decision-making. He hasn't proven that he can be a reliable full-time point guard moving forward.
Are there enough wings to survive?
If you follow the modern dictum for how NBA roster building, your roster would be full of 6'6-6'9 players who are athletic, long, switchable, versatile, and who can knock down open jumpers. The common theory is that if a team needs to carry extra depth, it should be on the wing. Combo forwards with multi-positional skills are the most valuable commodity in today's NBA. Teams can no longer hide weaker single position defenders. Offensive schemes have become too proficient at creating switches to get mismatches.
As a whole, the Nuggets lack wing depth. Wilson Chandler is the only true small forward on the roster. He defends three positions and shoots the triple at a 34% clip. Chandler's versatility and experience make him a lock to start at the SF spot. The bigger question is who is backing him up. Now 30, Chandler hasn't played a full season since 2008. Knowing that he will likely miss some games, it's critical to establish a consistent small forward rotation behind him.
Will Barton is a pure shooting guard being masked as a switchable defender. At 175 pounds, Barton doesn't have the strength to hold up against most physical wings. Further, Barton doesn't look like he's gained any weight this offseason. His post defense is lackluster and he frequently gets outmuscled due to his stature. Barton has never been heralded for his defense. However, his offensive firepower and ability to space the floor virtually guarantee him ample playing time, even if it means sacrificing some easy buckets. Barton made two spot starts in February at small forward, and he could get more of a leash with Gallo gone. Barton should be motivated playing in the final year of his contract.
Then there's Juancho Hernangomez. The 6'9 Spaniard sophomore makes more logical sense playing as a stretch 4, but the Nuggets have too many power forwards as it is. In turn, they used Hernangomez exclusively as a small forward during the Las Vegas Summer League. In Vegas, Juancho averaged 16.3 PPG and 7.3 RPG on 37.5% shooting in 30.3 minutes per game. Hernangomez showed decent defensive skills in his rookie season, but he doesn't have nuclear athleticism. It will be difficult for him to hang with quicker wings along the perimeter. It remains to be seen whether he can grow as a two-way asset.
Rookie Torrey Craig fits the mold for the modern 3 and D player. He signed a two-way contract after averaging 11.5 points and 4.8 rebounds over 22 minutes per game in Vegas Summer League. Craig is a tenacious perimeter defender who will be content allowing his teammates to create open shots for him. He brings three years of professional experience after playing in Australia and New Zealand. He's buried on the depth chart, and will have to prove himself in Sioux Falls before he's given a legitimate shot. Craig could be a creative option if Denver becomes desperate.
Will Denver consolidate assets to make a trade?
If Tim Connelly (ever) decides to consolidate his assets, point guard and small forward are the spots to look out for. As of now, Denver's plan has some significant contingencies for success, as noted above. Coming off of a spring where the Nuggets lost 5 of the final 8 games before being playoff eliminated, it's hard to fully trust this roster given their relative inexperience. There's a chance that Mudiay, Murray, and Barton all show impactful growth, but they have to prove it first. That's a big if. In the event that plan A isn't working by the holiday season, plan B should be an aggressive trade market push.
Denver has an excess of young and future assets, and hasn't been bashful about making a splashy trade. They reportedly submitted a "monster offer" for Paul George at the trade deadline. For weeks, they've been connected to Phoenix's Eric Bledsoe, and I don't anticipate those rumors going away until one team blinks. Bledsoe would immediately ascend to the number one guard spot on the Nuggets.
The winds are right for a trade. Denver is on the brink of the playoffs. They've built some positive momentum in the fanbase, so it would be devastating to miss the playoffs again. Denver controls all of their future first round picks. Tyler Lydon, Monte Morris, and Malik Beasley will only be consequentially used in "break glass in case of emergency" scenarios. Their youth and malleability could be of high value to a rebuilding team. In the event that Connelly covets a high priced veteran, Nelson and Kenneth Faried's salaries could easily be included as trade filler. Barton is a skillful bench scorer who's unlikely to be re-signed next summer. His value could be better utilized elsewhere.
The Nuggets had 32 different starting lineup combinations last season. Perhaps we should chalk it up to a growth seeking year where Denver was trying to discover their true identity. Chemistry, fit, and cohesion were huge question marks throughout last season. By now, Malone should have a grasp of who this team truly is. Ideally, he's done experimenting with lineups and will offer more formulaic rotations moving forward.