Neither do we.
A year after being drafted Nikola Jokic made his more-or-less-forgettable NBA debut. He averaged 10 points and seven rebounds on a nondescript team that finished 33-49, tied for 10th in the Western Conference. Jokic’s contributions were enough to earn him All-Rookie 1st Team honors, but nobody really knew who he was.
There was something intriguing about Jokic’s game. He had a basketball I.Q. that was far higher than most 21-year-olds. He also averaged 2.4 assists that season – seventh in the league among centers. Little did we know, the Nuggets were just scratching the surface.
Year two of the Jokic Project started with a failed experiment. Denver was still clinging to the idea that they could play both Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic on the floor at the same time. With Jokic at the four, the paint got too crowded, limiting cutting lanes for guards and wings; not sustainable in head coach Mike Malone’s give-and-go offense.
Malone shut it down with less than a month’s worth of games as a sample size, opting to bring Jokic off the bench. The Nuggets stood at 7-11 through November, heading down the path to another mediocre season. With his job potentially on the line, Malone had to try something new.
He inserted Jokic back into the starting lineup, this time as the five, with combo forwards Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler rounding out the frontcourt. The result was inconceivable.
Jokic developed into an outright point center, the rarest player type in the league. His skill set combines a crisp handle with playmaking vision that rivals that of the Gasol brothers, and Malone eventually green-lighted him to start running fast breaks (to great effect).
Add in a developing perimeter game (.324 percent from three on 1.9 attempts per game), feathery inside finishes (.578 field goal percentage, sixth in the league last year), relentless board crashing (9.8 per game) and a boss nickname (THE JOKER), and Denver suddenly had a franchise cornerstone.
Nurkic was traded in February for Mason Plumlee, a healthier and more athletic option, and Malone’s new rotation revved up on offense. They finished the year scoring 110 points per 100 possessions (fifth in the league).
The Nuggets stormed into playoff contention and held down the eighth seed in the Western Conference for the majority of the season. But Jokic missed nine games over the course of the year, in which Denver went 3-6, and a late push by the Trail Blazers paired with Russell Westbrook’s punctuation on his MVP campaign just nudged the Mile High City down to the ninth seed.
Jokic finished second in Most Improved Player voting, and the Nuggets proceeded into the offseason with newfound optimism. Denver made it clear that it’s top priority would be to find a suitable running mate for their blossoming centerpiece. Jokic (surprisingly) isn’t perfect; he’s a below-average athlete and defender, and he still suffers from an inefficient outside stroke.
The perfect tag-team partner would be able to space the floor, protect the rim, switch onto smaller/quicker ball handlers and keep up with Malone’s high-octane system. That narrows the list down to Kevin Durant and LeBron James. Instead of searching for a silver bullet, the Nuggets took a different approach, seeking out multiple forwards that met most of the criteria and hoping that one of them would be able to make a satisfying connection.
They kicked things off on draft day, trading away the No. 13 pick (Donovan Mitchell) to the Jazz in exchange for Trey Lyles and the No. 24 pick (Tyler Lydon).
Lyles had a fairly promising rookie year, earning a regular spot in Utah’s rotation and shooting a decent .383 percent from deep on 1.6 attempts. However, he fell victim to a sophomore slump as his shot percentages dropped to .319 from three and a horrendous .362 from the field. Lyles is only 21 years old though, giving him plenty of time to reverse the damage and live up to his lottery-pick hype. But the clock is ticking.
At Syracuse, Lydon displayed most of the skills Denver was searching for. The energetic forward took 3.7 treys per game during his college career and drained them at a .392 percent clip. He also averaged 1.6 blocks and 1.1 steals. However, he was inconsistent in his second season and failed to take the Orange back to the NCAA Tournament. Lydon is old for his class (just five months younger than Lyles), but he has the ceiling to develop into a major contributor.
In free agency, the Nuggets lost a key player in Danilo Gallinari, who opted out of the final year of his contract and bolted for the Los Angeles Clippers. Gallinari was a major source of offense, leading the team with 18.2 points per game. However, his price tag was a bit high for someone with his defensive limitations, and Denver evidently wasn’t in love with his fit next to Jokic.
The Nuggets helped complete a three-team sign-and-trade, acquiring a 2019 second rounder from Atlanta while shipping Gallinari to Los Angeles. The move opened the door for their biggest splash of the summer, signing four-time all-star Paul Millsap to a three-year, $90 million contract.
Millsap’s arrival was remarkable in many ways. Why would he go from a perennial playoff squad to a team that hasn’t made the postseason since 2013? Why was Denver cashing in on a 32-year-old? Why weren’t the Hawks cashing in on a 32-year-old?
Millsap explained that growing up in Denver had a major influence on his decision.
“My history had a lot to play into [signing with Denver], actually,” Millsap said. “It felt like it was unfinished business here, being here years ago and leaving under the circumstances we left. To help this community out, this organization out, that played a big factor.”
If anyone can compliment Jokic’s style of play, it’s Millsap. He averaged a career-high 18.1 points per game with the Hawks last season, and he’ll undoubtedly fill the scoring void left by Gallinari. In addition, Millsap is also a top-notch defender, rebounder and playmaker; a grinder in every aspect of the game. He’s suspect from outside the arc (.328 percent for his career), but he shoots with confidence (3.5 attempts per game last season), a trait that’ll hopefully rub off on Jokic.
On its surface, the contract does seem steep for a player exiting his prime, though Millsap certainly earned his salary based on his play in Atlanta. But perhaps the sneakiest part of the deal is the third-year team option—meaning it’s not guaranteed. If Millsap begins to decline, or he simply doesn’t fit well with Jokic, the Nuggets can part ways after two years and explore other options.
But even with the acquisition of Millsap, Denver isn’t a lock to make the playoffs this year. The West is tougher than nails now, and there’s not a ton of answers to the Nuggets’ starting point guard riddle (hello, Monte Morris).
But, Denver now has a budding star (Jokic), a veteran stud (Millsap), a mixture of grizzly veterans (Wilson “Please Stay Healthy” Chandler, Kenneth “If He Were Two Inches Taller” Faried, Will “The Thrill” Barton and Mason “Needs A Cool Nickname” Plumlee), promising players surrounding them (Emmanuel “Top-3 In The Draft, Top-3 In Turnovers” Mudiay, Gary “Yes, He Is That Good At 22” Harris, Jamal “Why Isn’t He Starting?” Murray, Juan “The Other” Hernangomez, Lyles, Lydon and Morris), AND a coach who does this:
In short, the Nuggets will put up one helluva fight this season. Don’t sleep on Denver.