DENVER | The Nuggets didn’t make major upgrades over the summer like so many of their Western Conference opponents, and they’re fine with that — they figure Denver will turn into a desired destination soon enough.
The Nuggets return a young corps that won 54 games last season and came within four points of reaching the conference championship. Eight of their top 12 players are 25 years old or younger, including All-Star center Nikola Jokic, power forward Jerami Grant and fascinating forward Michael Porter Jr., the No. 14 selection in 2018 who sat out last season as he recovered from back surgery.
Although they didn’t make any splashy moves in the offseason, the Nuggets were busy over the summer, acquiring Grant from Oklahoma City, picking up Paul Millsap’s $30 million option and signing point guard Jamal Murray to a $170 million extension.
Five months later and coach Michael Malone is still blown away by The Joker’s playoff performance that put him in some pretty elite company.
In 14 games, the Nuggets’ unpretentious 24-year-old superstar averaged 25.1 points, 13 rebounds and 8.4 assists. The only other players to post averages of at least 20 points, 10 boards and eight assists while playing at least 10 games in the postseason are Oscar Robertson in 1963, Wilt Chamberlain in 1967 and LeBron James in 2015.
“Going into the year I don’t know how you can even have an MVP discussion without mentioning his name because of what he did last year, for a guy that is supposedly unathletic and out of shape,” Malone said. “I think he proved a lot of people wrong.”
So did the Nuggets, who ended a six-year playoff drought by going 54-28 and becoming the youngest No. 2 seed ever. They won their first playoff series since 2009 with a seven-game ouster of Gregg Popovich and the Spurs in the opening round before falling at home in Game 7 to the Trail Blazers.
“We saw our young players grow up,” Malone said. “You can’t replicate those 14 games in the postseason. You can’t replicate two Game 7s. And I think all of our players have grown from that experience. They’re coming back more confident.”
Now that the Nuggets have broken through and tasted playoff success, Malone’s main goal is to make sure his team guards against letting up. “That’s going to be our greatest challenge,” he said. “It’s not the Lakers, the Clippers, the Warriors, the Jazz or Rockets. It’s us. Fighting ourselves and fighting human nature and not thinking that we’ve arrived, because we haven’t done a damn thing yet.”
Malone wants more AND less out of Jokic. “We became so reliant upon Nikola in the postseason,” he said. “I go back to Game 7, when we lost to Portland and he came to my office he’s crying and apologizing for missing a big free throw. He missed the free throw because he was dead tired. The guy was playing 40 minutes a night. Hopefully this year in the playoffs — if we get back to the playoffs — we don’t have to be so reliant on him.”
Murray cringes when he hears someone say the Nuggets can end Golden State’s reign out West and reach the NBA Finals. “We need to have the mentality that we’re going to win it,” he said. Murray figures the Nuggets have all the ingredients: “a passing center, shooters all around, the deepest bench.” What they need is more consistency, starting with his own. “I can’t go 4 for 18 or whatever I was in Game 7” against Portland, he said.
The Nuggets acquired Grant from the Thunder for a 2020 first-round pick. The 6-foot-9, 220-pound forward is coming off a breakout season that saw him set career highs in points (13.6) and rebounds (5.2). He also blocked 100 shots and collected 61 steals. “It’s good to get off a sinking ship,” said Grant, the son of longtime NBA player Harvey Grant. “I couldn’t really ask for a better situation.”
“I have no pain. All my flexibility is back and I feel pretty good out there,” said Porter, who has only played in three games since high school because of his bad back (and a knee injury that scuttled his Summer League plans). “No matter how many times you fall it’s up to you if you’re going to get back up, even if you fall a million times,” Porter said. “Eventually my time will come when I’m meant to be a basketball player.”