By Dave DuFour
The last time the Denver Nuggets were truly competitive, former head coach George Karl took pride in a 57-win team that competed despite the absence of a franchise player.
“Why don’t we just go get really good players and try to make ‘em great?” Karl told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne during those 2013 playoffs.
That team, comprised entirely of solid-to-good rotation players—many of them acquired in the Carmelo Anthony trade—flamed out in the first round. That they were torched by one player, the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry, helped to emphasize one difficult truth:
Superstars win championships.
It’s been a few years since those Nuggets peaked. While a few holdovers remain, the team spent the past few years collecting assets and transitioning away from that era. Though the Nuggets are currently still young and the roster still flexible, there are enough foundational pieces to start solidifying a core.
Absent a No. 1 overall pick, or recruiting leverage in the free agency market, the Nuggets’ timetable for success depends largely on the development—both individually, and as a tandem–of second-year players Nikola Jokic and Emmanuel Mudiay.
Jokic was a revelation as a 2014 international second round (No. 43 overall) draft-and-stash prospect made good. From seemingly out of nowhere, and from the relative anonymity of Denver, Jokic put together a rookie season that, by many metrics, rivaled that of Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Prozingis. Jokic posted a Box Plus-Minus of 4.8, good for 11th overall and first among all center, showcasing a deep, all-around skill set that more than offset the athleticism and defensive concerns that dropped him out of the first round of the NBA draft.
Last season, Jokic hit about one-third of this three-point attempts (33.3 percent on 84 attempts) in his first season adjusting to the NBA’s three-point line, spacing the floor from the center position with a confident, fluid release that should hold up under an increase in volume:
Jokic has a nifty post-game that’s reliant on his good footwork and soft touch:
Nikola Jokic is already one of the best passing bigs in the league, assisting on 18.1 percent of Denver’s baskets while he was on the floor, good for fourth among centers. Whether threading the needle to cutters:
Flipping behind the back passes:
Or leading the break off a defensive rebound:
Jokic shows he has a great feel for setting up his teammates, averaging 3.9 assists per 36 minutes:
That ability to do so many things at an above average-to-good level should serve as a perfect complement to the Nuggets’ other cornerstone player, Mudiay. Emmanuel Mudiay has a lot of holes in his game, but his ability to get into the paint gives the Nuggets a potential elite skill to anchor their offense around.
Mudiay has a rare combination of size and athleticism, making him a tough matchup for opposing guards at both ends of the floor. He is a pesky defender with good hands who can use his physicality to wear down point guards:
And his length allows him to challenge shots smaller guards are unable to get to:
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Emmanuel Mudiay has been a source for quite a bit of dissension among NBA writers. His biggest question mark coming into the league was his shooting. Mudiay shot a dreadful 36.4 percent from the field during his rookie campaign. He started off very slow, struggling to make even 24 percent of his threes in the early months of the season, but post All Star Break Mudiay was able to hit 36.4 percent on 4.2 attempts per game.
This improvement is attributed to time spent working with Mike Miller after an ankle injury sidelined Mudiay for a few weeks in December. Mudiay’s form was very inconsistent, often shooting the ball on the way down, rather than the ideal release at the apex of his jump. This post All-Star bump was seen across the box score for Mudiay. He increased his free throw percentage by 16 points, which is a good sign for his consistency going forward. Mudiay had a chance to showcase his improved jumper over the summer in Las Vegas. With his much smoother delivery and timing, he has all but eliminated the hitch that haunted his pull-up game:
In order for role players to prosper, teams need a strong hub to anchor their system and keep everyone in their lane. The Nuggets’ best hope for this is the Mudiay and Jokic two-man game:
Both are great cutters and have shown the beginnings of great chemistry, playing off each other:
But it’s their ability to work in tandem in the pick and roll that sets the ceiling for the team, where Mudiay’s ability turn the corner and get to the rim puts pressure on defenses:
And Jokic’s versatile skill set, whether rolling to the basket:
Or popping out for three-pointers, forces defenses into tough decisions with no good choices on their end. Throw in Jokic’s ability to trigger the fast break off his own rebounds, and Mudiay’s athleticism in the open court, and the team becomes even more dangerous in a run and gun style tailored to take advantage of Denver’s high altitude:
It’s fairly obvious that the Nuggets, while on the upswing, aren’t quite ready to be considered a serious contender. Nuggets GM Tim Connelly is on a three-year run of draft success, following the selections of Jokic and Murray with high-powered scoring machine Jamal Murray, and Spanish prospect Juancho Hernangomez. The additions of Murray, Hernangomez, and Malik Beasley should help ease the transition away from stalwarts Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, and Wilson Chandler.
Going forward, Denver should look to move guys currently in, or on the tail end, of their primes for assets and financial flexibility. The development of Jokic and Mudiay into elite players would make the path clearer, allowing them to move their accumulated assets for value players.
Jokic has already shown the potential to be a transformational talent with upside and positional flexibility along the same lines of Porzingis and Karl-Anthony Towns; and through a rough rookie season, Mudiay flashed top 10 point guard potential.
The plan remains to go get really good players and make them great, as a team. But Denver now has the opportunity to apply that model with two players with the potential to be that individually as well.
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