• Jeremy Freed

Denver Nuggets: 4 Thoughts, Week 3

USA Today

Oh Denver.

Just when you think you’ve turned the corner with an EPIC comeback against Philly (toldja that should’ve been on national TV) and a rugged OT win in Minnesota, you come home and get the doors blown off by the Hawks. The Hawks! With no John Collins, and Kevin Huerter leaving early due to an injury. Am I too hard on a 7-3 team? Maybe -- it just feels like they’re a content team right now, when they should be a hungry team. What makes me feel this way?

1. Only Will Barton is giving me ‘now HE is having a good season’ vibes. Barton had been on the ascent, hitting career highs in points, rebounds, and assists in the 2017-18 season, putting up a 15.7-5.0-4.1, while shooting a career-best 45.2% from the field and 37.0% from downtown. Then he picked up right where he left off in 2018-9 with a 19-5-2 in the opener, and 14-5-4 in 19 minutes of game two before a pop and a tear and 38 games in street-clothes. Kinda harshed his buzz.

But he’s back to tone-setter, peak Barton in the early stages of 2019-20, laying down a well-rounded nightly 15.6-7.9-2.5. Those 7.9 boards per night are a career-high by a significant margin (previous high: 5.8) and his 1.4 steals and .8 blocks per game are career highs too (if by smaller margins). The Nuggets need him bad, especially because

2. Gary Harris is missing. In that same 2017-18 season where Will Barton made a name for himself, Harris was just maybe even better, with a nightly 17.5-2.6-2.9 to his name. Not known for his durability, Harris managed to make it on the court 67 of the 82 games, good for his second most-available season, so we’re looking at a significant sample size. This was the fourth straight year where he had, more or less, increased his big-three counting stats across the board, so the future was bright, shades were in order, the works. Then came 2018-19. Injuries dropped him to 57 games played. He plays six fewer minutes a game as Malik Beasley asserts himself. Everything falls off.

New season! 10 games. 10 starts. Minutes are back, and...Harris ain’t back. His shots are down to his lowest per game since year two, and they’re not good shots. He’s hitting a ghastly 39.3% from the field. His three-point accuracy is middling for him -- 34.1% -- but he’s shooting fewer of them. At a time when three-point shooting is skyrocketing across the league, Gary Harris is eschewing them for bad twos. If he doesn’t fix this, my personal drumbeat for Malik Beasley will only get louder. Speaking of Beasley,

3. Malone still hasn’t figured out that bench. I guess it’s a #firstworldproblem to have a deep bench and more players jockeying for fewer minutes than you have to give them, but he needs to sort it out, or Tim Connelly has to get out there and swing some 2-for-1s to condense. Players who are averaging 10 or more fewer minutes per game and are shells of their former selves raise your hands. Jerami Grant? Juancho Hernangomez? Stand over there. Players who are averaging 5 or more fewer who want to join them? Malik Beasley? Monte Morris? Mason Plumlee? Ok, go ahead. What? That’s the ENTIRE BENCH? Why yes, yes it is. Only Jerami Grant is a newcomer, and

4. Jerami Grant is not being used properly. I know it wasn’t going to be a particularly high 1st-rounder that Denver sent OKC for Grant, but did they really ship out a 1st so they could get 22 minutes off the bench of 8.6 points and 2.6 rebounds? From a guy who broke out with 13.6 and 5.2 a year ago, and despite entering his 6th season is still just 25? Paul Millsap is not going to live forever, and at this stage of his career, is not as adversely affected by a drop in minutes, or by coming off the bench.

Millsap is 34. He is not the future of the power forward position in Denver -- and the Nuggets need to see if they have it on the roster. Jokic is 24. Murray is 22. A 25-year-old Jerami Grant might be a good piece to grow with them -- he has to log some minutes with the starters to find out. This is doubly important because Grant hits free agency this year, as does Millsap, and the Nuggets need to find out if they should bring him back, or turn the keys over to 21-year-old Michael Porter Jr.

‘We’re 10 games in, and you’re thinking about next season?’ Not really. What I’m thinking about is why a team that has championship aspirations has looked middling, despite a good record; of all plus-.500 teams in the Association, the Nuggets have the second-lowest point differential. Denver’s gotta shake a Mile High Malaise, and have two very winnable games in which to do it this week. Hopefully we’ll be checking in with four sunnier thoughts next time!

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