by Fox Doucette
The first question when asking about the Denver Nuggets isn’t “what’s the over/under on wins?” It’s “what’s the over/under on dumb puns on Nikola Jokic’s last name?” I’m serious, that’s no Jokic.
I don’t have kids, but I’ve got dad jokes, folks.
Now then. On to the team itself. This team, coming off a 40-42 season in which they missed the playoffs by just one game after a furious 5-2 finish that included a razor-thin one-point loss to Oklahoma City in Game 80 that sank them beneath the waters of a charging Portland squad with less than a week left in the season, looks to make the playoffs for the first time since 2013, a year when they had six players average double figures in scoring and two more go for at least nine points a game under George Karl. They went 57-25 that year and lost to an upstart Warriors team in the first round.
We’re a long way from 2013, though, and they’ve added Paul Millsap to a homegrown bunch of still-young talent that continues to mature; the past three seasons have seen them go from 30 to 33 to 40 wins, and Vegas likes them to continue that trend.
2016-17 record: 40-42
2018 over/under: 45.5
He Wouldn’t Have Missed It for the World
Paul (not Ronnie) Millsap has spent most of his career as one of the NBA’s most underappreciated little big men, a guy who does more on the glass with a 6’8” frame than anyone since Dennis Rodman.
Or at least he used to. Millsap’s rebounding numbers were way down in Atlanta last year, not only on a pure counting stat basis (7.7 is the lowest total he’s put up as a starter) but on a per-minute basis as well (his 8.2 rebounds per 36 minutes is the worst of his career), and the advanced stats paint a similar picture. His 12.5 rebounding percentage is by far his worst mark, and part of that is due to his role in the Atlanta offense shifting him away from the low post, but even his defensive rebounding isn’t what it used to be.
Still, the guy had a plus-8.2 on/off Net Rating split for the Hawks. Not for nothing has he been nicknamed “The Anchorman”, and he opens up opportunities for the Hawks to go big without going home when they play Millsap alongside someone like Jokic or Kenneth Faried.
Millsap has developed a sweet little midrange jumper (47.5 percent from 10-16 feet), but his presence in the restricted area isn’t nearly as efficient as it once was; his 61.1 percent shooting inside three feet just isn’t up to scratch. Plus, he doesn’t work as a stretch 4; a plug awful 31.1 percent, combined with taking fully one in four of his shots behind the arc last season, is why he posted a career-low 44.5 percent shooting and an absolute career low .481 eFG%.
Jokic has emerged as a no-BS star. He’s developing into a beast at the rim (67.4 percent inside three feet) and, while his three-pointer isn’t quite there yet (32,4 percent), his midrange jump shot (62.4 percent from 3-10 feet, 53.0 from 10-16, and 55.2 from 16 out to the arc) suggests a shooting form that will eventually catapult him into the ranks of the great big-man outside scorers once he gets more reps from out there.
The guy was Denver’s feast on court and famine off (to the tune of an astounding 11.9 split), and he is the rebounder any NBA team would salivate over (12.7 boards per 36 minutes and eye-popping 11.6 offensive and 19.5 total rebounding percentages.)
His total 9.7 Win Shares were good for .228 per 48 minutes, and the 8.4 BPM and 5.3 VORP? Those are star numbers, and Jokic is only 22.
Mark it down, Jokic is the best player to wear a Nuggets uniform since Carmelo Anthony.
The Point Guard Problem
Emmanuel Mudiay sucks. Like, fantastically, Anthony Bennett-level sucks. He’s started 107 games in his first two seasons. He has a negative count for Win Shares (minus-1.9 and minus-.027 total, and last year his foray into the plus side yielded 0.2 and .006, respectively.) His VORP is so bad (minus-1.8) that not only would he be better replaced by a G-League player, even the G-League has better point guards who could start over him.
Jameer Nelson is the stopgap, but he’s 35 years old and a shadow of the player he was with Orlando in the 2009 Finals; what’s particularly telling is that Jamal Murray, a shooting guard, played 41 percent of his minutes at the point.
Mudiay is so utterly horrendous that not only is he proving a waste of the seventh pick in 2015, he might singlehandedly submarine Denver’s season unless he either gets real good real fast or the Nuggets can find some asset somewhere they can trade for an actual NBA-caliber player at the position.
What The Crap Happened to the Manimal?
Faried, demoted to the bench, is one of the best players in that role in the entire league. Nobody hoovers up rebounds quite like No. 35 (12.8 per 36 minutes and 19.7 percent overall, the equal of Jokic in that regard.) He’s good for 65.4 percent on shots in close; you’re trying to tell me you couldn’t rehabilitate his game into DeAndre Jordan Lite?
Free the Manimal! Or trade him for that hey-he-doesn’t-suck point guard we were just talking about a minute ago.
The Enigmatic Will Barton
Barton is one of my favorite players to watch on League Pass. Electric athleticism, an honest-to-gods microwave man off the bench in the Vinnie Johnson/John Starks mold, an improving player as he finds his shot (a career-best 37 percent from three and 44.3 percent overall last season, edging his eFG% over .500 for the first time), and he’s still just 26.
Sure, he can’t play defense worth a hot crap (114 DefRtg last year and a minus-1.0 Defensive Box Plus-Minus), but a career-best in Offensive Win Shares (2.5) and WS/48 (.093) speak to The Next Jamal Crawford.
Which sounds like damning with faint praise, but hey, there are a lot worse things you can be than a perpetual Sixth Man of the Year. Just ask Crawford or Andre Iguodala.
Last year, Denver had the league’s fourth-best Offensive Rating and second-worst Defensive Rating. Acquiring Millsap will help that immensely. So will having Jokic continue to grow into his body.
But is Mike Malone the right coach for it? Will the bench unit be able to stop anyone from going on a run and closing the gap? Ay, there’s the rub.
And we already saw what all O and no D got this team. They went 40-42 and missed the playoffs.
I’m not sold on the idea that Millsap hasn’t entered the sharp decline portion of his career. I don’t believe for half a second that you can make the Western Conference playoffs with Emmanuel Freaking Mudiay getting the lion’s share of your point guard minutes in the same division as Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. It’s the same problem Portland has. Plenty of assets, but just as many liabilities.
After all, if you’ve got $10,000 in the bank but you owe $20,000 on your credit cards, you’re not as rich as you look, and that’s pretty much what the Nuggets are up against.
I’m calling this one Busted. I think Denver becomes the most disappointing team in the league and Malone gets fired mid-season.