Denver Nuggets: How to build around the core

DENVER, CO - MAY 21: Denver Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly speaks to the media on Tuesday, May 21, 2019. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
DENVER, CO - MAY 21: Denver Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly speaks to the media on Tuesday, May 21, 2019. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images) /

After the Denver Nuggets posted a wildly successful 54-28 record, certain weaknesses kept them from reaching the Western Conference Finals.

Realistically speaking, it’s hard to argue the Denver Nuggets‘ 2018-19 season was anything less than successful. At the same time, however, Denver could have bested the Portland Trail Blazers if not for two game-deciding scoring spurts from mediocre forward Rodney Hood.

Championship teams don’t lose at the hand of underwhelming players like Hood. The squad was severely lacking a tall wing defender, which ultimately became its undoing.

What does this mean for the offseason?

Many fans would hate to see a core shakeup after such a strong campaign. Yet, the 2-seeded Nuggets were so close, and the first place Golden State Warriors expect significant offseason damage. If the final championship piece becomes available, just how much would Denver surrender to snag this player? This may become the squad’s key question as the league-wide shuffling kicks off in July.

As a baseline, the Nuggets won’t blow up their roster entirely. Franchises don’t discover their winning formula just to obliterate it by choice and rebuild the next year. Any rumors involving Nikola Jokic are sure to be folly. As proven in the playoffs, he simply means too much to escort out the backdoor.

As a top-five player in the postseason, rarely did Jokic have an ineffective stretch. He led the squad in MVP-worthy fashion with 25.1 points, 13.0 rebounds and 8.4 assists per game. His playoff consistency, combined with a well-rounded skill-set, is an excellent foundation for any NBA team.

Jamal Murray should also be in Denver’s long-term plans, despite his restricted free agent status in 2020. Although inconsistent at times, Murray showed encouraging spurts in the playoffs. He averaged 23.6 points per game in the Portland series, establishing himself as Jokic’s undisputed scoring wingman. Even in the regular season, he joined forces with Jokic to preserve a strong December, despite injuries to the other three starters.

Gary Harris and Paul Millsap each provided a solid two-way impact. Just two years ago, Denver placed 29th in the NBA with a 111.7 defensive rating. Fast-forward to 2018-19, the team finished 10th overall at a 108.0 mark. Both players contributed significantly to this overhaul, and Millsap is expected to agree to a multiyear extension in the offseason.

Still, Harris and swingman Will Barton underachieved offensively, as the duo averaged 12.9 and 11.5 points, respectively. Each was expecting a big season, and neither lived up to the hype due to injury. Both Harris and Barton have significant long-term contracts, and are worth holding on to. They should each bounce back in their own way in 2019-20.

As previously established, the Nuggets have a major weakness at the wing spot, especially on the stopping end. A bigger wing defender, say DeMarre Carroll for example, could be signed without moving core pieces. His playing time would be limited, but he could stop the bleeding against guys like Hood.

Someone like Trevor Ariza could possibly be obtained for the mid-level exception (assuming Millsap’s new contract pushes them to this point). Ariza would start right away and allow Denver to keep its core intact. He is a strong catch-and-shoot guy from the wing, and plays savvy defense on taller forwards. This (or possibly a similar situation with Bojan Bogdanovic) would be the Nuggets’ best offseason play.

Otherwise, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, or another marquee wing would likely require a reshuffle. And that’s only if this player type is interested in Denver, which isn’t likely.

From a trade standpoint, there isn’t much available that wouldn’t require a core piece like Gary Harris or Jamal Murray. It’s hard to argue that such a swap would be beneficial for the Nuggets after such a breakout 2018-19.

Next. Post-combine 2019 NBA Mock Draft. dark

Overall, the Mile High squad would be best served to stand pat with its core. Strategic use of the mid-level exception will be Denver’s best opportunity to improve. However, things may change if a big name like Durant or Leonard enters the conversation.