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Denver Nuggets basketball is back!*
Okay. Back but with an asterisk. Not the ridiculous “this bubble tournament doesn’t really count because it’s different” asterisk but the “this is only preseason and half of the team is still outside of the bubble” asterisk.
Still, this week is shaping up to be as exciting a week as we have seen from the Nuggets since everything shut down over four months ago. Maybe even more exciting.
There will be games.*
There will be Nuggets players.*
There will be a broadcast.*
And there will be a final score.*
As we close out the final week without real Nuggets basketball, here are five BIG storylines to follow surrounding the team.
5. Missing players arriving to the bubble
The elephant in the room surrounding the Denver Nuggets has been the absence of several key players inside the Disney World bubble. The Nuggets have been extremely tight-lipped about the status of each player on the roster, when to expect each player to join the team on the practice court, and their overall health heading into this week’s upcoming preseason games. All inquiries to their whereabouts or estimated timeframe for arrival have been met with a “no comment” response.
Nonetheless, it is reasonable to assume that at least some (if not all) of the players who are absent from the bubble have tested positive for COVID-19.
The league’s safety protocol calls for players who have tested positive to be kept out of the bubble for a minimum of 14 days while they recover, only entering the bubble once they are symptom-free and receive at least 2 negative COVID-19 tests. The Nuggets’ traveling party arrived in Orlando 14 days ago.
Several of the missing players play a key role in the team’s rotation. Gary Harris started 55 games this season and, along with Torrey Craig, is the team’s most reliable perimeter defender. Michael Porter Jr. received inconsistent minutes throughout his rookie season but showed flashes of elevating the team’s ceiling. Monte Morris is one of the team’s most consistent performers and the floor general for the bench unit.
Jokic’s arrival seemed to provide a bit of a boost to team morale and to their ability to conduct meaningful workouts. The same should be true of Harris, Craig, and the rest of the Nuggets players, should they be able to clear quarantine this week.
4. First look at empty arenas, remote broadcasts, etc.
Denver’s first scrimmage is on Wednesday at 1:30pm MT against the Washington Wizards. The game will be televised locally on Altitude TV and elsewhere on the NBA’s league pass channel and app, providing our first look at what a broadcast might look like inside of the bubble. There will not be any fans in the stands and the broadcast crew will be calling the game remotely from their studios here in Denver.
What will a remote broadcast look and sound like? And how will the quiet arena affect play? That is one of the most interesting and potentially bizarre aspects of this entire restart. Will head coach Michael Malone’s voice be heard in the background, screaming obscenities as broadcast producers fight in vain to censor him on the fly? Will the lack of cheers create a more muted style of emotionless basketball? Will Nikola Jokic lure even more technical foul calls for complaining to the officials?
3. Skinny Jokic and Beefy Murray
Nikola Jokic shocked the world when photos of his new, slimmed down frame surfaced from Serbia a month ago. Jokic is adamant that his weight loss since the league’s hiatus has been minimal. “I didn’t lose that much pounds in the quarantine,” Jokic told reporters last week. “I think like 3, 4, or 5 pounds.” People covering the team locally concur.
And “skinny Jokic” was already on a tear. In the month of February, Jokic averaged 25.5 points per game on 70% true shooting, statistically the most efficient and productive month of his career. Will the additional couple of pounds continue to bring out the best version of Jokic?
While much has been made about Jokic’s skinny frame, Jamal Murray has quietly boasted a new 216 lb. frame which he hopes will help him get to the rim more and reduce his number of floaters. “Trying to draw more contact,” Murray told reporters on Monday morning. “I brag about it every day but 216 as a point guard is pretty good for me. Trying to use that. Trying to be more physical.”
It’s cliche to boast about a player being in “the best shape of their life” heading into a new season but for the Denver Nuggets, that might actually be true. We’ll see.
2. Weird lineups
The Nuggets are about to get weird.
Three-centers-on-the-court at once kind of weird.
Murray, Will Barton, and Troy Daniels are the team’s only available guards. Of the 10 players currently in the bubble, four are centers, two are power forwards, and two, Tyler Cook and Daniels, have only recently joined the roster. On Monday, Michael Malone said that only nine of the 10 players in Orlando will be available to play which means there is a chance that the Nuggets will be forced into some pretty interesting combinations.
Typically, key players will play very limited minutes in the preseason which would suggest that Jokic and Murray are probably going to be on the bench for much of Wednesday and Saturday’s games. Without those two, the rest of the roster is made up of end of bench guys and/or centers. Will Noah Vonleh and Mason Plumlee share the court together? Will Jerami Grant play most of his minutes at small forward? And will we see lineups featuring Jokic not at “point-center” but as the actual point guard?
And of course the main question…
1. Bol Bol’s debut
Almost exactly one year ago, Bol Bol was projected to “fall” somewhere around the 10th pick in the 2019 NBA draft. Bol was one of the most uniquely talented players to enter the draft over the last several years but had superstar upside. An injury and some character concerns made him a high risk, high reward prospect but on draft night, every team seemed to weigh the risks a lot more heavily against the rewards. Like Michael Porter Jr. before him, Bol fell to the one team that seems content to wait a full calendar year for Bol to get healthy and develop as a prospect before placing him on the court for real live action.
That plan included Bol likely making his Denver Nuggets debut in Las Vegas the 2nd week of July. That timeframe appears to have proven true. Only the venue has changed.
With so many players absent and so many months that have gone by for Bol to recover and develop alongside his teammates, the 7’2″ three-point shooter and shot blocker is likely to make his debut this week alongside real NBA players and his real Denver Nuggets teammates. Malone has even joked that Bol might play small forward in certain lineups.
The buzz out of the first couple of weeks of camp has been all about Bol and his unique skill set.
“He’s special,” Mason Plumlee told the media earlier last week when asked about Bol’s performance at practice. “Super talent. I could speak to certain skills that he has but he’s a welcomed addition. He’s had a great attitude from the time that we had back in Denver and then down here. He’s an elite talent. Be ready.”
We’re ready, Mason.