Last Season: 33-49, 10th in the West
Off-Season Gains: PG Jamal Murray (draft), PF Juan Hernangomez (draft), SG Malik Beasley (draft)
Off-Season Losses: PG D.J. Augustin (free agent/Orlando), C Joffrey Lauvergne (trade/Oklahoma City)
Off-Season Stock: Might as well. What else could you use disposable income for in Denver?
League Pass Team?: If I was a real basketball nerd I'd say yes, but I'd just be lying to you.
The Nuggets are like the Spurs of young rebuilding teams. They don't have a general manager crowing about his #assets or a ministry of information gushing about their roster, or their whiz-kid coach, or their future. Nevertheless their talent is real, their coach is well respected among his peers, and better days are in the offing for this franchise if they stay the course. They don't have the P.R. of Boston or even Minnesota, but make no mistake, the Nuggets are building something here, slowly but surely, right under all our noses.
Danilo Gallinari is their "name" here, and he just turned 28, so there's a chance he can still be in his prime by the time the youngsters gain some experience, but it's no sure bet. The Italian has a lengthy injury history. He finally was looking like his old self in February and March after missing the better part of two seasons with an ACL tear, but then an ankle injury shelved him for the year. When Gallinari is right, he's one of the most dangerous and consistent scorers in the league, a guy whose game has notes of Carmelo Anthony, whom he just happened to be traded for. Gallinari is by no means a complete player, but he finished with a career-high 19.0 PER last season, which is about All-Star level, and he knows how to get looks with or without the ball, and such players are rare in the league.
Gallinari may be the marquee attraction, but the real stories on the roster are Nikola Jokic and Emmanuel Mudiay, two rookies who surpassed expectations last season.
Let's start with Jokic. Averaging 10 points and seven rebounds may not seem like much of an accomplishment, but it's heady stuff for a 20-year-old big averaging 21.6 minutes a night. Per-36 those numbers translate to 16.5 points and 11.6 rebounds. Plus the kid can really pass and shoot free-throws, too. He scored 25 on 11-of-15 shooting against Team USA in the Olympics for Serbia, to give you an idea of his potential. Simply put, the only young seven-footers in the league who are more untradeable than Jokic are Karl Anthony-Towns and Kristaps Porzingis, and you might get an argument about the latter.
Mudiay wasn't quite as eye-popping on the stat sheet --he needs to massively improve on finishing around the rim-- but he provides Denver with a rare commodity these days: A pass-first point guard. He's also got prototypical size and athleticism for the position and is already a solid rebounder and promising defender. I'm not sure he'll ever develop into an All-Star, but it already seems clear that the Nuggets didn't screw up the pick.
Meanwhile, surrounding that trio are two-guard Gary Harris and Kenneth Faried, and I'm not as excited about them. Harris made a C.J. McCollum-like leap in year two for him and looks poised to blossom to a solid secondary or tertiary scorer in the league, maybe someone like Wes Matthews, but a tad smaller. He was alright from downtown, at 35.4 percent, but one of the league's best from mid-range and the long two, which is another rare skill-set. The rest of his game has to catch up though, otherwise he can only be so valuable. By now we've learned that one-way guys like Kevin Martin do more harm than good, and unlike Martin, Harris hasn't shown an ability to get to the line. Speaking of more harm than good, Faried starts alongside Harrison Barnes on the "Good dudes I wouldn't want within 500 miles of my roster" club. By now it's clear he is what he is, a rich man's DeJuan Blair. He plays hard, he gives you offensive rebounds, but he has no jumper and he's absolutely hopeless defensively. If he had any real value, he'd have already been off-loaded by now, but these new GM's aren't dumb.
Unlike most teams we've looked at thus far in the previews, the Nuggets have some real interesting pieces on the bench. Will Barton, who was going nowhere in Portland, emerged as a dynamic sixth-man with Denver, a threat from outside and one of the most explosive finishers in the league. Jusuf Nurkic's sophomore campaign was marred by injury and he slumped badly, but he's only 21, good enough to start for a few teams and a perfect complement for Jokic. Darrell Arthur is a decent backup four, but he developed a three-point shot last season. Jameer Nelson is just about at the end and has had a helluva time staying healthy, but he might be able to wring up one more year out of mentoring Mudiay before moving on into coaching. Then there's Wilson Chandler, who missed all of last season with an ACL, but he's a jack-of-all-trades/master-of-none type the Spurs would love. And there's Mike Miller back for some reason, hopefully to do more than limp around for eight minutes before sitting out the rest of the season with a broken everything.
The real intrigue though is that joining this crew will be not one, or two, but three first-rounders, and we'll have to see how each of them fit in. Jamal Murray out of Kentucky has the most star potential, and already showed the ability to fill it up in Summer League, but he also plays the same position as Harris and Barton, so there will be some kind of minutes crunch there. More playing time might be available for 15th pick Juan Hernangomez, a Spanish power-forward and the younger brother of Willy Hernangomez, who'll also be a rookie, but with the Knicks. Less is known about Juan, but he won the Spanish league's version of the rookie of the year award last season and also impressed during Summer League. Finally, with the 19th pick Denver selected Malik Beasley, another standout shooter, out of Florida State. I'm guessing he'll be the one spending the majority of the season in the D-League.
The Nuggets know it's pretty likely they've scored a major draft coup with Jokic, while Mudiay, Harris and Nurkic should all be solid contributors. If they hit on one of their three picks in this class, they'll be in good shape. If they get lucky twice, they'll really be onto something and if by some miracle all three wind up looking like rotation players, well then the world will be their oyster in the trade market. The point is that they're already ahead of teams like the Lakers, Kings, Suns and Pelicans when it comes to rebuilding and their future looks a lot brighter than the Mavericks, Clippers or Rockets. They're probably a year away from the playoffs, but by 2017-18 the Nugs should be in prime shape to be real movers and shakers in the off-season, with a roster full of young, low-cost talent other GMs will covet and the cap space to demand a ransom in return for them.