After nearly three months inside the NBA bubble in Orlando, the Denver Nuggets are finally going home. Their bags were nearly packed twice before, down 3-1 to both the Jazz and the Clippers before rallying to win both series and secure a spot in the conference finals, where they played the Lakers a lot tighter than a gentleman's sweep would typically indicate. But in the end, LeBron James and Anthony Davis were just too much. It's really as simple as that.
So now we look ahead to what is clearly a bright Nuggets future, both short and long term. Jamal Murray is 23 years old and locked up through 2024. Nikola Jokic is 25 and signed through 2023. Michael Porter Jr. just turned 22 and has a chance to become a third big-time offensive option that can theoretically be a separator between Denver and top-heavy, two-star teams looking to piecemeal the rest of their production -- think the Clippers when Lou Williams is firing. Getting Will Barton, who missed the playoffs, back next season will be another scoring threat.
Jerami Grant has a player option for $9.3 million next season, but with the way he played in the bubble (after a so-so regular season), it feels pretty certain he'll opt out and seek a long-term deal. Would the Nuggets, who are over the cap but well under the tax, cheap out on Grant and let him go into unrestricted free agency in 2021? I sincerely doubt it, unless the demand is crazy. He's too valuable as their best defensive option against bigger elite wings. When he's shooting and scoring like he did in the postseason, he looks like a borderline All-Star.
Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee are unrestricted free agents. I wouldn't expect too much of a market for either in this cash-strapped offseason, but my guess is at least one of them goes. With a Grant extension and the presumed use of their mid-level exception, the Nuggets will not go into the tax to keep Plumlee or Millsap. In a perfect world, they could retain Millsap and get a backup big with the exception. Perhaps Tristan Thompson, who could help them on the defensive glass, where they were manhandled by the Lakers.
For all intents and purposes, the Nuggets will be running back their same team next season. It will mark the fifth year that Murray, Jokic, Barton, Gary Harris and coach Mike Malone have been together, and the fourth year Torrey Craig has been part of the group. That kind of continuity in the modern NBA is a nearly extinct model of team building, but it's powerful when the forces align to allow players to stay in one spot.
This is a team that has made the incremental strides that used to be a prerequisite for NBA championships. The Nuggets missed the playoffs by one game in 2017 and 2018. They made it to the second round last season, the conference finals this season. They have played in four Game 7s over the past two postseasons, winning three of them. We can safely say Jokic and Murray are stars. But we also know the Western Conference is just absurdly loaded, as usual.
Fact is, Murray just looked like a Hall of Famer for stretches of this postseason and there's a decent chance he won't even make the All-Star team next season. Stephen Curry and the Warriors will be back. Devin Booker and the Suns are coming. Luka Doncic and the Mavericks have already arrived. The Clippers should've beaten the Nuggets this postseason and will certainly be back next season. The Lakers will still be the Lakers, presuming Anthony Davis re-signs, which is a near certainty. If you're still banking on the overnight LeBron James decline, good luck with that.
So you start doing the math, and this Nuggets team still feels like a second-tier championship contender. They're built for the regular season with continuity and depth, and, man, do they have a winning spirit about them. But keeping the same core together without splashy free-agent signings or a big trade is a tough road to a title these days, or even a Finals appearance.
The 2014-15 Golden State Warriors are the Nuggets' model. That team went to two straight postseasons, losing in the first and second round, and developed internally along the way. Curry, like Jokic, grew into a superstar. Klay Thompson, hopefully like Murray if what we saw in the bubble carries over, became an All-Star. Draymond Green burst into a versatile defensive killer with surprising shooting range (at least that season). Grant, in theory, can roughly equate to that kind of player, even if his overall value is more dependent on his shooting than Green's.
Those Warriors did not add a superstar. They got a little bit better each year, added a backup point guard in Shaun Livingston (who at the time was roughly the level of player the Nuggets might be able to target with their mid-level exception) and suddenly they were ready to win it all.
Problem is, these are all rough comparisons. Jokic is not as good as Curry. Grant is not as good as Green. True, Murray does feel like the equivalent of Klay Thompson, but all told, the Nuggets are trying to follow the Warriors' blueprint only with slightly worse players. And again, the Western Conference is unforgiving. The Timberwolves look like the worst team on paper and even they have two All-Stars.
So we'll see how far individual improvement and collective experience can take a team these days. Denver has arrived at the gates of contention, no question. But busting through is not an inevitable next step. There's arguably just as good a chance they go the John Wall-Bradley Beal Wizards route where they convince themselves of championship aspirations but forever remain in the "one player away" realm.
Would the Nuggets consider trading Porter at what might be close to his peak value, considering his upside and rookie contract, to perhaps add a more win-now third piece? That feels like a stretch right now, but ask the Portland Trail Blazers how it feels to bang your head against the Western Conference wall with two great offensive players and a lot of continuity but ultimately not enough to truly compete for a title.
Remember, the Blazers got to a conference finals, too, and once you're that close you can convince yourself you're not as far way as you actually are. I'm not saying the Nuggets are as far away as the Blazers. I think the Nuggets are definitely better. Only time will tell if better can ever turn into best.