Nuggets preview: Playoffs not just a possibility, but the expectation in Denver

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Nuggets, Harris agree to four-year, $84 million extension

Nuggets, Harris agree to four-year, $84 million extension

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NBA commissioner Adam Silver knows the growing conference imbalance the league is facing is a glaring problem. He’s said he’s open to change, perhaps going to a straight 1-16 playoff seeding, regardless of conference (I would argue they should get rid of conferences altogether, but that’s another story for another day). But Silver has also said that before any kind of playoff restructuring could potentially happen, the league would first have to figure out how to balance the regular-season schedule.

Talk to the Denver Nuggets about that.

Heading into the season, our SportsLine data expert Stephen Oh projects the Nuggets will win 42 games, good enough for the No. 7 seed in the West — not bad for having the playing the Warriors, Spurs, Thunder and Timberwolves four times each, and the Rockets three times. If, however, Denver flipped schedules with the Miami Heat (projected as the No. 8 seed in the East at 40 wins), that number would jump to 45 wins. In the East, that would be good enough for the No. 4 seed and home-court in the first round.

Indeed, the No. 7 seed in the West and the No. 4 seed in the East is a very, very big difference. That doesn’t mean things are going to play out that way, of course. But even if you don’t put much stock in these data-based projections, this much is clear: Denver is an increasingly solid team in an increasingly tough situation. The West keeps getting better, but so do the Nuggets, who were one of the best offensive teams in the league last season and made perhaps the biggest free-agent signing in their franchise history when they landed Paul Millsap this summer.

The playoffs are absolutely the goal for this team, even in the unrelenting West. This isn’t a situation like, say, the one the Kings or the Lakers are in, which is to focus on player development and look to next year’s lottery with no real postseason expectations. The Nuggets expect to win, which could put coach Mike Malone on notice — fair or not — if they don’t.

It’s a credit to the job Malone and this front office have done in getting this team to a point where it could actually face these kinds of consequences for not performing. Again, the offense hums (fourth overall in offensive rating last season), and it should again this season with the addition of Millsap, who doesn’t need to be a focal point to have All-Star impact, and thus should fit nicely next to Jokic, who is borderline brilliant as a passer and creator at his size.

The defense is the problem — 29th in the league last season. Millsap should also help with this. He’s just a savvy player on both ends, and Gary Harris is a rapidly developing two-way player, as evidenced by the four-year, $84 million extension Denver recently gave him. Even a marginal improvement on the defensive end should be enough to get this team in the playoffs with the way it can score.

It all starts with Jokic. Again, if you haven’t watched him play much, do yourself a favor. You’ve heard of point-forwards; this guy is a point-center. A legit one. Denver will run a lot of its offense through him, and with three-point shooters around him like Harris (42 percent from deep last season), Will Barton (37 percent), Millsap (36 percent), Wilson Chandler (34 percent last season but a respectable threat) and second-year point guard Jamal Murray, this team is going to put up a lot of points in a hurry.

A lot of Denver’s success this season will hinge on Murray, who had a trying rookie season in which he shot 34 percent from three and 40 percent overall. Turns out, he was playing through two sports hernias, for which he had surgery in April, and it’s not exactly an easy task to try learn to play point guard at the NBA level even when you’re healthy.

Look, Murray can flat out shoot. I don’t know if he’ll end up playing more on or off the ball for Denver, but either way, he can shoot. So forget the down percentage last year. I asked our Matt Moore, who watches the Nuggets as closely as anyone, what he thinks about Murray, and his observations were that Murray was caught between trying to be a "true" point guard when he’s probably more of a natural scoring two-guard at heart.

I get that. It’s complicated to find that balance of hunting your shot and setting others up at the same time. But I would also counter with this: Don’t worry about setting others up. If you’re hitting shots, everything else will naturally develop from that threat. Every time I hear this "pure point guard" talk, I wonder if we haven’t learned anything from Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving and all the other point guards who hunt their shot first and foremost. If you can shoot like Murray, especially off the dribble, let it fly, particularly when you have the unique luxury of playing with a center who can, and will, initiate a lot of the offense.

My guess is that Murray, who shot better than 52 percent from three this preseason, does exactly that this year, which should make Denver a top-five 3-point team (it was seventh in made 3-pointers last year). Perhaps Murray asserting himself as the clear starter will allow Emmanuel Mudiay to settle into a bench role, in which, hopefully, he can simplify his own game and just look to score with physicality. Perhaps Mudiay can develop as a shooter (don’t count on it) and defender, but to this point, he hasn’t looked anything close to NBA-starter level in either of those critical areas.

Personally, I think the Nuggets make the playoffs this year. For their sake, hopefully they can crawl up to at least the 7-seed and avoid Golden State in the first round. Either way, they’ll be one of the most underrated entertaining teams in the league this season, if only for Jokic’s passes. If Murray starts getting hot and Millsap plays up to his contract, it’s not unreasonable to think this team can win 46 or 47 games and, under optimal conditions, put itself in contention for perhaps as high as a 5-seed in the West. I wouldn’t count on that, but it’s not out of the question. This has the potential to be a much better team the casual fan probably realizes.

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