From Deep: At long last, Nikola Jokic’s Nuggets can envision getting to the top of the mountain

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From Deep: At long last, Nikola Jokic’s Nuggets can envision getting to the top of the mountain
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Jamal Murray tore his ACL on April 12, 2src21. Leading up to that night, he’d been playing at an All-nba level for two months: In a 25-game stretch, Murray averaged 24.1 points on .5src9/.459/.935 shooting splits, 4.2 rebounds and 5.2 assists. He was even more efficient than he was in the bubble playoffs, and his defense had improved, too.

Murray only got to play with Aaron Gordon, the Denver Nuggets‘ big trade-deadline addition, for five games. They won them all except the one in which Murray got injured. In 11src minutes, their new starting five scored slightly more efficiently than any iteration of the Kevin Durant-era death lineup in Golden State and defended like a top-five team.

Two Nikola Jokic MVP awards later, Murray is back. So is Michael Porter Jr., who signed a five-year extension about a year ago and needed back surgery nine games into the 2src2src-21 season. The Nuggets remember how easily everything slid into place with Gordon in the mix. Newcomer Kentavious Caldwell-Pope remembers how dangerous they were even before that, saying in July that he thinks Denver would’ve won its series against the Los Angeles Lakers in the bubble if not for Anthony Davis‘ buzzer-beating 3 in Game 2.

Caldwell-Pope, 29, has arrived from Washington to take Will Barton’s spot in the starting lineup. The trade, which also sent Monte Morris to the Wizards and Ish Smith to the Nuggets, was not a typical I’ll-take-your-vet-for-my-pick upgrade, but it is nonetheless the kind of move a team makes when it is close to a championship. For this specific team, Caldwell-Pope’s point-of-attack defense, screen navigation and low-maintenance offensive game are more valuable than the playmaking it lost. The swap also cleared a path for 22-year-old guard Bones Hyland, who made 42.7 percent of his wide-open 3s as a rookie.

The front office, now run by Calvin Booth, nabbed Bruce Brown on a one-plus-one contract that will pay the Swiss Army knife about half what Marvin Bagley III and Gary Harris got on their new deals. Coach Michael Malone already thinks that Brown will “close a lot of big games for us,” and it’s not difficult to see what drew Denver to him. Brown’s screening, cutting and short-roll stuff should all become more dangerous within the Nuggets’ offensive flow. His versatility, especially when sharing the court with Caldwell-Pope and Gordon, gives their defense a whole different look.

Best-case scenario: Murray finally makes the All-Star team, Porter’s defensive lapses virtually vanish, both of them stay healthy and Denver dominates the entire regular season, forcing a majority of awards voters to — reluctantly, in many cases — pick Jokic as MVP yet again. In this world, every second that has been spent thinking about, talking about and rewatching those 11src minutes will seem entirely justified. 

There would, however, still be one question hanging over the Nuggets: Can their defense hold up in the playoffs? One can debate how much responsibility Jokic bears for their poor defensive numbers when he’s been on the court in recent playoffs, but the numbers have definitively been poor. In theory, Denver now has the personnel to either change that story or make up for it with offense. But that theory has yet to be tested. 

The conversation

Nuggets believer: I’ve been waiting more than 18 months for this. The Nuggets are finally whole, finally balanced and finally equipped to give Nikola Jokic the stage he deserves. The pieces don’t just fit better than they did when they made the conference finals in the bubble; they fit better than they did after the Aaron Gordon trade. The Jamal Murray revenge tour is coming, the Bones Hyland breakout is coming, Bruce Brown was the best signing of the summer and KCP is the 3-and-D guy they’ve needed forever. Zeke Nnaji is ready, too, and I, personally, am ready for the best Nuggets season ever. 

Nuggets skeptic: Strong statement, especially if the ABA years count. I wouldn’t disagree with it, though, if you had some kind of qualifier in there. Here’s my edit: “I’m ready for the best Nuggets season ever, provided they can stay healthy, come together defensively, get improved production from the bench and deal with expectations that are higher than ever.” How does that sound?

Nuggets believer: It sounds like you’re worrying too much. Denver had a plus-8.4 net rating when Nikola Jokic was on the court last season, and that was without his two best teammates. You can’t do the “a bunch of things have to go right” bit for this team. And of course expectations are high — the back-to-back MVP has a championship-caliber supporting cast! Are you seriously down on the bench and the defense?  

Nuggets skeptic: Not “down” exactly, but I have questions. Am I supposed to assume that Michael Porter Jr. is going to consistently make the right decisions defensively? What’s the spacing going to look like when Brown is on the court with Gordon? How much is Denver asking of guys like Nnaji, Jeff Green, Davon Reed and Christian Braun?

Nuggets believer: Porter doesn’t need to make All-Defense or anything; I am sure that he will compete, grab defensive rebounds and get his fair share of help-side blocks. It might take some time for Gordon and Brown — who made 4src.4 percent of his 3s last season! — to learn not to cut over the top of each other, but they’ll figure it out. I’m guessing Nnaji and Green will both be in the regular rotation, but there might only be room for one of them in the second round and beyond. Reed and Braun will battle for backup-wing minutes, but, assuming full health, I doubt either is in the top nine. Any more questions?

Nuggets skeptic: Never assume full health, especially with the Nuggets. And yes, I have more: How much gravity would you say Brown had in last season’s playoffs? Was Green’s 31.5-percent mark from 3-point range a bigger anomaly than his 41.2-percent mark in Brooklyn the previous season? I’ll even give you a hint on that second one: Green’s career 3-point percentage is 33.9 percent.

Nuggets believer: If you’re going to concern-troll the Nuggets, stick with the defense. Jokic has proven that he doesn’t need four lights-out shooters around him to make the offense amazing. Brown is one of the best cutters in the NBA and at least an improved shooter, regardless of how defenses treat him. With Murray and Porter back, Green’s 3s will be wide open. The offense is going to be delightful or devastating, depending on your rooting interest. 

Nuggets skeptic: It’s your absolute certainty that bugs me. We can all agree that the Nuggets have a championship ceiling, but there are real variables here: Porter’s health is the most glaring one, his defense is connected to that and I’m not just going to assume that the non-Jokic minutes are going to be fine. On that topic: Who’s playing the 5 in those minutes? Is it Nnaji? Green? DeAndre Jordan? I wish they’d kept Isaiah Hartenstein around; he’s become my favorite backup big in the whole league.

Nuggets believer: Since you’re upset about my absolute certainty, I’ll give you this: I don’t know! I’m sure Michael Malone’s staff will try playing Nnaji and Green together, and I’d like to see each of them get some minutes as the lone big. If Denver needs a big body and/or someone to play drop coverage, Jordan can step right in and contribute the way DeMarcus Cousins did. What I love about this roster is that there are options. Brown is 6-foot-4 and might run point sometimes, but he can function as a center, too. 

Nuggets skeptic: This time of year, everybody’s excited about all of fun little experiments that teams might do over the course of the regular season. If you don’t mind, though, I’d like to fast-forward past all of that: If the Warriors are going at Jokic and making Porter’s head spin in a playoff series, what does Malone do? Maybe your answer is “nothing” because you believe in the Nuggets’ ability to rotate and cover for each other. I’d probably want Brown in there in Porter’s place, though, which would hurt the offense.

Nuggets believer: It’s October. Please don’t drive yourself crazy thinking about hypotheticals that might maybe matter in April, May and June. I understand that—

Nuggets skeptic: Stop! If you don’t think the Nuggets’ front office and coaching staff have discussed these hypotheticals, you’re crazy. When your team is good enough to be in the championship conversation, you should always have April, May and June on your mind. 

Nuggets believer: Uh, rude interruption on your part. Anyway, I understand that, until Jokic is an nba champion, lots of people are going to question his defense. He’s improved to the point that smart analysts don’t call him a bad defender anymore, but most of them still seem to think that his defense limits his team’s ceiling. I simply don’t see it that way, and I’d like to raise my own question: How is anybody going to stop the Nuggets? The Murray-Jokic two-man game is unguardable, and Porter complements them perfectly. With KCP and Gordon filling in the blanks, there is no ceiling. Like the beginning-of-the-dynasty Warriors, the beautiful-game Spurs, the seven-seconds-or-less Suns and the 2src-years-ago Kings, this is a legitimate title contender that also happens to be a must-watch, more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts team

Nuggets skeptic: Yeah, and not all of those teams went all the way. I suppose you would have dismissed my concerns about the Suns’ defense and depth, too. 

The curiosity: Christian Braun

I’m not predicting that Braun (pronounced “Brown”) will be in the playoff rotation. But if any rookie picked No. 21 in the draft could earn a real role on a title contender, it would be someone like him.

Braun is a 6-foot-6 wing who is one of the best defenders in his class. For a team that has needed some athleticism and physicality at that spot, his performance at summer league was encouraging: 

Less encouraging: He shot 3-for-24 from 3-point range in Vegas. 

Braun’s shot looks pure, though, and he shot 38.6 percent in his junior season at Kansas, 37.8 percent in his collegiate career. If those marks are more indicative of his shooting ability, then he profiles as tailor-made for the Nuggets’ system, in which his other strengths (cutting, secondary playmaking) will be accentuated and his main weakness (one-on-one creation) will be irrelevant. 

One more thing

It’s unclear whether Brown dunked on Green during training camp. Brown says that this was his highlight of camp, but Green, his once-again teammate, claims it never happened, adding that Brown “can barely dunk” and should be either fined or suspended for his “damn lie,” per The Denver Post.

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