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Of All The West’s Contenders, The Nuggets Are The Ones Running It Back

During one of the wildest offseasons on record, the Denver Nuggets have largely been an afterthought. Of the other top-five seeds out West from last season, the Warriors lost Kevin Durant and added D’Angelo Russell; the Rockets swapped Chris Paul in a deal for Russell Westbrook; the Jazz dealt for point guard Mike Conley; and even the Blazers — usually content to stand pat with their starting lineup — opted to trade for Hassan Whiteside while they wait for Jusuf Nurkic to return from injury.

Meanwhile, the Nuggets changed almost nothing and will almost certainly enter the 2019-20 season with more roster continuity than any team. But after the jump they made last year — going from out of the playoffs completely in 2018 to one win away from the conference finals in 2019 — one could argue they didn’t really didn’t need to change all that much.

While those aforementioned teams are led by star guards who are all right around the age of 30,1 the Nuggets — last season’s No. 2 seed in the West — are in a much different place. At just under 25 years old on average, the team was the NBA’s fifth-youngest last season, and franchise player Nikola Jokic is 24.

As such, Denver walked into this offseason knowing it would look much the same when the dust settled, relying largely on internal growth2 from its youngsters as opposed to seeking considerable outside help.

That run-it-back approach3 worked well last season for the Nuggets, who fully recognize that they aren’t seen as a sexy free-agent destination and, thus, have adopted a strategy more focused on retaining and developing their roster. We wrote about Denver’s highly unusual turnaround on defense, and how the Nuggets went from one of the NBA’s worst units statistically in 2017-18 to one of the best in 2018-19 despite 99 percent of the team’s minutes4 being logged by returning players. (Worth watching: The Nuggets held foes to a league-low 33.9 percent from deep last season. The year prior? Teams shot an NBA-high 37.8 percent from distance against Denver.)

None of that even addresses a pair of other players who could play key roles. No one knows what he’ll bring when healthy, but Michael Porter Jr. arguably had some of the best scoring potential among NBA prospects before dealing with back problems. He figures to make his pro debut this season.

Separately, the Nuggets pulled the trigger on one of the smartest, low-risk trades5 of the summer by getting Oklahoma City’s Jerami Grant, a highly versatile frontcourt player who would fit seamlessly into most clubs’ schemes. Initially one of the worst perimeter shooters in basketball, the 25-year-old Grant has now shot almost 37 percent from 3-point range over the last three campaigns, including 39 percent this past season.

Grant’s presence is meaningful in a handful of ways. Aside from providing a clear upgrade over Trey Lyles as the backup for Paul Millsap, who enjoyed the Nuggets’ biggest on/off-court net rating last season,6 Grant, with his athleticism, could allow the bench to play even faster.7 That may be something that puts visiting teams on their heels in Denver, where playing with pace is tantamount to a death wish for opponents because of the high altitude. (The Nuggets were an NBA-best 34-7 at home last season.) Perhaps most important: The 6-foot-9 power forward could also potentially replace Millsap once the 34-year-old’s contract expires after this coming season.

The question, of course, is whether the injection of Grant and Porter, paired with Denver’s strong continuity, can pay dividends for coach Mike Malone and his team. But even without knowing the answer just yet, you could sensibly argue that now — perhaps more than ever, because of all the movement near the top of the league — is the time for a really good team to bet on the roster it’s already familiar with.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Stephen Curry and Mike Conley Jr. are 31, while James Harden and Damian Lillard turn 30 within the next year. And even the Clippers’ star wings — Paul George and Kawhi Leonard — will soon be in their 30s.

  2. Some of which it paid handsomely for. Guard Jamal Murray, 22 years old, and the Nuggets agreed to a five-year maximum extension worth $170 million.

  3. One we endorsed for the Rockets before they made the aggressive trade for Westbrook hours later.

  4. At the time of publication in December.

  5. All it cost them was a first-round pick in 2020.

  6. Denver was 8.9 points better per 100 possessions better with Millsap on the floor than they were him on the bench, the team’s widest disparity.

  7. The Nuggets ranked near the bottom of the league in overall pace but were the equivalent of one of the NBA’s 10 fastest teams in the minutes they played with Jokic off the floor, at 102.5 possessions per 48 minutes.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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