2019-20 Previews: Denver Nuggets

Losses: Trey Lyles, Tyler Lydon, Isaiah Thomas.

Additions: Jerami Grant, Tyler Zeller, P.J. Dozier, Vlatko Cancar.

Likely Starters
Guard: Jamal Murray, Gary Harris
Wing: Will Barton
Big: Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokić

Predicted Record: 58–24 | 1st in NBA | 1st in West

Full disclosure: I love this team. This is a roster full of singular players; somehow, it is also a roster that coheres in exciting ways. You’ve got key players who are still incredibly young—Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokić, and Gary Harris will be 22, 24, and 25 this season, respectively—and veterans like Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee who tie the young guys together. Everybody is a really good passer, everybody can make plays for themselves or for their teammates, and everything in this paragraph makes this a really good team that should improve over what they did last season.

On just what I’ve already written, you could argue that the Nuggets will be the best regular season team in the league this season. I’m suggesting here, though, that they will be more than that. I think this team is about to be great, and the reason for that is Nikola Jokić.

On a team of singular players, Jokić is a fucking singularity. He warps and curves the space on the floor in astonishing ways. Yes, he’s lumbering and plodding, but his physical form belies the effect he has on the game. You don’t need to be fast if you can alter space and time. You don’t need to move from point A to point B if you can fold those points together. It’s such a cliché to suggest that great players make their teammates better, but in the case of Jokić, his capacity for making his teammates better is his greatness. How to you quantify the effect it has on players to play with someone like that?

Here’s something so obvious you might miss it: it turns out it is valuable to have the best rebounder on your team be an all-time great passer. When Jokić gets a defensive rebound, his teammates can fly; they know if they’re open on the wing, down the floor, anywhere, the ball will magically fall into their hands. Jokić’s unique skill set fuels what would otherwise be a mediocre offense. The Nuggets were 6th in offensive rating last season despite finishing 27th in free throw rate, 15th in 3-point rate, and 15th in effective field goal percentage. You know why? They were 2nd in offensive rebound rate and second in assists. In a league that is figuring out the value of quick-hitting kick-out passes, Jokić came along fully equipped to deliver them more often than anybody. Philosophically, this becomes a way of building a team—Millsap and Plumlee are great in these areas too.

It’s fair to critique Jokić for his defense, but his effort and intelligence puts him ahead of plenty of players on that end too. It’s fair to wonder if there will be playoff matchups in which Jokić just can’t check anybody. On the other hand, he creates matchup problems too. The best playoff teams find things that work and pick them apart. Jokić is able to process that information in real time. You don’t have to call a timeout. He brings up the ball, he bulldozes his way into the post, and the offense swirls around him like a hurricane. My bet is that he can survive on defense. The great ones have a tendency to survive.

There’s a lot of peripheral stuff to be excited about in Denver. Jerami Grant is an awesome fit on this roster. Jokić didn’t shoot the ball particularly well last season and still was one of the best players in the league. The Nuggets are incredibly deep, and they are one of the few contenders with the contracts to swing a big trade at some point. If Jamal Murray can find some consistency in his best performances, this team is going to be a juggernaut. Whatever. The main attraction here is Jokić. He’s the thing that takes them from very good to anything’s possible.

It has become conventional wisdom that regular season success and playoff success are fundamentally different in basketball. It’s true, of course. Over the course of a series, it is much harder to get away with giving minutes to players with weaknesses the other team is capable of easily exploiting. We’re deep into an era in which players with the athletic profile of Nikola Jokić get played off the court against teams that can go small in the playoffs.

And yet, one quick look at the history of, well, anything will tell you that whenever we start thinking we know something, we should start considering the idea that we’re probably wrong. Jokić isn’t just some stiff. If you accept the premise that his greatness as a passer is evidence of a kind of genius when it comes to processing the game in real time, you can probably imagine that he’s capable of figuring out how to avoid getting roasted in the playoffs. The dude is 24 years old, and he’s already some kind of howling vortex at the center of a star, but he’s still becoming. He’s not what he’s going to be. Not yet; not even close.

As our basketball data gets better and better, there’s a risk in placing too much importance on what can be measured. Consider the way the 2014 Spurs were able to pass the ball until the Heat’s defense stretched and broke. Intuition—that holy basketball skill we refer to as feel: it is hard to value it properly. It requires a little bit of faith. The Nuggets are up to their elbows in it, and their center is a gravitational force, closing all distances, knitting everyone together. That’s why I think the Nuggets are going to win the 2019-20 NBA title.

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