• Alec Liebsch

2019-20 Team Obituaries: Denver Nuggets

In the NBA, only one team can be crowned champion. The other 15 playoff teams that fall short should not be disregarded though. Here at Off the Glass, I will be writing the "obituaries" for the teams that didn't get to hoist the O'Brien Trophy.

The Denver Nuggets are as battle-tested as can be for such a young team. Back in 2017-18, the Nugs faced the Timberwolves in the final game of the season in a game where the winner would earn the 8th and final postseason seed. Nikola Jokic was in just his third year as an NBA pro, Jamal Murray his second.

Minnesota won, but Denver's dynamic core got its first taste of a playoff environment. Building off their success from the previous season, the Nuggets amassed 54 wins and earned the 2 seed in a jam-packed West during the 2018-19 campaign. Jokic took a massive leap and commandeered one of the best offenses in the league, while Murray did well for stretches (but sometimes fell into the background a little too often).

Denver needed the Blue Arrow's to find a rhythm. Every great team needs a guy who can create dribble penetration, make plays for others, and hit tough shots. Murray's body, skill set and talent level fit right into that archetype; Jokic's strengths lie elsewhere.

Murray was hot and cold in his first postseason. The San Antonio Spurs gave the Nuggets more trouble than the average 7 seed, pushing their first-round series to seven games before the Nuggets pulled it out.

Still rather new to the scene, this young Denver team squared up with a formidable Blazers club. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum define playoff experience, having made the postseason every year they've been together (since 2013-14, McCollum's rookie season). Like the Spurs in the previous series, it was the perhaps over-achieving Nuggets against a veteran squad.

Murray had flashes of brilliance and even led Denver to a few key victories. Jokic looked slow, especially on defense. Though the series went seven games, the Blazers moved on.

It was a bit of a upset, but also a learning moment for the Nuggets. Despite the inconsistent play, there were flashes of brilliance from Jokic and Murray. And after all, the club came within a game of the Western Conference Finals.

The 2019-20 season was slated to be a pivotal one. Either Jokic and Murray would continue to get better alongside some new and intriguing teammates. Or the team would stagnate and have to come to terms with a ceiling for this intriguing duo.

The results

Denver improved during the wonky 2019-20 season (despite some numbers that suggest otherwise). Another year together made Murray and Jokic more cohesive, and more adept at playing to each other's strengths. Now an established power in a crowded West, the Nuggets finished as the 3 seed at the conclusion of the play-in games in Orlando.

The Nuggets competition was the team's biggest hurdle in continued growth. Yes, the Golden State Warriors had relinquished their grip on the Western Conference, but there was an influx of star power in Los Angeles. Houston and Utah looked frisky, and Dallas had taken over as the darling of the conference.

Things were going to be tough for the Nuggets.

Denver faced Utah in the opening series. The Jazz and the Nugs were a nice match up - both teams were constructed around a good young scoring guard and elite center. Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert were worthy adversaries for Murray and Jokic.

There were differences between the clubs on the margins. Utah pushed its chips in last summer, acquiring Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic to bolster its core. Denver opted for continuity and brought in role players on a budget, though Jerami Grant was a big addition.

Murray and Mitchell alone made the series must-see TV. From Mitchell's 57 points in Game 1 to Murray's 50 in Game 4—both in losing efforts—there was a clear "this is my moment" realization for both. Each young star had a full plate offensively for the entire series, and it was a blast to watch.

The Jazz won three of the first four games to take a 3-1 lead. The odds and momentum were heavily in their favor, with Utah snagging Game 4 Murray's 50 point performance. For the first half of the series, Mitchell and the Jazz got virtually whatever shot they wanted, pouring in 131 points per 100 possessions in Games 1-4.

But these Nuggets had been tested before, and their failed efforts in recent postseasons taught the team to refuse to quiet. Murray alone scored 92 points across Games 5 and 6, as his irrational confidence led to shot-making of near impossible difficulty. The Nuggets also utilized his two-man game with Jokic more, forcing the Jazz to institute a switching scheme that mitigated Gobert's value. Denver clawed its way back into the driver's seat.

Entropy caught up to Mitchell and Murray in Game 7—neither guard played particularly well. But for the Nuggets, Jokic was sensational.

The Joker poured in 30 points, 11 rebounds and 4 assists. Gobert got 10 points and 12 boards of his own—in the fourth quarter alone. The last few plays were stuff that only two exhausted teams in Game 7 could come up with: missed shots, weird decisions given the time remaining, and a lot of defense.

Denver 80, Utah 78. The Nuggets had completed the unthinkable, overcoming a 3-1 deficit, surviving a Mike Conley buzzer-beater to boot.

The odds were stacked against Denver in Round Two, as the L.A. Clippers awaited. Led by reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and excellent second fiddle Paul George, LAC was designed for postseason success. A team with one elite wing had a good chance in the playoffs; two great ones make you championship-caliber in today's NBA.

The Clippers were certainly the superior team early, and the Nuggets once again fell behind 3-1 in the series. Even late in Game 5 they were down 17, and LA was ready to seal the deal.

But the Nuggets just. Wouldn't. Go. Away.

LAC's trademark depth fizzled away; Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell each faced their own roadblocks with playoff viability. Even the Clippers' star power was limited - Leonard wasn't the same playoff killer from last year, and George wavered mightily from night to night.

The Clippers spent the whole season with parts of its whole. When it was time to put it all together, they simply couldn't. Leonard and George combined for a meager 24 points in Game 7. Murray nearly got that in the second quarter alone (20), and finished with 40 overall in a signature clincher. Lightning struck twice: the Nuggets had overcome another 3-1 deficit.

The Conference Finals weren't going to be any easier, as LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Lakers awaited the now exhausted Nuggets. James was still setting the world on fire at age 35, leading the league in assists while maintaining his usual greatness everywhere else. Davis continued to be the stat stuffer he was in New Orleans—only this time he was actually winning.

What made this LeBron-led team different was the intensity from start to finish. James set the tone defensively from day one of the regular season, something he hasn't done in quite a long time. This generation's GOAT was out for blood, and he, Davis and the role players had dominated so far.

The Lakers made quick work of the Nuggets, too. The Lakers put constant pressure on the rim offensively, exposing Jokic's shaky defense. and therefore constant strain on Jokic defensively. Things got even worse when Jokic took a breather; Mason Plumlee and Torrey Craig were simply inadequate back-up centers.

Why didn't Grant slide to the 5 on defense? Because he was Denver's only real option to guard LeBron. And like great players do, LeBron figured out that matchup quickly. The Nuggets' main weaknesses were prime territory for the Lakers to strike.

This time when the Nuggets fell down 3-1, they stayed down—there was no comeback on the horizon. LA won Game 5 to seal the deal.

Denver's incredible season was over, but there was no reason for shame.

The outlook

As you would expect, Denver is in a pretty good spot going forward. The core of Murray and Jokic appears to have an even higher floor than expected, with room to improve! What they do with everything else on the roster will be of peak interest.

The first situation to deal with is Grant's. He is declining his $9.3 million player option for next season, and will likely be highly sought after on the open market. His skill set—a two-way forward who hits 3s and attacks closeouts while also playing great defense across multiple positions—is quite valuable in 2020, especially at the highest levels. For that reason, Denver should do what it can to keep him.

Working in the incumbent team's favor is the salary cap situation around the league. Only five teams have more cap space than the mid-level exception (just under $10 million), which limits how many teams can offer him what he's worth. Denver also has his full Bird Rights, meaning it can go over the cap and offer him more than other teams can.

That situation will have a direct impact on how they handle Paul Millsap. The Nuggets' other 4-man clearly didn't live up to his contract, but that also means he likely won't garner a huge deal anywhere else. The Nuggets can also offer him more than any other team, though that might not matter if he still wants a big role.

Another forward who would cut into his minutes is Michael Porter Jr., who didn't get much run early last season but gradually proved his worth as an NBA player. His scoring punch will be much needed next season, especially when Murray and/or Jokic are sitting; the main questions for him are on defense.

The man with no position, Craig is also a free agent, though he'll be easier to retain since he's restricted. Other end-of-bench guys shouldn't cost too much to retain, and even after that the front office has intermediate means to add talent.

Any external additions they make would likely be replacements for losses. Should Grant or Millsap leave, a defensive-minded forward will be prioritized. Another center should be on the table regardless of how extension talks with Plumlee go; it's just a matter of how much the team has to spend on one.

Restricting the front office is governorship's refusal to go into the luxury tax. Few teams actually go over that line, and Denver has a good amount of breathing room before coming close, but the time to be willing to spend is near.

The front office waited to see how this season would play out before spending a lot. The team rewarded them with the best story in the Western Conference. The Nuggets have arrived, and the time for brass to strike is now.