It has now been four seasons since the Denver Nuggets last made the postseason, but that drought seems poised to end soon after a surprising 16-17. Denver finished one game behind the Portland Trail Blazers for a playoff spot, as they took the race down to the final days of the season. With young talent in place at several positions and good cap flexibility, the Nuggets might not miss the postseason again for a while.
Denver added to their rebuild with a strong draft in 2016. The team drafted Jamal Murray in the lottery and then added Juancho Hernangomez in the middle of the first round. A few picks later, the Nuggets selected Malik Beasley. Murray was a part of the rotation from day one, mostly playing as a combo guard off the bench. He showed the shooting skills that most expected and a better than expected handle and passing ability. He looks like he’ll be an excellent third guard at worst, but likely a better than average starter eventually.
Hernangomez took a few months to secure a rotation spot, but stuck there in the second half. Given his European experience, he showed the toughness and understanding of how to play that was expected. He had better touch on his shot than most thought and will continue his development as a backup combo forward over the next couple of years.
Beasley barely played at the NBA level, which wasn’t a surprise given the Nuggets' crowded wing rotation. He did log good time in the NBA D-League and showed the scoring touch that got him drafted. As Denver’s wing group thins out a bit, Beasley could crack the rotation as a backup.
With very few roster spots available, the rest of the offseason was pretty quiet for Denver. They re-signed Darrell Arthur and that was the biggest transaction of the summer. He battled through injuries throughout the year, but is valuable to Denver because of his leadership and versatility in the frontcourt. Arthur shot a career-best 45 percent from behind the arc on nearly three attempts per game. That is something to watch, as having a consistent three-point shot would add a new dimension to his game and afford him more rotation minutes. The rest of the Nuggets' bigs have shaky outside shots, so Arthur could give them the stretch element they are missing.
In terms of in-season moves, the Nuggets cycled through several players on 10-Day Contracts, but never really caught lightning in a bottle. In advance of the trade deadline, Denver made their biggest move, as they dealt Jusuf Nurkic and a first round draft pick to Portland for Mason Plumlee. With the development of Nikola Jokic and continuing injury issues, the Nuggets deemed Nurkic expendable and chose to trade him. In addition, Nurkic had started to become a bit of a locker room problem, as he was unhappy to be playing behind Jokic. In the end, Denver might have overpaid a bit, but the addition of Plumlee was a positive one. Because of his passing ability, Plumlee can play next to or behind Jokic and allows the Nuggets to run the same offense as when Jokic is in the game.
Denver also picked up Roy Hibbert in a salary dump from the Milwaukee Bucks. Hibbert had no appreciable impact for Denver and is unlikely to return to the Nuggets in the offseason.
Development was a key for the Nuggets, especially that of three young players: Jokic, Gary Harris and Emmanuel Mudiay. Jokic was coming off a solid rookie year, but exploded to a whole new level in his sophomore season. He upped his stats in every category, despite playing a chunk of the year out of position as a power forward versus his natural position of center. He shot nearly 58 percent from the floor and averaged 16.7 points per game, while grabbing 9.8 rebounds per game. But what was really unexpected and off the charts, was his 4.9 assists per game and 28.8 percent assist rate. By mid-season, the Nuggets had Jokic running the offense and he was delivering highlight plays left and right with his passing ability.
In the backcourt, it was a split decision. Despite fighting through some lingering injuries, Harris became one of the more efficient offensive players in the league at the shooting guard position. He scored 14.9 points per game on over 50 percent shooting overall and 42 percent on three-pointers. He also improved his playmaking, as Denver became one of the better passing teams in the NBA. The next steps for Harris to push close to All-Star consideration will be to improve his free throw rate and to step up his defense.
Mudiay, on the other hand, was a disappointment. Coming off a rookie season where he had struggles, but flashed as a player, everything fell off for the 20 year old point guard. He started in 41 games, but the team was more effective with veteran Jameer Nelson running the show. As the season wound down, Mudiay was clearly the fourth guard in the rotation behind Harris, Nelson and Murray. His shooting remains a question mark, as does his playmaking. He continues to make some head scratching turnovers and teams are no longer caught by surprise with his athleticism. They now play him to drive and force him to take jumpers, which all too often clang off the rim. That said, he’s still young and is learning on the fly. It’s too early to give up on Mudiay, but with other options, Denver is closer than before.
This offseason, roster spots are still at a premium. The Nuggets have one of the smallest free agent classes in the league, with just three players up for new deals. It is a virtual lock that Danilo Gallinari will opt out of his contract. He’s looking for a new deal that ideally pays more over more years. Gallinari still struggles to make it through a season healthy, but is still one of the league’s better offensive forwards. His shooting has always been very good, and he gets to the free throw line at a good rate as well. He could price himself out of Denver, as the Nuggets will be cautious of locking into a long term deal at big money for a player who struggles to stay healthy. In addition, he’ll have lots of suitors in a market that is short on high-end talent.
Plumlee will be a restricted free agent, and Denver is likely to retain him, barring an unlikely big offer sheet elsewhere. Given the price they paid to get Plumlee and his good fit in the offensive scheme, he’ll return to give the Nuggets a solid big man rotation with Jokic, Arthur and holdover Kenneth Faried.
In free agency and trades, Denver is in an interesting spot. They are right on the borderline of being a playoff team and veterans like Wilson Chandler and Will Barton could either be a part of a playoff push, or they could return good value in trades. It is likely the Nuggets will hang on to both players, who are equally productive as starters or reserves, and re-address pending how the season plays out.
With a late lottery pick and a decent amount of cap space. Denver should look to add another point guard. Nelson has been solid, but is best as a backup at this point in his career. With Mudiay’s development a question mark, the Nuggets would do well to add another veteran option. The top point guards are probably out of reach salary-wise, but a player like Shaun Livingston, who would add size and versatility, would be a nice addition.
Overall, Denver is well positioned, both for the current season and the future. Harris is due an extension, but the Nuggets could let him test restricted free agency in the summer of 2018 and take advantage of his relatively low cap hold. Denver has drafted well and has solid building blocks. The Nuggets aren’t carrying any bad contracts and have good cap flexibility. After a period of down years and instability at the top of the organization things are looking up.
Guaranteed Contracts (11): Darrell Arthur, Will Barton, Malik Beasley, Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried, Gary Harris, Juancho Hernangomez, Nikola Jokic, Emmanuel Mudiay, Jamal Murray, Jameer Nelson
Partial/Non-Guaranteed Contracts (1): Mike Miller
Potential Free Agents (3): Danilo Gallinari (UFA – Player Option), Roy Hibbert (UFA), Mason Plumlee (RFA)
“Dead” Money on Cap (0): None
First Round Draft Pick(s): Pick #13
Maximum Cap Space: 44,976,171
Projected Cap Space: $14,774,181