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Scouting the Enemy: Denver Nuggets

Young talent leads the way

Western Conference Semifinals - Portland Trail Blazers v Denver Nuggets Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

DENVER NUGGETS

Offseason in Review:

What do you do to your roster when you don’t make the Western Conference Finals, let alone NBA finals? Apparently, not much. In today’s NBA culture of championship or bust, it’s surprising to see a team not overreact and make a major move to “put them over the top.” The Denver Nuggets had the second-best record in the Western Conference at the end of the regular season, and feel confident in their young roster that returns primarily intact.

The first step in keeping them together was picking up the option for forward Paul Millsap, their most experienced player, and it wasn’t cheap. He’ll cost them $30.35 million, which will be the highest salary on the team this season. There’s no denying the positive impact he has on the team, though, and Denver had the luxury of not having to pay more money to their other players… yet. That starts next season when the max-level extension given to Jamal Murray this summer kicks in at an average of over $30 million per year.

Look for Denver to rest the 34 year-old Millsap a little more during the regular season by giving minutes to newly acquired Jerami Grant. He had his best season yet last year with Oklahoma City, including 39.6% shooting from behind the arc, and will look to continue that progress in the Mile High City.

Bringing Grant into the fold cost Denver a 2020 first-round draft pick, one that will likely be very late in the round. The Nuggets can afford it as they already have two extremely talented projects waiting in the wings. Last year, the organization gladly scooped up forward Michael Porter Jr. when he fell down draft boards due to a back injury that would cause him to miss the next season. This year, they adopted a similar strategy when they traded into the second round for center Bol Bol following his plummet on draft night due to a foot injury. Both Porter and Bol were McDonald’s All-Americans and considered high lottery picks before injuries derailed freshmen seasons for both of them. Both are expected to play this season.

Denver was in a unique position this offseason. Despite largely ignoring the free agent market, they will still have three significant additions to a roster with championship aspirations.

Team Outlook

Led by center Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets made the second round of the playoffs for the first time in a decade and should be right back in the championship hunt this season. At age 24, Jokic is already one of the best players in the league and should only continue to get better. As the very talented but young roster continues to develop with him, look for this team to compete at an even higher level than last year.

The Golden State Warriors were the only team in the western conference to finish with a better record in the regular season, and they are losing Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, and DeMarcus Cousins from that roster. Beyond that, Klay Thompson is likely out for the year with an injury. The Warriors did make a big free-agent splash when they signed D’Angelo Russell, but look for Denver to finish with more wins this season.

Unfortunately for Denver, besting Golden State won’t be enough to claim the top spot in the West this year. It seems that almost every team in the conference has gold in their eye, and for good reason. The Lakers loaded up with Anthony Davis, Danny Green, and Cousins to join a now healthy LeBron James, and they may not even be the best team in Los Angeles now that the Clippers have Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Utah and Houston each upgraded at point guard for another run at a title, and there’s still the Portland Trailblazers who knocked Denver out of the playoffs last year.

It’s completely feasible that Denver has a better team this year and a worst record. But, just like last year, the playoffs are what matters. Last year’s post-season experience was the first in six seasons for the franchise. How much they learned from it will determine how well it goes for them the second time around.