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Prior to the season I thought the Nuggets would win somewhere between 35-40 games. With the calendar just about to turn to April, it looks like my prediction will prove reliable. Of course, it’s dangerous to judge a team simply by its record. It would be easy to conclude that this Nuggets’ team is just a few games better than the outfit that took the floor last season, and by the numbers that will end up being true. When you look at the way the culture in the locker room has changed and all the young talent on the team, though, there is a different story to be told.
It’s rather remarkable when you consider that 60 percent of Denver’s starting lineup is less that 22 years of age. There’s no doubt the team has been inconsistent, but often the only consistent attribute of young teams is their inconsistency. For those of us who have watched every second of every game this season, you can see it’s just a matter of time until this team blows up and rockets into the Western Conference playoffs. I don’t know if that will happen in 2016-17 or 2017-18, but barring significant injuries, Denver’s trajectory is quite favorable.
All that said, there is one major issue the Nuggets are going to have to address. I might refer to it as the Jokic-Nurkic conundrum. Let me start by saying that what I’m about to describe is a good problem for a young team to have. When a team has two young, skilled centers on its roster who are both no older than 21 it means the front office and scouting staff has been doing something right. However, it’s only a matter of time until both Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic will believe they should be the starting five-man.
This season, the Nuggets got a bit of a pass in terms of having to solve this riddle given Nurkic’s slow recovery from offseason knee surgery as well as reoccurring nagging injuries once he returned. Moreover, Kenneth Faried went down with a back injury a week or so ago, which has opened up minutes for Jokic and Nurkic while also not relegating Joffrey Lauvergne to the bench. It only makes sense that the Nuggets are bringing Faried back very slowly as it allows them to get to the offseason with Nurkic more likely to be in a good head space having played consistent minutes down the stretch.
It must be noted that the Nuggets absolutely don’t have to make a move this offseason with regard to either Nurkic or Jokic. In fact, the most interesting play would be for the team to look to move Faried, thus making space for the Nuggets to start the two seven-footers together. Count me as skeptical that the duo can play together successfully for long stretches in today’s NBA, but the Nuggets owe it to both players and the organization to give it a legitimate shot.
There is no doubt that Jokic has the offensive prowess to play the four-spot. Presumably, his long-range shooting will only get better this offseason, which means he will profile very nicely on the offensive end as what this generation’s basketball folks like to call a “stretch four.” Add to that Jokic’s passing ability, and you have the recipe for a player who can give opposing defenses quite a bit of trouble operating out of the high post.
The problem will come on the defensive end. At present, it seems nearly implausible that Jokic could increase his lateral quickness enough to stay in front of most players he would line up against at the four spot on a nightly basis. Moreover, the trend continues to move toward players who a decade ago would have started at the three instead manning the four. Draymond Green is the most prominent example of such a player.
If the Nuggets wish to try the twin towers lineup it would behoove them to know if they are going to do this as early in the offseason as possible. If they know by June, for example, they can tell Jokic the plan is start him at the four and strength and conditioning coach Steve Hess along with the player development staff could work with the Serbian big man accordingly. Given the amount of weight Jokic shed just from late July to the start of this season, the Nuggets should be optimistic in that if the transition to the four spot fails it won’t be due to lack of effort.
Interestingly, the focus on changing positions for Jokic could pay dividends if the Nuggets try and make a play for the mercurial DeMarcus Cousins, as many around the league have a sneaking suspicion they might. By now, all Nuggets’ fans reading something in this space know the backstory between Cousins and Denver head coach Michael Malone. Whether or not he becomes available remains to be seen, but his continued antics have to at some point become exhausting to everyone involved in Sacramento. With a new arena on the horizon, perhaps the Kings decide to pull the plug on Cousins and bring a bit more positive energy to their new surroundings. A young and brash Nurkic along with some other fresh talent and/or draft picks could be enough to get the Kings to pull the trigger.
In a scenario where the Nuggets are able to acquire Cousins and keep Jokic, it would be imperative that Jokic be able to play the four spot. Maybe it would make the most sense for the Nuggets to try and deal for Cousins after having given Jokic at the four a bit of a test run, but trades in the NBA rarely come within the timetable that is preferred. If Cousins becomes available and the Nuggets can nab him while not moving Jokic that would be a hard deal to turn down given that Cousins would instantly become the dominant offensive threat the Nuggets have had since the departure of Carmelo Anthony.
It’s also possible the Nuggets would have to give up Jokic in a deal for Cousins. Given that Cousins is under contract until 2018, he is a bit of a less risky play than Blake Griffin. And Denver would of course be banking on the fact that Malone could keep him at least reasonably in check. While trading Jokic is likely not to be the most popular idea given what he’s shown this season, the Nuggets would be foolish not to listen to offers for him this summer. They would be equally foolish if they plan on keeping Jokic to not at least see if he can play the four, thus maximizing the roster’s versatility moving forward.
Nuggets “small” late season acquisitions could end up big in the future
Fans are often in search of the next big mega-deal when considering the future direction of their favorite teams. There’s a reason ESPN has a “Trade Machine” and not a 10-day or non-guaranteed contract machine. It’s often believed that these kinds of moves are inconsequential. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth, and the Nuggets are playing this game better than most.
Of course a superstar, or even better, a “Big Three” is necessary for a team to win a championship. Clubs must have stars to win titles in the NBA, no question. But finding the right complementary players can be what helps put a team over the top in hard-fought playoff series. This is something the Spurs, for example, have done so well over the last nearly two decades.
The signings of JaKarr Sampson and Axel Toupane didn’t exactly set the NBA world on fire, but both are players who could play a specific role for the Nuggets moving forward. Historically, championship-level NBA teams have needed at least one long, wing defender who can come into a game and bother the opposing team’s most accomplished offensive player. Shane Battier, Bruce Bowen, Raja Bell, and the list goes on. Both Sampson and Toupane profile as exactly this kind of player. In fact, when I watch Toupane play I see a little bit of Thabo Sefolosha, another player who has made his NBA living on the defensive end.
What’s most sensible about both of these signings is that they are low-risk, high-reward. By inking both players to non-guaranteed deals for the 2016-17 season Denver makes sure it can keep both or either should they really blossom while also giving the club an out if they don’t perform or if Denver needs to free up a roster spot due to a trade or a free agent signing. In the past, non-guaranteed deals were great to have on your roster as trade chips for teams looking to dump salary. This sort of move could be less pervasive next season given the spike that is forthcoming in the NBA’s salary cap. Even so, both of these signing were very astute ones for Denver.
While talking about new acquisitions it would be remiss not to mention D.J. Augustin. He has obviously played very good basketball since his arrival from Oklahoma City last month. The philosophy of the move always made sense, at least in my mind. If there’s one thing Augustin has done consistently well throughout his career its shoot the three-ball. This makes him a very good complement to Emmanuel Mudiay, who likely won’t be a sharpshooter anytime soon. He’s also been nothing short of luminous in the pick-and-roll since his arrival. Given Mudiay’s size and ability to guard the two position in stretches, I wouldn’t be surprised to see he and Augustin playing together more frequently down the stretch of games.
No one quite knows what the market will bear this summer given the aforementioned salary cap increase, but one has to think at this juncture the Nuggets would love to bring Augustin back on a multi-year deal. Considering all Denver had to give up was Randy Foye, a great veteran presence but a shooter who wasn’t much of a maker during his time in the Mile High City, chalk this one up as another move that could turn out much bigger than it appeared when it was consummated back on February 19th.