With the 2019-20 NBA season just weeks away, the wheels are spinning into motion for the Denver Nuggets as they host media day at the Pepsi Center in Denver tomorrow before holding training camp from October 1 to 6 at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
Here are five storylines to watch for as the Nuggets embark on their 2019-20 season journey.
All Eyes On Michael Porter Jr.
Michael Porter Jr. may not likely be one of the most impactful players on the Nuggets’ well-established roster this season, but Denver’s 2018 first-round draft pick and the former number one high school prospect will certainly be one of the main attractions of focus on media day and throughout training camp and the preseason.
With the back injury and subsequent surgeries that derailed most of his single year at Missouri and the entirety of his first NBA season, the hit his draft stock took as a result, and his long road to recovery, Porter’s story is legitimately compelling. But beyond the narratives of his arduous comeback and tantalizing upside, his most exciting storyline is simply the fact that everybody will finally get a chance to actually see him play in real basketball games.
The only official action Porter has seen on the court since high school is the 53 minutes of playing time he got as a college freshman. In the two intervening years, he has gone from having the physique of the high school prospect he was:
To the bulked-up fully-grown man he looks like now:
And while there have indeed been encouraging signs in the intermittent training video highlights over the last year, nobody truly knows yet how that will translate. The state of Porter’s game and his health is the mystery box everybody can’t wait to opn. And another key aspect of his preseason involves the next storyline.
Who Will Win The Battles For Reserve Wing Minutes?
With a presumed return to full health, Will Barton should get slotted in once again as the Nuggets’ starting small forward to begin the season. The other four starters, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic are safely locked in, as the two bookends of the bench lineup – point guard Monte Morris and center Mason Plumlee – should be as well. And the Nuggets surely didn’t trade a first-round draft pick for power forward Jerami Grant to leave him out of the regular rotation.
This leaves Malik Beasley, Torrey Craig, Juancho Hernangomez (now a FIBA world champion after a great performance for Spain in the World Cup), 2017 second-round pick Vlatko Cancar and Porter all vying for whatever minutes are left over at the shooting guard, small forward and power forward positions. For reference, in the final month of last season when head coach Michael Malone tightened the rotation, the seven “locked” players listed above averaged a total of about 194 minutes. This would leave just over 45 to allot for remaining players, which realistically only allows for three to be in the regular rotation at about 15 minutes per game each.
There are ways in which more minutes can, and likely will be carved out: reduced playing time for some of the starters for the purpose of load management, looser early-season rotations, situational matchups and more should all help to that end. But a 12-man regular rotation is not in the cards, and that points to at least two of the five remaining players being left as the odd men out. In the Nuggets’ team-oriented culture of positivity, “position battle” is probably not a term they’ll embrace. But the reality is that Denver’s backup wings will in fact be vying for minutes on the second unit, and the question of which players distinguish themselves will be among the most interesting and important storylines to monitor in training camp and the preseason.
Will Michael Malone Again Make Defense The Primary Focus Of Training Camp?
Malone has made a practice of emphasizing defense f irst and foremost in training camps, and last season he finally got the results he’d long been yearning for his team to achieve. The Nuggets opened the season as one of the strongest defensive teams in the league, with a defensive rating which mostly stayed in the top five in the league through the first quarter of the season, per NBA.com. The offense, on the other hand, somewhat surprisingly sputtered out of the gates:
It wasn’t until nearly halfway through the season that Denver’s rank in offensive rating finally aligned with expectations and surpassed their defensive rating rank for the duration. And while finishing with a top-seven offense, a top-10 defense, 54 wins and the second seed in the brutal Western Conference amounted to an unquestionably successful season of improvement for Denver, it did seem at least initially that the focus on defense in training camp had perhaps come to an extent at the cost of sufficiently preparing the offense.
Now that Malone knows his players have experienced and executed a full season with sounder principles and more discipline on defense, will he release that throttle in favor of a more balanced approach to camp or keep beating the defensive drum as hard as ever? My guess would be the latter, but Malone has proven himself capable of pulling some surprises out of his hat at times.
A Renewed Commitment To Jokic Ball Could Help Harris And Barton Get Their Mojo Back
Continuing along the same lines of what aspects of Denver’s game Malone and his coaching staff will focus on, it seems it would be in the best interest of their offense to try to more fully commit to their trademark all-hands-on-deck ball-sharing style with Jokic at the vortex which made their offense so dynamic and lethal as it organically emerged in the season and a half following Jokic’s installation as starting center on December 15, 2016. It is that brand of basketball, featuring multiple dribble handoffs and pick-and-rolls with players running and cutting all around the court, that truly launched the new era of the Denver Nuggets, but the team drifted a little away from that last season, with mixed results.
Born at first of necessity, as all three of Barton, Harris and Millsap had gone down with injury by December of last season, the Jokic-Murray two-man game was instrumental both in Denver’s regular and postseason success. Ultimately it was and is a necessary and welcome addition to Denver’s offensive arsenal, one which is particularly valuable in those grinding playoff moments that require just getting tough buckets. But it is not as close to the very heart of what makes the Nuggets truly special as Jokic ball.
It’s impossible to determine direct lines of causality for why both Barton and Harris struggled to get their grooves back upon returning from injury last season. A significant portion of it was just physical, to be sure, as both were clearly incapable of moving and jumping with the same athleticism and agility they display when fully healthy. But a loss of rhythm, and a degree of confidence which accompanies it, seems to be another culprit.
The offense they returned to was not quite the offense they had left. In the Murray-Jokic two-man game there was less involvement of the other three players on the court, more standing around and ball-watching, less dynamism and less fully-integrated ball movement. For the Nuggets to compete in a West featuring new powerhouses, they’ll need to optimize the things they are best at doing, and a training camp emphasis on leaning hard into Jokic ball would be a good sign they are gearing up to do just that. And it just might also afford the best opportunity for Barton and Harris to regain their 2017-18 form by increasing their involvement and playing to their strengths.
“Is this season playoffs or bust?” was the big mantra question looming over the media day and training camp proceedings last year, after the Nuggets had missed the postseason cut by a single game twice in a row. Now, after smashing expectations last season with a 14-game playoff run as the second seed, and in light of Jokic’s ascension to All-Star, All-NBA First Team, and top-ten player status, the bar ill indubitably be set far higher. But will it be set all the way at the top, with coaches, front office staff and players alike publicly presenting a unified front of championship aspirations?
President of basketball operations Tim Connelly already opened the door to this possibility in a recent radio interview on Denver station KOA, asking “Why not us? Why can’t we win at the highest level?” And while that falls a bit shy of “Our goal is to win a title,” it would make sense if the rhetoric went there this time around.
With the Golden State Warriors dethroned, and the first absence of super teams with superstar “Big Threes” in the NBA landscape in years, the Nuggets are hitting their stride just as the title contention window is opening wider. And while Denver is a humble team that may instinctively shy away from the braggadocio of “We belong among the best,” setting the championship as the goal might just help the players and organization to approach the season with the right kind of focused mindset which optimizes their chances for success.