Jamal Murray going down with a torn ACL in the second week of April was one of the biggest gut shots in a 2020-21 season full of crippling injuries. With Aaron Gordon on board and Nikola Jokic on his way to a landslide MVP, the Nuggets were a legit title threat. They still managed to win their first-round series over the Blazers, a commendable achievement with a starting backcourt of Austin Rivers and Facundo Campazzo, but were ultimately left wondering what might've been as they were swept by the Phoenix Suns in the second round.
Murray's injury was doubly damaging in that it figures to keep him out the bulk of this regular season, too. There's no timetable for his return, but based on a typical 12-month -- give or take -- ACL recovery time, there's a chance Denver won't have him available until the playoffs, assuming they make it that far. Chances are, they will. Jokic is that awesome, but he's going to have to play north of 70 or even 75 games again. From there, others have to step up.
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Here is a look at Denver's roster along with three things to know as the Nuggets embark on the 2021-22 campaign.
Denver Nuggets roster
- Will Barton
- Tarik Black
- Bol Bol
- Facundo Campazzo
- Vlatko Cancar
- Petr Cornelie
- PJ Dozier
- Aaron Gordon
- JaMychal Green
- Jeff Green
- Markus Howard
- Nah'Shon Hyland
- Nikola Jokic
- Monte Morris
- Jamal Murray
- Zeke Nnaji
- Michael Porter Jr.
- Davon Reed
- Austin Rivers
- Matt Ryan
1. Michael Porter Jr.'s time has arrived
With Murray out, Porter, who signed a five-year extension this summer that could be worth up to $207 million, is primed to take the next step in what looks to be a future-All-Star ascension. Porter is a world-class shooter who at 6-foot-10 is largely unaffected by even strong contests. He averaged 19 points per game last season but 22-23 should be in his range this season. He shot 45 percent from 3 last season, and his 133.2 points per 100 shots attempts ranked in the 96th percentile among all forwards, per Cleaning the Glass.
If Denver's first preseason game is any indication, Porter is already in midseason form. On Monday night, he went for 23 points and seven assists on 9-for-15 shooting, including 3 of 5 from 3, against the Clippers. We've seen Porter dominate playoff games even as high-level defensive attention tilts his way.
This season, a big question is whether Porter can take a step forward as an off-the-dribble creator. He's not particularly fluid with the ball in his hands -- stiff is probably the right word -- but his length allows for pull-up jumpers despite minimal space creation. If Porter can develop as a pick-and-roll/dribble-handoff playmaker with Jokic, continue his improvement as an in-the-lane finisher and find at least some success in getting to the free-throw line more often, the sky is the limit offensively.
Defensively, Porter has gotten better. But it was a low bar. Again, his stiffness hurts him; he doesn't change direction fluidly and he's very upright. But his length is there and if he just cuts out the mental lapses, he can be fine.
Through his first two seasons, Porter has gone from a project to a binge scorer/shooter to a core piece on a team that expects to win a championship. This season, it's about the move into stardom. Not top-tier stardom. Maybe not even All-Stardom. But a star in the sense that he can, and does, carry the offense alongside Jokic as the replacement for Murray in one of the league's best one-two punches. He has that kind of ability.
2. Aaron Gordon has to find right balance
When the Nuggets traded for Gordon (whom they re-signed this summer to a four-year, $92 million extension), the idea was for him to be an athletic, versatile defender and a fill-in-the-gaps guy on offense (a cutter, transition athlete, make a few jump shots here and there type thing). But now that Murray is out, Gordon needs to step up as a more prominent scorer -- particularly if Will Barton isn't able to do the same -- as Denver fights to maintain its top-tier status in a merciless Western Conference that will relegate even a good team such as Denver to the play-in tournament, if not the lottery, without blinking.
That said, Gordon can't try to do too much. Play off his chemistry with Jokic, but the self-creation needs to be tempered. Maybe get back up to 4-5 3-pointers per game, but keep in mind that Gordon only shot 26 percent from deep over 25 games with the Nuggets last season and has never been even an average marksman.
Gordon was terrific when he first got to Denver in that he fit right away, immediately finding his place and balance among the clearly established scoring hierarchy of Jokic, Murray and Porter. Now that hierarchy has changed, and Gordon's approach must, to some degree, reflect the new reality. But overdoing it would be an easy thing to do for Gordon, who has to walk the fine line between glue-and go-to guy on the offensive end until Murray returns.
3. Defense will still be a challenge
Simply having Jokic, particularly with the level of continuity that exists on this roster and a team-wide commitment to shooting more 3-pointers (which is the plan), is likely enough to keep the Nuggets in the top 10 offensively; if Porter and Gordon have big years, top five is not out of the question even without Murray. The defense is the issue.
Last season, Denver ranked 11th defensively, per CTG, allowing 112.5 points per 100 possessions, which isn't bad. It was roughly equal to the Milwaukee Bucks. The difference is in the parts of those two defenses. While Milwaukee has elite defenders who can turn it on when necessary (Jrue Holiday, Giannis Antetokounmpo, even Khris Middleton at times), the Nuggets, from a personnel standpoint, appear to be topped out as a sub-top-10 unit, and they have particular holes that make them vulnerable in playoff matchups.
Jokic has gotten better, but he's not going to guard on the perimeter and he can be exploited as a pick-and-roll defender; Chris Paul chewed him up in the second round. And who's going to pressure the ball? Whereas a guy like Holiday can, and did, swing a series with his point-of-attack pressure, Denver lacks that kind of on-ball defender. Austin Rivers can defend. So can P.J. Dozier. But when you're vulnerable at the point of attack and in the lane, you're in trouble.
Gordon, in theory, can roam and make plays and plug some holes, but he's not even close to a Giannis in that capacity. And there's way too much to make up for, anyway. It's hard to see how Denver becomes a better defensive team than last season unless Porter and Jokic are able to take a much bigger steps than I can personally visualize.