NUGGETS

Nuggets Preview: Four big questions loom as new season tips off

Oct 20, 2021, 6:00 AM | Updated: 6:45 am
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In more than 50 years of Nuggets basketball, few seasons have started with as much anticipation as the 2021-22 campaign. And for good reason.

Denver is a legitimate championship contender. That’s rarely happened during the history of the franchise.

They have the NBA’s reigning Most Valuable Player on the roster, the first time that’s ever been the case. They have a core of young, rising stars. And they have a cast of role players who fit together nicely.

All the pieces are in place. The table is set. The opportunity is there.

But that doesn’t mean it’ll easy. In fact, there are some pretty big pitfalls on the path to contention.

Can the Nuggets make a title run? The answers to these four questions will be the key:

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1. How do the Nuggets stay in contention until Jamal Murray returns?

Last season, Denver’s title hopes went up in flames the night Jamal Murray blew out his ACL. When the Nuggets point guard was crumbled on the floor at Golden State on April 23, the notion of hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy was gone.

That said, the team did play well after his injury. They finished the regular season on a 9-4 run, climbing in the Western Conference Standings in the process. Then, they went out and beat the Trail Blazers, a team that leans heavily on their guards, in the first round of the playoffs. So there is evidence that the Nuggets can win without Murray, especially in the regular season.

There’s a ton of talent on the roster. Night in and night out, Denver will be the better team on the court. And their unique style of play, running the team through a one-of-a-kind talent in Nikola Jokic, makes them tough to prepare for on a random Tuesday night in December.

But the Nuggets certainly can’t afford any more injuries. And they need their other big stars – Jokic, Michael Porter Jr, Aaron Gordon – to play well. That trio is more than good enough to keep Denver in the upper half of the playoff race in the West.

If they can get one or two role players to step on every so often – guys like Will Barton, Austin Rivers and Markus Howard – the Nuggets will be more than fine until Murray returns. In fact, it might even make them better, as it could allow someone like Howard to get the playing time he needs to emerge as the team’s outside shooting threat.

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2. Can Nikola Jokic repeat the feat?

Yes and no. Statistically speaking, Jokic can certainly match what he did last season. He’s more than capable of once again averaging 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game.

Since he got into shape during the COVID-19 layoff, Jokic has been a different player. He’s been able to dominate games, something that shows no signs of diminishing.

That said, repeating as the league’s MVP will be tough. For one, there are a lot of great candidates out there. And most of them play the game in a way that leads to flashy highlights that make the rounds on social media; those are the kinds of players who typically win individual awards.

Plus, Jokic winning MVP a season ago wasn’t a popular choice. An argument can be made that it was the most-controversial selection in the past three decades. So for him to win it again, he’ll have to overcome that stigma, making it impossible to ignore his candidacy. That’ll be tough.

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3. Will Michael Porter Jr. blossom into a star?

He better. The Nuggets are certainly paying him like one, as he agreed to a five-year, $207 million extension during the offseason. If the forward doesn’t turn into a star, that contract will become an albatross that holds back the franchise.

There is evidence that Porter Jr. will make the leap. After all, he was a finalist for the NBA’s Most Improved Player last season, after averaging 19.0 points and 7.3 rebounds. That was a huge jump from the previous season, when he posted 9.3 and 4.7, respectively. So the trend is going up.

That said, there are still reasons for concern. Prior to Murray’s injury, Porter Jr.’s playing time was starting to diminish. He was getting into Michael Malone’s doghouse once again. An 0-for-8 shooting night against Boston in February may have been the low point.

Now, the head coach has no choice but to rely on the young, talented player. The organization didn’t pay Porter Jr. to sit the bench in crunch time. And until Murray returns, the Nuggets don’t have too many other ways to turn.

Porter Jr. might be the most-talented player on the roster. And that includes the league’s MVP. But he has to be more consistent. He has to be more consistent. He has to be more well-rounded.

He can’t settle for jump shots. He can’t fumble away rebounds. He can’t disappear for long stretches.

That’s what happened when the Nuggets were swept out of the playoffs by the Suns. That version of Michael Porter Jr. wasn’t a star. And Denver can’t afford to have that player reappear.

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4. Can this team win the title?

Heading into the season, the Nuggets have the ninth-best odds of winning the NBA championship. While not great, it does mean that they’re in the conversation.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that there are five other Western Conference teams ahead of them. The Lakers, Warriors, Suns, Jazz and Clippers all have better odds.

So the road will be tough. And they’ll have to navigate it without one of their four best players for most of the season, as Jamal Murray continues to recover from his knee injury.

But there isn’t a “super team” in the West. The conference is loaded with very good teams, but none of them are unbeatable. The Lakers are a hodgepodge of players who would’ve been an All-Star team a decade ago. The Warriors have to see how Klay Thompson returns after two major injuries. The Suns could’ve been a flash in the pan. And the Jazz and Clippers have already fallen to the Nuggets in a playoff series.

So it’s possible. Denver is certainly in the mix.

They need to remain in the race while Murray is out, which means they’ll have to overachieve a bit during the first half of the season. They simply can’t afford to fall too far down in the standings.

Then, they’ll have to hope Murray returns to his old form. If he can come back and look like the player who posted multiple 50-point games in the bubble, then the Nuggets will have a shot against anyone in a seven-game series.

Prior to Murray’s injury, Denver had won 12 of 14 games. After the Gordon trade, they were emerging as a tough team to deal with on a nightly basis. If that team can return, they’ll certainly be a legit contender.

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Nuggets Preview: Four big questions loom as new season tips off