What Should We Make of the Denver Nuggets?
It's been more than seven seasons since Denver Nuggets fans saw Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups and Nene take their beloved franchise to the Western Conference Finals. It's been more than four years since Ty Lawson and the high-flying Denver offense led the NBA in points per game. And it's been more than three since George Karl graced the sidelines of the Pepsi Center back in 2012.
Since Karl's departure, Brian Shaw and (at least so far) Mike Malone have failed to lead the Nuggets back to the Western Conference Playoffs, and they've failed to finish with any more than 36 wins in a season.
Surprisingly enough, though, three key players -- Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari and Kenneth Faried -- remain on the Nuggets roster from Karl's tenure. Only three other current Nuggets have more than four years of NBA experience -- Darrell Arthur (seven years), Jameer Nelson (12 years) and Mike Miller (16 years).
Even with Nelson and Miller, the Nuggets, at an average age of 25.8 years old, are among the top 10 youngest teams in the league. Without them, that number moves to 24.4 years old, which would position them as the youngest team, even ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers.
That speaks to the overall youth of the Denver roster. And with that youth, comes a lot of promising talent -- in this case, maybe too much talent.
Coming into the new season, everyone knew that there would be some type of logjam in the Denver frontcourt. The Nuggets held on to the aforementioned Faried, knowing good and well that breakout players Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic would require more consistent playing time, as well. As for Arthur, he was more of an afterthought.
While struggling with a knee injury throughout the beginning of the season, Arthur saw his role with the team erased. In 17 games, Arthur has played a total of just 72 minutes across five games while the trio of Faried, Jokic and Nurkic have primarily shared the minutes at the four and five spots. When Malone's needed someone else to slide in, it's been Gallinari as a small-ball four.
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Naturally, Nurkic and Jokic dominate the center minutes. The former has started every game this season while the latter comes off the bench and primarily replaces the seven-footer. As I mentioned, Gallinari spends half his minutes at the power forward position as part of a small lineup alongside any one of Faried, Jokic or Nurkic.
The 21-year-old Juan Hernangomez has found some minutes at the tailend of Coach Malone's rotation. However, after being given a DNP-CD last week, Arthur has now received at least 15 minutes in Denver's last three games. But, that's with Gallinari and Hernangomez dealing with injury, so when healthy, there's really been no matter of consistency in Malone's lineups.
Then there's the small forward situation involving Gallinari and Wilson Chandler. Both have performed as above-average players and they deserve playing time as such, but depending on the matchup there's not enough minutes to go around.
Should Denver be looking to sell high on any of these players? Yes, they should -- but who?
For starters, the numbers all but rule out Gallinari and Chandler. According to Basketball Reference, of all the Nuggets' two-man combinations, they are the cream of the crop. In the duo's 234 minutes together, Denver outscores their opponents by 6.1 points in large part because of their ability to space the floor.
During their runs, the team averages three more three-point makes and five more three-point attempts than their opponents over the course of 100 possessions. At the same time, the Galo and Chandler duo also boosts the team's ability to get to the free throw line, as the team averages four more attempts and more than four additional free throw makes with that combination on the floor in some way.
For this reason, you have to keep them together. So, trade bait shouldn't come from the small forward position. Keep it to the fours and fives.
It doesn't take much to understand that Arthur doesn't have the same promise as the rest of the frontcourt, so if someone bites on him the Nuggets could unload him to make room for Hernangomez and others. But, contrary to what a lot of people around basketball may think, Nurkic may be the next one on the chopping block.
The 22-year-old is a part of just a single two-, three-, or four-man combination with a positive net rating. Just one. Otherwise, in sifting through the lineups, it appears Faried makes up for Nurkic's lack of production.
Outside of Arthur's lingering knee issues, the other big factor that could prevent Denver from unloading the two players are their contracts. On its face, the two players are owed under $10 million this season. But, as you look toward 2017-18 and 2018-19, Arthur is owed roughly $7.46 million (if he picks up his player option for 2018-19). Nurkic, even more oddly, will be owed $7.37 in the last year of his back-loaded rookie contract.
If Nurkic pans out elsewhere, that figure could be a value absent an extension. If he doesn't, it's a salary cap burden no team wants. Therefore, if the Nuggets can obtain a valuable pick or expiring contract in return for the big man's services they should explore that option.
Unlike the frontcourt, we didn't know what to expect from the backcourt this season. Sure, Jameer Nelson will produce in the way a proven veteran guard does, but what were they going to get out of Will Barton after a breakout season a year ago? Would they see more from Gary Harris? Would they get improvement from Emmanuel Mudiay? And what could they expect from rookie Jamal Murray?
At the inception of the 2016-17 season, things weren't looking good. Barton started off well, but he went down with an injury that sidelined him for nine straight games. Harris, the Nuggets' primary starting two-guard, missed the first four games after suffering a groin injury.
Mudiay has been absent injury, but in the first five games of the season, he shot 27.14% from the field and 3-for-15 from beyond the arc. He produced in other categories -- rebounds, assists and steals -- but he averaged 4.4 turnovers per game, in part negating that production.
The youngster Murray played under 37 minutes through three games to start out the year. Of course, he received more playing time in game number four as a result of the injury to Barton. But, after four games, Murray had just two points on 0-of-16 shooting from the floor.
Since the beginning of the season, a lot has changed. Murray is averaging 10.5 points -- on 39.9% shooting from the floor -- in 22.1 minutes per game. Before a foul-plagued performance against the Phoenix Suns Sunday night, Murray had accounted for at least a pair of three-pointers and 20 points in three straight games. Needless to say, they're not unloading a 6'4", 19-year-old combo guard.
Despite the injury concern, Harris is in the same boat. He has a lot to offer in today's NBA. He also has a solid 6'4" frame and has shown the ability to flat out shoot the rock, posting an effective field goal percentage of 53.8% in 76 games a year ago.
Barton's 25 years old and has a favorable contract for a guy with his valuable playmaking skills. He's probably a guy Denver would like to keep around in a bench role to support the likes of Murray and Harris.
As for Mudiay, it's more of a tricky situation. He was their seventh overall pick a year ago, and he's one of the youngest players on the roster. But, he's been a historically inefficient player. His shooting hasn't gotten any better, as his field goal percentage has actually declined early on. He's also turning the ball over more on a per-game basis. That being the case, you're not going to find many teams lining up to pay top price for an inefficient point guard.
Denver will likely be forced to keep Mudiay on board and ride it out until they have to make a decision on his 2018-19 team option. In the meantime, if and when the other guards return to health, the Nuggets could explore other options (like Murray) at the point and look to put Mudiay on the backburner if he doesn't improve his play.
The Nuggets are really talented right now and will look to build on their 7-10 start to the season. When healthy, they should be able to compete for the eight seed in the ultra-competitive Western Conference, although the bad start has left them with a 20.9% chance of making the playoffs, per our models.
Sooner or later, though, Denver will likely explore the trade market for some of their prized assets, especially if they happen to fall out of the playoff race. While it's unlikely they'll part with one of their valuable backcourt players -- unless a contender comes calling for Nelson -- they're likely to open up some room in the frontcourt.
If and when they take that step, the numbers say the Nuggets -- contrary to popular belief -- should field offers for Nurkic and Arthur rather than Jokic and Faried.
The same jumble of players that makes this all so difficult to decipher at the same time ensures that Denver has a bright future. They'll have to make some moves to solidify their chemistry, but no matter how they shake out, with all the talent they've assembled, the Nuggets have hope of returning to the years of Melo and Chauncey -- or at least back to a playoff contender -- sometime in the near future.