After a whirlwind of an offseason, the NBA is already back and raring to go. The Denver Nuggets are less than three months removed from their final game of last season against the Los Angeles Lakers and have seen many things change.
The roster has seven new players, and frankly, a few questions about who is going to play where. We saw three preseason games where the new-look Nuggets went 2-1, and their wins were by a combined 64 points. If nothing else, we know this team will be exciting from start to finish regardless of who is on the floor or what the score is. It’s that last point that makes opening night in particular so interesting.
Here are a few things to watch for in the Nuggets’ season opener against the Sacramento Kings.
The Starting Lineup
Denver is in an interesting spot with their starting lineup. Head coach Michael Malone referenced it in his first meeting with the press: There are only two starting spots locked in, and they are occupied by Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic. Beyond that, fans do not know what to expect. Malone also said that there are seven “starters” and only five starting spots, which makes this a challenge.
The big dilemma surrounds the wing positions. The assumption is that Paul Millsap will likely start at the four, especially if JaMychal Green continues to be hampered by the calf injury that kept him out of the team’s final preseason game. On the wing, you’ve got three starters for two spots. The defensive-minded Gary Harris, who looks healthy, hopes to find any sort of offensive rhythm that’s escaped him over the last two seasons. Harris has been a little less outspoken about what he wants his role to be this year, but it’s been apparent he wants the starting shooting guard spot. If he can find his rhythm from the perimeter on offense, there’s a spot for him. However, he needs to be able to produce on both sides to at least be able to keep the job, even if he starts on opening night.
Michael Porter Jr. is the biggest hope for Nuggets fans. There is a lot of anticipation that the talent seen in flashes last year is what he can consistently be this year. The hope is that he can be the third piece on a contending team and ascend to where he can push this Nuggets team over the top and win a championship.
Whether Porter starts or not is only part of what you need to watch for with him. What is most important to see is how many minutes he has with Murray and Jokic. The hopes start and end with how he fits to form a true trio. Starting at small forward would be a big step towards building that chemistry. They only played 151 minutes together last season, where they averaged a +1.5 net rating. You would like for that to be higher and particularly see more incorporation into that offense with the two-man game of Denver’s stars.
Veteran guard Will Barton, also coming off an injury, but says he is healthy and ready to produce. Barton has been vocal about his wanting to start, making headlines when he said, “I have no plans on being the sixth man. I have no desire to be that at all.” He’s not wrong in saying he should be a starter. Not only is he a a starting-caliber player; he’s an excellent starter that fits supremely well with the Murray and Jokic pairing.
If I had to bet, I’d say we’re going to see Murray/Harris/Barton/Millsap/Jokic as the opening night starting five. That is not set in stone for the season, but the options for creating, scoring, and a viable defense make the most sense while using Porter as the second unit’s primary scorer.
The Bench Rotation
President of basketball operations Tim Connelly and the Nuggets’ front office have made Malone’s job near impossible with how much talent they have given him. This may be one of their deepest teams ever, with 15 guys that could come in and produce. They have created somewhat of a minor problem in that they have a million guards and not a ton of big men—also, a lot of creating and not a ton of true scorer options. One thing is certain, no matter which five you put in to replace the starters, it will be endless fun.
It is fair to say Barton or Porter Jr. will be the sixth man who will be the primary scorer. Both had a preseason game filling this role, and both had their highest point totals of the preseason in those games. They will likely fill the small forward position given how many point guards there are on the roster.
The point guard spot suggests the Nuggets start with 11 in the rotation. The belief is that Monte Morris and 29-year-old rookie Facundo Campazzo will be in the main backcourt rotation, but the team is also really high on PJ Dozier’s ability on both ends, as they should be. Malone dubbed him the training camp MVP and he looked solid in the preseason. It will be interesting to see if they opt for a Morris/Dozier or Morris/Campazzo backcourt in the initial rotation. It should be almost a given to expect a healthy amount of minutes with all three on the floor together.
In the frontcourt, new signing Isaiah Hartenstein should be penciled in as the primary backup to The Joker. Green will likely be the backup for Millsap. But there are a lot of possibilities here. You could see Porter Jr. slide down to the four, which should be done in a closing lineup, where Millsap and Green are both on the floor. We even saw a lineup with Dozier sliding down to the power forward for a few minutes in the first preseason game against the Golden State Warriors. It would be a surprise to see Bol Bol play at all in this game, but it’s still unclear what position he would play.
How the New Guys Fit
As mentioned earlier, there are seven new guys on the team and they’ve had minimal time in training camp to build chemistry with each other and the returning players. They looked good with each other in the preseason, but what will they look like in rotations where they are in with the starters? That was something we didn’t see too much of.
The idea of Hartenstein and Morris playing together given their previous chemistry playing in the G-League would make sense. Campazzo looks like the kind of guy most people would fit with, given his expert passing ability and endless (and I mean endless) amounts of energy. Green was the only guy you could say struggled throughout the preseason for the Nuggets, so if he plays, it will be exciting to see how he does with his new teammates. It’s unlikely rookie draft picks Zeke Nnaji or R.J. Hampton will see the court much at all this season.
The bottom line is this Nuggets team will be one of the most exciting teams to watch this season. They have a legitimate chance to be one of the best offenses in the league, after showing flashes of it by putting up over 125 in the last two preseason games. It will be interesting to see if they can carry it over to the regular season. It all starts Wednesday, December 23 in a home bout against the Sacramento Kings with a 7:00 p.m. MST tipoff.
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