The Denver Nuggets lost a heartbreaker of a final game in the 2017-18 regular season that may prove to be the most successful defeat in recent NBA history.
Because in losing to the Minnesota Timberwolves in a win-or-go-home shootout, they denied Minnesota the pretense they’d have needed to fire Tom Thibodeau, sending a franchise into disarray (we’ll have more on this tomorrow.)
The Nuggets, meanwhile, capped off a 46-win season, showed a ton of potential, and positioned themselves as the classic “team on the rise” with a young roster and, in the person of Nikola Jokic, a superstar in the making, the debutante of the 2019 Young NBA Players’ Ball.
And they added Isaiah Thomas for instant offense.
Vegas has them down for 47.5 wins, and a two-win improvement last year would’ve been the difference between ninth and a tie for fourth.
The Nuggets could be this year what the Jazz were last year, the team that was good-not-great and now gets talked about in terms of what missing piece they could add to be a title contender.
Or their already-suspect defense could collapse completely with Thomas around, leading to a disappointing season in terms of record even as they’re having the best season ever seen on League Pass with a bunch of 120-115 games.
2017-18 record: 46-36
2018-19 over/under: 47.5
Private Jokic, Born to Kill
The only NBA player with a Full Metal Jacket reference built into his name had a huge season in Year 3.
He improved his three-point shooting to 39.6 percent, put up a 24.4 PER and superstar-level .211 WS/48, emerged as a 5.6-VORP player…and didn’t make the All-Star team.
If that’s not remedied in February, they need to just get rid of fan voting or else start raising the value of All-Star appearances while playing on small market teams in a sort of currency exchange rate for Hall of Fame consideration.
(no, I’m not saying that a 23-year-old Jokic is a Hall of Famer. Yet.)
Speaking of Jokic, consider this: 2.2, 2.2, 2.3. What’s that? Besides the judges’ scores if I ever attempted Olympic diving.
It’s his Defensive Box Plus/Minus in each of his three years in the league.
What Is the Point of Isaiah Thomas Again?
Thomas had one accidental masterpiece of a season in Boston, but ever since Brad Stevens hasn’t been around to coach him, Thomas has regressed back to what he’s been his whole career, the biggest reason he was drafted at the butt end of the second round in 2011.
Last year, Thomas hit 37.3 percent of his shots from the field and 29.3 percent from three, had an absolutely horrendous -4.3 DBPM, posted a get-that-guy-off-the-floor -0.7 VORP…
Given his injuries, his lack of size, and the fact that point guards tend to go downhill in a hurry past age 30 (Thomas turns 30 on February 7), did Denver just burn three million bucks on a guy who’s washed up and can’t meaningfully contribute without taking rotation minutes away from younger players who need to get some run in order to realize their true potential?
All the Young Dudes
Will Barton is one of my favorite bench guys. As a human highlight film off the pine as the sixth man, he set the NBA world on fire in 2016, starting just one game while scoring 14.4 points a pop and making a good case for Sixth Man of the Year.
As he’s aged, Barton has tried to break through as a quality starter, and with a 37 percent three-point shooting clip, a 16.2 PER, a status as a 2.0-VORP guy, and generally a good-not-great player, he’s not going to show up on anyone’s list of the best shooting guards in the league, but he’s no longer a weakness playing the bulk of the minutes.
Barton will be 28 in January. If there were a time for him to make a case that he is what he is and what he is happens to be very good, this is that time.
Gary Harris, meanwhile, may have something else entirely to say about that insofar as he started 65 games last year, had a 16.5 PER of his own, and posted 1.7 VORP in about 400 fewer minutes than Barton played.
Which, in turn, creates a surplus at the position that either allows for a three-guard small-ball lineup or makes Harris or Barton valuable trade chips.
This means Denver could do some pretty solid reloading at the deadline should they find themselves within shouting range of the top four.
And Jamal Murray…16.1 PER, 1.2 VORP, breaking out from the beachhead he set up in his rookie year (when he was, as plenty of rookies tend to be, a negative-VORP guy who was all potential and no execution.)
Murray is in Year 3, when we start to see whether a player has real potential for the kind of greatness that makes for tasty second contracts after the rookie deal’s up.
The Theme Here
Denver is, in essence, one honest-to-gods superstar (Jokic) surrounded by above-average role players.
What they don’t have is the second star that conference finals appearances are made of. They’re going to be mired in very good but never elite territory, but in a small market like Denver, that’s going to be a nice treat for the fans until they inevitably get tired of getting wrecked in the early rounds, or until a second homegrown star emerges out of their recent drafts.
Which is part of what makes their complete whiff on Emmanuel Mudiay in 2015 such an utter tragedy. They managed to pick one of the worst players in that draft. Then again, it wasn’t like there were a ton of great guards available with the seventh pick; the next one off the board was Devin Booker, who went 13th, and the next point guard was Cameron Payne (at 14th) followed by Terry Rozier (16th.)
Still, anyone but Mudiay, man.
What happens when a young team has a breakout season, misses the playoffs, then returns intact?
Sure, the West is tougher this year, but the Nuggets have the most vicious home-court advantage in sports with the rarefied Denver air, they have players learning to play together with more consistency, they have a good coach in Mike Malone…you’re trying to tell me that’s not good for at least two more wins?
I’m seeing 49-33, a playoff appearance, and giving a top-four seed one hell of a fight in the first round before bowing out.
So Confirmed and Over on this one.