The Denver Nuggets were quietly one of the most exciting offensive teams in basketball over the second half of 2016-17, narrowly missing the 8 seed in the Western Conference by one game as divisional rival Portland edged them out. The Nuggets could score on absolutely anyone in 2016, but absolutely anyone could score on them. The team was last in the league at forcing turnovers and was among the worst in the league in points allowed and field goals allowed. The Nuggets did not shake things up a ton in the off-season, but did manage to make a few splashes and will have fresh look in 2017-18.
That fresh look starts and ends with new starting power forward Paul Millsap, who the team signed away from the Atlanta Hawks on a 2 year deal worth 61 million dollars. Millsap, age 32, would seem to immediately be cemented as the team’s veteran leadership and is among the best players on the team along with frontcourt running mate Nikola Jokic. Millsap is an extremely well rounded player and can make an impact in numerous areas, including on the defensive end. Millsap’s passing ability should be a benefit as well and his unselfish style should do little to interrupt the flow of an offense that was already electric a season ago.
The Nuggets also opted to move away from swingman Danilo Gallinari, who led the team in scoring each of the past two seasons, but also missed 38 games during that stretch due to injury. The move away from Nilo will allow for the young backcourt of Gary Harris (14.9 points per game in 2016) and Jamal Murray (9.9 points per game in 2016 as a rookie) to become focal points of the offense. Veteran Wilson Chandler (15.7 points per game in 2016) will likely round out the starting five if Millsap plays his traditional power forward position, which, in all actuality, is not a bad starting five by any means. Jokic and Millsap are star talents, the backcourt is young and full of potential, and the supporting cast is proven and dependable.
The problem the Nuggets will face, however, is the lack of a real superstar player. Jokic and Millsap will form a very frustrating tandem for opposing teams but the roster lacks a player that can go toe to toe with the likes of Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, or Paul George, all of whom now lie in the way of the Nuggets rise through the West. The guard play of the West could also pose a challenging obstacle to overcome. In the Northwest Division alone the Nuggets will face off against Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Russell Westbrook, and Jimmy Butler. The young backcourt will have to defend much better than the unit did a season ago.
Although the Millsap addition is a clear upgrade, I still believe the Nuggets will find themselves drifting through the middle of the Western Conference. The team has too many familiar faces from the squad that got consistently lit up on the scoreboard a season ago and that does not bode well for the prospects of the team’s defense this season. A playoff berth is not out of the realm of possibility and the team will win plenty of games simply by outscoring opponents, especially against the Eastern Conference. All that said, I find the West to be just too much of a gauntlet for any significant rise here. I predict the Denver Nuggets will finish the 2017-18 season at 43-39, fourth in the Northwest Division and eighth in the Western Conference.