David Zalubowski/Associated Press
Last season, however, Denver took a perceptible step in the right direction. Mike Malone’s squad finished the regular season second in that supremely talented Western Conference at 54-28, which led to postseason basketball in Denver for the first time since 2012-13.
The Nuggets defeated the San Antonio Spurs in seven games to advance out of the first round for the first time since 2008-09 before falling to the Portland Trail Blazers in a seven-game conference semifinals. In doing so, point guard Jamal Murray and center Nikola Jokic emerged as pillars for the franchise’s future.
Below is an overview of how the Nuggets can carry their momentum into the 2019-20 season with top matchups and predictions.
Season Opener: at Portland Trail Blazers, Oct. 23
Championship Odds: 12-1 (Caesars)
Full Schedule: Visit NBA.com
Portland Trail Blazers (Oct. 23)
The headliner of this matchup is the fact that the Trail Blazers ousted the Nuggets from the Western Conference semifinals in seven games to end their 2018-19 campaign.
However, the intrigue runs deeper than that.
The Nuggets extended Murray on a five-year, $170 maximum contract this summer, and that type of commitment from the team needs to be backed up by production from the 22-year-old against All-Stars at his position such as Portland’s Damian Lillard.
In three regular-season games against Portland last season, according to ESPN, Murray shot 39.1 percent from the field and averaged 19 points, 5.5 assists and 3.3 rebounds. In last season’s semifinal series, Murray outscored Lillard in four of the seven games on 40.3 percent shooting from the field in the series.
Aside from hard numbers, Murray showcased an ability to come up clutch—like Lillard did to send Oklahoma City home on a last-second 37-footer—when he put the Nuggets on his back and scored 21 fourth-quarter points to lead the team to a 19-point comeback in Game 2 against the Spurs.
If Murray can develop from a streaky scorer to a consistent threat, the Nuggets will take the next step toward contention. Portland is a good gauge for Murray’s progress.
Last season, including the playoffs, Denver went 6-5 against Portland.
Utah Jazz (Jan. 30)
If Portland is a good gauge for Murray, then the Jazz are one for the Murray-Jokic pairing as they compete against the likes of Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert.
One game in particular last season between Denver and Utah is worth re-examining when looking forward to their matchups this season.
On Jan. 23, the Jazz edged the Nuggets 114-108—but the final score isn’t the point. In the game, Jokic posted 28 points, 21 rebounds, six assists, two steals and a block, while Gobert also registered a double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds.
However, the latter went on to be named back-to-back NBA Defensive Player of the Year while the former has been knocked for his defense throughout his four NBA seasons.
According to Basketball Reference, Jokic ranked ninth with 4.3 defensive win shares last season. That said, he will most likely never be what Gobert is defensively. Each center brings a separate skill set to the court for his team.
Watching that juxtaposition play out in the paint will be entertaining at the least, and studying how Jokic and Murray complement each other compared to Mitchell and Gobert will be doubly so.
Last season, the Jazz won three of four games against the Nuggets.
The Nuggets are mostly bringing the same roster into this season as they excelled with last season, standing pat in free agency while teams like the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers added top-tier talent.
Considering Denver played to the second-best record in the Western Conference last season despite Gary Harris, Will Barton and Paul Millsap each missing chunks of time due to injuries, the pressure is on this group to stay healthy and contend for a title.
On top of last season’s starting five, Denver might finally benefit from the services of 2018 first-round pick Michael Porter Jr., who missed all of last season while recovering from back surgery. In this year’s draft, the team added 7’2″ center Bol Bol.
Forbes’ Joel Rush wrote in early May of how prolific Murray and Jokic were last season overall, which can serve as hope for Porter and Bol’s development:
“Jokic and Murray scored 32.7 [percent] of Denver’s total points in the regular season, but that’s up to 42.3 [percent] in the playoffs.
“The duo delivered, leading Denver to an impressive 30-16 (.652) record in the 46 games in which they both played but at least one of the other regular starters was out with injury. For Murray, 22, and Jokic, 24, to have found their way into such a productive and winning partnership (and now to leading the eighth-youngest roster in NBA playoff history to the second round) at so young an age speaks volumes not only of the job head coach Michael Malone and his staff have done in facilitating their development as both individual and team players, but also of the growth and maturation of the two young stars in their own rights.”
All the pieces are in place for the Nuggets. Now, it’s just about execution.
Predicted Record: 50-32