Is anybody excited about the Denver Nuggets? They've been mostly irrelevant since Masai Ujiri, George Karl and Andre Iguodala left in 2013, and they don't have the preseason buzz of the beloved Utah Jazz or Minnesota Timberwolves. Last year they won 33 games, finishing 20th in offensive efficiency and 24th in defensive efficiency. Even in Denver, few people care about what they're doing -- as CBS Sports' Matt Moore pointed out, they finished last in attendance in 2015-16 and play calls were audible in every part of the Pepsi Center.
If you're an NBA hipster, though, this team deserves your attention. The Nuggets' combination of youth and depth is reminiscent of last year's Portland Trail Blazers and the 2014-15 Milwaukee Bucks, two teams that outperformed expectations and became League Pass favorites. Here are four reasons Denver might be significantly better than Vegas' 34.5-win projection:
Jokic is for real
The Nikola Jokic hype train left the station a while ago. When the 21-year-old center scored 25 points on 11-for-15 shooting with six rebounds, three assists, a block and a steal against Team USA in Rio, it was just a continuation of what he did with the Nuggets. Take a look at these rookie numbers, per 36 minutes:
- Karl-Anthony Towns: 20.6 points, 11.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.9 blocks, .542 FG%, .341 3PT%, .811 FT%
- Anthony Davis: 16.9 points, 10.2 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.5 steals, 2.2 blocks, .516 FG%, .000 3PT%, .751 FT%
- Kristaps Porzingis: 18.1 points, 9.3 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.9 steals, 2.4 blocks, .421 FG%, .333 3PT%, .838 FT%
- Nikola Jokic: 16.5 points, 11.6 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.0 blocks, .512 FG%, .333 3PT%, .811 FT%
Great things happen when the ball is in Jokic's hands. His passing and his positional defense are unreal for someone his age. Denver should run a lot of its offense through him and give him every opportunity to reach his Marc Gasol-with-3-point-range potential.
Unknown just a year ago, the No. 41 pick in the 2014 draft is already one of the most skilled big men in the league. Buy your Jokic jersey now.
Underrated players galore
Jokic isn't the Nugget who could surprise people. Here are four returning Nuggets who are under the radar:
- Gary Harris: With apologies to Most Improved Player C.J. McCollum, Harris truly developed more than anybody in the NBA last season. He was almost unplayable as a rookie, making 20 percent of his 3-pointers despite being known as a shooter at Michigan State. Now he's a legitimate 3-and-D guy who can run pick-and-rolls and score effectively from mid-range and beyond the arc.
- Emmanuel Mudiay: Like Harris, he made significant strides and few people noticed. While his overall stats paint a picture of a disappointing rookie season, the 20-year-old point guard was a totally different player after he got acclimated to the NBA. Everybody knows that Mudiay needs to be a more consistent shooter, but you can't teach his poise and passing ability. Expect him to build on his improvement in the second half of last season:
- Pre-All-Star: 11.4 points, 5.9 assists, 3.2 rebounds, 1.1 steals, 3.5 turnovers, .340 FG%, .272 3PT%, .616 FT%
- Post-All-Star: 14.9 points, 4.9 assists, 3.7 rebounds, 0.8 steals, 2.7 turnovers, .393 FG%, .364 3PT%, .775 FT%
- Danilo Gallinari: Quietly, Gallinari put together what was arguably his best season last year, averaging a career-high 19.5 points and getting to the free throw line 8.2 times per game. Coach Michael Malone used him as a playmaker and a floor spacer, and Gallinari showed that, with his defensive versatility, he's more than capable of playing major minutes at power forward.
- Wilson Chandler: Like Gallinari, he has been largely forgotten because of injuries. Chandler didn't play at all last season because of a hip injury, but his ability to play both forward positions will come in handy as Malone tries to find reliable lineups. While he is not a knockdown 3-point shooter or a lockdown defender, he is good enough at both of those things to give Denver a significant boost.
While the Nuggets don't have proven stars, they do have a lot of depth and versatility. Their bench unit is led by dynamic guard Will Barton, who might be the reigning Sixth Man of the Year had Denver been on national television more often. Beyond him, though, they have solid backups at every position. These are the 14 players who have fully guaranteed contracts:
PG: Emmanuel Mudiay, Jamal Murray, Jameer Nelson
SG: Gary Harris, Will Barton, Malik Beasley
SF: Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Mike Miller
PF: Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur, Juancho Hernangomez
C: Nikola Jokic, Jusuf Nurkic
It's hard to know how dependable Murray, Beasley and Hernangomez will be right away, but Murray at least projects as someone who can earn minutes because of his 3-point shooting. Nurkic was hurt for much of last season, but the year before he seemed like he was destined to be the Nuggets' starting center of the future. Arthur is yet another overlooked contributor -- did you know that he made 38.5 percent of his 3s last year?
The key here is that Malone has options. Mudiay and Murray can play together because Mudiay has the length to defend shooting guards. Chandler and Gallinari can be interchangeable defensively. Denver can play small lineups without sacrificing defense, and if it wants to go big, Malone can experiment with playing Jokic and Nurkic together.
The Nuggets are obviously rebuilding, but they still have a few holdovers from the Karl era. Faried, Gallinari and Chandler could stick around as the franchise redefines itself, but it wouldn't be surprising if one or two are dealt. If a win-now team wants to pay a premium for any of them, you can bet that general manager Tim Connelly will listen.
Should a star player suddenly become available, Denver's collection of young talent means it could be in a position to make a splashy move. The Nuggets don't necessarily need to acquire a big name, though, to improve with a trade -- if Nurkic looks like he's back on track early in the season, perhaps he could be swapped for someone who is a more natural fit next to Jokic. Connelly stayed relatively quiet this offseason, but he maintained the flexibility that a team like this needs.