It’s not often that the team who has the defending MVP on its
roster is flying well-under the radar heading into the following
season — but that’s exactly what is happening with the Denver
Nikola Jokic epitomizes the Unicorn mold that is so valuable
and transcendent within the modern NBA. As a 7-footer who can
operate the offense and score efficiently from all three levels,
Jokic manipulates defenses with rare savvy. Jokic is like Peyton
Manning, thinking two or three moves ahead and putting defenders
exactly where he pleases. The end result? Easy baskets for optimum
offensive output. After averaging 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and
8.3 assists on an outstanding 64.7% True Shooting percentage, Jokic
is just now reaching his top form on the basketball court.
Denver has magnificently built a team to strengthen his
Jamal Murray is the perfect 1B to Jokic’s 1A, a flamethrowing
scorer who can erupt at will. In addition, Michael Porter Jr.’s
development as a scorer adds another wrinkle to the Nuggets’
long-term ceiling. Looking back on it, Porter dropping to No. 14
overall because of back concerns was a gamble that could have
changed the fortunes of Denver’s window with Jokic. Aaron Gordon is
a bulky, uber-athletic big who can guard three positions and move
effectively without the ball, capitalizing on easy cuts to the rim.
To top it off, Will Barton and 2021 first-round pick Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland provide
microwave scoring off the bench and can further supplement a
continuous wave of offensive firepower.
Looking ahead to the 2021-22 season, how does Denver stack up?
With Murray’s rehab moving forward from a torn ACL — a setback that
really dampened Denver’s high-end outcome last season — a
potentially slow start could be in store. Murray’s projected
timetable for a return could last until around the All-Star break
or later, which means Jokic and Porter will have to buoy the
Nuggets’ output every night. We know what to expect from Jokic, but
Porter having the opportunities to further his talented rise is a
great scenario for Denver. From April 6 and on, Porter averaged
21.4 points while shooting 42.7% on three-pointers in 32 games.
This was a preview of Porter’s upcoming role as the top secondary
option behind Jokic, one that will play such a critical factor to
Denver maintaining its elite status without Murray.
Porter has flashed immense potential as a scorer, but he still
needs work as a defender and playmaker. During the Western
Conference semifinals, Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams told
his star backcourt duo of Chris Paul and Devin Booker to
continuously hunt Porter in switch opportunities. Once Phoenix
figured this formula out, the team made Porter nearly unplayable
while Denver was swept with emphatic fashion. If Porter is able to
take strides forward as a passable defender — similar to the
development we’ve actually seen from Booker in Phoenix, actually —
it will go a long way toward him reaching a potential star-level
profile within the Association.
When you look outside of the Nuggets’ trio of Jokic, Porter and
Gordon, it’s an unproven bunch that will need to supplement
well-rounded play in Murray’s absence. Until the "Blue Arrow"
returns to play Robin to Jokic’s Batman, Denver will need more
development from its young core. Hyland shined in the summer
league, further hammering home the case that he should play an
immediate role off the bench to alleviate the pressure off Jokic
and Porter. However, question marks loom over the big-man duo
behind Jokic: Bol Bol and Zeke Nnaji. Bol is a true wildcard, but
he’s never been utilized within the Nuggets’ rotation as he enters
the final year of his contract. Meanwhile, Nnaji had a rough
summer-league outing where he looked lost at points. If neither can
step up, Jokic is in line to lead the NBA in minutes played this
Let’s take a look at the Nuggets rotation without Murray for the
Starters: Monte Morris, Will Barton, Michael Porter, Aaron
Gordon, Nikola Jokic
Second Unit: Facundo Campazzo, Bones Hyland, Austin Rivers,
P.J. Dozier, JaMychal Green, Bol Bol
It’s a lot of question marks and unproven depth behind a solid
starting lineup, which maybe caps where Denver can go this season
without a fully healthy Murray providing scoring fireworks. The
Suns exposed the Nuggets in the playoffs, and surely many teams
will test that theory to further extends early on. If Denver
stumbles out of the gate, the team's ceiling could be a No. 4 seed.
However, as we saw once Murray went down, Jokic can carry a roster
single-handedly. If Jokic maintains MVP-level production, which
should be a near-lock, Denver can stay afloat near the elite tier
of the West. Are they better than Phoenix, Utah, the Los Angeles
Lakers and potentially even a Dallas team with a forthcoming
superstar leap again from Luka Doncic? Probably not.
Denver will need Porter to produce Murray-esque levels of
offensive production, while Gordon needs to be more assertive
within the streamline of the Nuggets' free-flowing offense that
runs through their jumbo-sized playmaker.
Once Murray returns, Denver has already shown how lethal it can
be. If you add another dynamic scorer to the mix in Porter — whose
confidence should reach all-time highs in Murray's absence — this
team can go on a run. Murray’s wildcard factor late into the
regular season and playoffs will be the top factor to watch with
If Murray is back to Murray — soul-snatching, back-breaking
moments as a deadly scorer — the Nuggets are ready to pounce as a
dark-horse contender who can make a deep run. Jokic and Porter will
need to keep the Nuggets afloat and within a solid positioning, and
the Nuggets hope to have Murray provide the much-needed jolt of
stability and star-power back into the equation.
We don’t talk enough about the Nuggets heading into the 2021-22
season. But it’s the Nuggets’ 1B to their MVP who truly holds the
trump card for where they can go upon Murray's eventual return.