2017-2018 NBA Offseason Review: Denver Nuggets

The Western Conference is stacked with unbeatables, offensive juggernauts, and defensive stalwarts. Where does Denver stand after an eventful summer?

Image for post
Image for post
Source: Garrett Ellwood/NBAE

You can turn the narrative sideways, flip it upside-down — no matter which way you look at it, the league is asymmetrical. That’s a main reason 1–16 league seeding has come to fruition. And why ultra-talented squads like Denver were left watching the playoffs from home in the 2017–18 season. Like the 2007 Golden State Warriors, they could have inflicted major damage onto the one seed. Or they could have tested the reigning champions.

Except they have no one to blame but themselves. Losing games against bottom scrapers — Phoenix, Sacramento, Memphis, Atlanta, and Dallas twice. Paul Millsap missing more than half the season was definitely a detriment to the team. This season, he will be the glue guy on both ends, giving them a defined identity.

As free agents migrate West and the ‘cream of the crop’ draftees land in the West, the margin of error grows razor-thin. The Nuggets know better than anyone. Still, they weren’t aiming for franchise-altering free agents (although a Kawhi deal was apparently up in the air) because their intention is to cultivate their blossoming talent. Mainly, the triad of Jokic, Murray, and Harris.

And now with the West retooling, the Nuggets’ metaphorical hand was forced — so they took nominal fliers on volatile players and unloaded dead cap space.

Offseason Additions

Isaiah Thomas (one-year, $2 million)

Michael Porter Jr. (14th selection in 2018 Draft)

Jarred Vanderbilt (41st pick by Magic, traded for 43rd pick Justin Jackson and future second-round pick)

Thomas Welsh (58th pick) signed to two-way contract

Offseason Subtractions

Kenneth Faried & Darrell Arthur (Brooklyn Nets, traded for Isaiah Whitehead, later waived)

Wilson Chandler (traded to 76ers along with a 2021 second-round pick and the rights to swap a 2022 second-round pick for cash considerations)

Devin Harris (Mavericks)

Richard Jefferson (unsigned)

It seems like a decade ago that Isaiah Thomas was scoring 30 points every other night and igniting an electric Boston crowd. In reality, that was only 2 seasons ago. Since then, things have gone awry, as Cleveland was a poor fit and LA was basically a leased home.

At that point, China seemed less like a weekend getaway and more so a realistic permanent residence. If he did make the overseas trip, he would be beloved — statues built for him like Stephon Marbury. But Isaiah’s chip on his shoulder is more like a scar — constantly intent on bringing haters to wrought. Denver is his last chance at redemption and Denver could benefit as well.

IT’s microwave-like scoring will add to Denver’s already offensive-heavy attack — who scored the sixth most points last season. His talent warrants 25–30 minutes next season. Thomas will be able to play with a myriad of Denver’s starters in certain units, and if he retrieves his Boston zest, all the better.

In these plays, Thomas splits the defense for thrilling drives to the rim. He lost his luster in the pick and roll playing for the Cavaliers and Lakers this season.

For players that played in 50 games with at least 8 possessions and a 30% frequency in 2016, Thomas was second in pick and roll scoring. For all his snafus within the last year, scribbling up high pick and rolls could unzip the IT 2016 starter pack again. Using Jokic like Horford in such sets could help Thomas — whose score-first mentality is neutralized by his big man’s passing ability. That may have been a reason Thomas struggled with non-threats such as Tristan Thompson, and to a lesser extent Brook Lopez, setting high screens for him.

Image for post
Image for post
A side-by-side comparison of Isaiah Thomas’ best and worst year: 2016 and 2017. Pick and roll efficiency is key to regaining MVP-level status.

With Jokic unleashing creativity at the high post and the combination of wing dexterity in Barton, Harris, and Murray aiding in offensive sequencing and attack, Thomas’ offensive strengths will be maximized. The cause of concern comes from the opposite end, where his peskiness can not make up for diminutive size.

The average height for a man, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, is 69.3 inches, or 5’9.” Isaiah Thomas looks the part of a pizza guy (his nickname), but with a basketball on his fingertips, he has to stand on a pedestal lets him see eye-to-eye with NBA monstars. Hence, his defense has always been a downside (although Brad Stevens’ genius was able to hide Thomas behind a cloak of invisibility).

Utilizing a fist defense, Stevens’ defense was decidedly stifling. The most played lineup that conjointly let up the least amount of points per 100 possessions (defensive rating) was a Thomas-Bradley-Crowder-Horford-Johnson squad. Assuredly, the answer to the defensive question IT creates, is to pair him with skilled perimeter defenders and a pair of rim protectors. On that front, a Thomas-Harris-Craig-Millsap-Plumlee lineup could let IT focus on his pronounced strengths, plainly: offensive pick and rolls and spot-up shots.

In zone defenses like this one, the Celtics form a fist. Once IT is trenched in the paint, the Celtics swivel their heads and converge into a heavily help-side defense. There are three bodies in the paint, with Amir Johnson trapping the ball with Isaiah.

Image for post
Image for post

On every opposing team’s scouting report, Isaiah’s name is starred, circled and arrowed. It’s no deep secret that he is a defensive liability. Mike Malone could hide his deficiencies by employing Stevens’ intellect. By utilizing zone defense and heavy help-side, Thomas’ achilles heal might camouflaged. But then again, Denver’s struggles on the defensive end are no secret, so don’t expect them to be escaping the bottom ten of the league this seasons. And by throwing a host of screens at the defense, Thomas will be an offensive threat once again. If Thomas is a dud on offense, then he could find himself out of the league.

While IT is a lock to make some contribution — however positive or negative — their rookie is not. Chances are, we see Porter Jr. take a red-shirt year, just a year after doing the same with Missouri and months after he could not, reportedly, get out bed. Of course, that report scared off 13 teams like Scooby-Doo when he hopped into Shaggy’s arms. The recovery rate for Porter’s microdiscectomy surgery, according to the University of Southern California Spine Center, is “90–96% good or excellent results.”

If and when he finally starts playing again, Kevin Durant-lite parallels will be drawn. Nonetheless, a substantial amount of practice time is necessary to regain 100% form — something that has yet to happen since becoming McDonald’s All-American MVP.

However, with a cupboard of youthful versatility, Denver was able to take a chance on the talented wing. Talents of his kind are rarely found at that point in the lottery, and if things pan out, the Nuggets may have added a future star player that fits with their core’s timeline.

In the end, the Nuggets have enough roster ammunition to take risky off-season shots. Even then, such moves may not be enough for them to get over the hump in a loaded Western Conference.

Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference, NBA.com/stats, and Synergy Sports Technology.

Written by

Butler women’s basketball beat reporter for the Butler Collegian, Butler men’s basketball beat reporter for the IndyStar. Twitter: @drewfav

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store