For the first time in NBA history, the other 29 teams are going into the regular season trying to knock the Denver Nuggets off of their perch atop the league. After never quite being able to get over the hump during Nikola Jokic’s tenure in the Mile High City, Denver finally made it to the NBA Finals and did not disappoint, knocking off the Miami Heat in five games to earn the right to lift the Larry O’Brien trophy.
With a few exceptions, the Nuggets opted to largely run it back this year, and how can anyone blame them? The team has the best starting five in the league, they’re battle tested, they have the best home-court advantage in the league, and they seem to relish the big occasion. While the team has one or two little concerns, it’s an exciting time to be a fan of the Denver Nuggets.
Biggest Question: How Do They Replace Bruce Brown And Jeff Green?
The tricky thing about the Nuggets is that we know so much about them. The team is running it back with the starting five that got them a ring — Jamal Murray, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, Nikola Jokic — while head coach Michael Malone is still in town. That starting group gives them a floor that, barring injury, no other team can match.
If there is a problem, it revolves around the fact that two key pieces of the puzzle from last year are no longer here. After one season with the team, Brown cashed in on his brilliant 2022-23 campaign by signing a lucrative, 2-year deal with the Indiana Pacers. Green was ultra reliable and steady for the team during his two years in Denver, he’s now a member of the Houston Rockets. Their contributions to what the Nuggets accomplished last season can’t really be overstated, as they were effective cogs in the machine on offense who were willing to take on difficult assignments on defense.
The only major questions with the starting group revolve around whether Murray can finally get over the hump and become an All-Star and how much more room Porter has to grow. Caldwell-Pope and Gordon are as defined in their roles as they can be, while Jokic is the best basketball player on the planet. But there are real questions about replacing Brown and Green, which leads pretty nicely into…
X-Factor: Literally Any Young Guy Stepping Up
Again, the Nuggets are a little difficult to talk about here because they are such a known commodity, but we’ll take the biggest question and use it as the launching off point here. The one real question facing the Nuggets has to do with their depth, namely the way that they’re going to replace the minutes they got from Brown and Green. They have a few veterans coming off of their bench in Reggie Jackson and Justin Holiday, and while there is value in the fact that you can usually pencil in what you can expect from them on a given night, they’re probably not helping to raise the team’s ceiling.
If that’s going to happen, it’ll come by way of one of their youngsters blossoming in a larger role. The obvious candidate here is Christian Braun, who funny enough tied for the second-most games played last year and continued to earn Malone’s trust as the year went on — he played in every NBA Finals game and famously exploded for 15 points in 19 minutes during Denver’s Game 3 win. Maybe Zeke Nnaji or Peyton Watson’s familiarity with the team (Nnaji is entering his fourth year, Watson is entering his second) can be parlayed into more playing time. Can they get literally anything out of their NBA Draft class, all of whom are old for being first-year players — Julian Strawther is 21 and turns 22 in April, Hunter Tyson just turned 23, Jalen Pickett turns 24 right before the start of the regular season.
The good news is that, barring multiple catastrophic injuries, Denver doesn’t need any of these guys to magically morph into an impact starter or anything like that. Their starting unit is so good that they have the luxury of time. But building up depth is important, and the defending champions have 82 games to do that before the playoffs roll around.