Opinion: Why the Denver Nuggets will win the 2020 NBA FinalsDate: August 6, 2019
By: Jorie Mickens
I know what you are thinking, “Who is going to stop LeBron James and Anthony Davis or Kawhi and Paul George?”
Just hear me out, I promise I can persuade you. The biggest reason I believe the Nuggets will win the 2020 NBA Championship is continuity. In a league where three to five All-Stars change teams each season, the Nuggets have had the same core of Nikola Jokić, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris for the past three seasons. One could say that the Nuggets are the only team returning their three best players from last season.
Jokić, a member of the All-NBA First Team last season, was seventh in the league in assist percentage at 37%, the only non-point guard other than James to rank in the top-18. 37 percent was also the highest assist percentage by a center in NBA history.
Jokić is also just one of four players to ever average at least 20.1 points, 10.8 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game during a season (Wilt Chamberlain two times, Oscar Robertson and Russell Westbrook). Jokić is only 24-years old and there is all the reason to believe that his best days are ahead of him.
Murray, Jokić’s partner in crime, is one of 27 players to ever put up 18 points, five assists, and four rebounds per game in any of their first three seasons. Other names on this list include his teammate Jokić, James, Dwyane Wade, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Damian Lillard, Westbrook, Grant Hill and Chris Webber. Murray has a legitimate shot at making the All-Star team if he continues to evolve his game this season.
Harris reminds me a lot of Victor Oladipo during his All-Star season in Indiana. Harris, while not the playmaker that Oladipo is, can get you 20 points any night and is an absolute hound on defense. Before Harris injured his hip in December, he was averaging 17.3 points, 3.0 assists and 1.3 steals. He struggled to find himself after the injury, but if he can return to that form, the Nuggets would have a scary three-headed monster in place.
The one knock against this young core was the lack of playoff experience. Now, after fourteen grueling playoff games against the veteran Spurs and the third-seeded Blazers (including a four OT game in Game three), these three young guns are battle-tested.
Paul Millsap, a four-time All-Star, was brought in two seasons ago to help the Nuggets find their defensive identity. Millsap only played 38 games during the 2017-18 season and the Nuggets suffered mightily. The Nuggets posted a 110.0 defensive rating that season, 23rd in the league. Millsap rejoined the same Nuggets roster this past season and the Nuggets ranked 10th in the league, posting a 108.1 defensive rating. Millsap is heading into the final year of his contract with the Nuggets, he can play a Robert Horry-type role for the Nuggets this season.
Torrey Craig played suffocating defense against opponents all season, but Craig really showed his value in the playoffs. Craig was inserted into the starting lineup for Game four of Denver’s first-round matchup with the San Antonio Spurs and tasked with guarding Demar Derozan.
Craig provided the defensive versatility that allowed Gary Harris to defend Derrick White, who was averaging 23.0 points through the first three games. In Game 4, White had just eight points on 3/8 shooting. Craig had 18 points, shooting 5/7 from three, eight rebs and two steals in a fourteen-point win. During the Denver-Portland series, Damian Lillard shot 27% from the field while being guarded by Craig. If he can improve his three-point percentage (32.4%), Craig can become one of the elite three-and-D players in the league.
Will Barton struggled with a groin injury last season and missed 39 games. Barton, who should have won The Sixth Man of the Year award in 2017-18 (15.7 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game), is healthy and is looking to return to form during this upcoming season.
Monte Morris is one of the most underrated back-up point guards in the league. Morris ranked second in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio and shot 41% for three on three-point attempts per game.
Malik Beasley is a sharpshooting backup two-guard who shot 40% from three during the regular season and the playoffs, averaging 11.3 points in 23.2 minutes per game during his age-22 season.
That is a formidable eight-man rotation in a tough western conference, but the Nuggets have two wildcards that can put them over the top. With all the acquisitions of superstars this offseason, the acquisition of a great role player went unnoticed. Thunder F Jerami Grant was traded to the Nuggets for a 2020 first-round draft pick.
Grant had career-highs in points (13.6), three-point percentage (39.2%), free-throw percentage (71%), rebounds (5.2) and steals (0.8) last season. Grant is on a team-friendly contract and fits perfectly with the Nuggets timeline, being just 25-years old.
With Millsap entering his age-34 season, Grant can slide into the starting lineup for Millsap and save his body for a deep playoff run. Grant can also learn from Millsap this season, who is one of the most underappreciated players of this generation.
Next, “rookie” Michael Porter Jr. Maybe it is a stretch to think a rookie, who missed the last two years of his basketball career due to injury, has a shot at contributing to a championship contending team, but Porter Jr. is not your ordinary rookie.
Porter Jr. sat out the entire 2018-19 season, rehabbing his back after getting surgery in July of 2018. The Nuggets periodically released updates about his progression throughout the season and Porter Jr. was fully cleared to play in May 2019. Then, a few days before the Nuggets first summer league game, Porter Jr. strained his knee during a practice. Even though the injury was unrelated to his back injury, the Nuggets felt there was no reason to risk Porter Jr. re-injuring his knee during a meaningless summer league game.
Porter Jr. can be the next gap-year success story. We saw it with Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Blake Griffin. Porter Jr. is your prototypical NBA “unicorn.” He is 6-foot 11-inches with a 7-foot wingspan, can score at all three levels, handle the ball, pass, and has great defensive potential because of his length and lateral quickness.
Porter Jr. was the No. 2 prospect in the class of 2017 for a reason. He has been around the Nuggets for a season now and even said he has not felt this healthy since his sophomore year of high school. If Porter Jr. can have a Ben Simmons rookie like season for the Nuggets, the Nuggets may have too much firepower for any defense to handle.
I did not even mention guys like Mason Plumlee or Jarred Vanderbilt. Plumlee is one of the best backup centers in the league and arguably the second-best passing center behind Jokić.
Vanderbilt is a second year forward who lead the Summer League in rebounding this year and had a 20-point and 17-rebound game against the Golden State Warriors. Vanderbilt could not crack the Nuggets rotation last season, but he has a chip on his shoulder heading into the 2019-20 season.
Bol Bol is the last player I need to address. Bol slid to the Miami Heat’s 44th overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft and the Nuggets traded a future second-round pick to get him. It is wishful thinking that Bol could play this season. I would imagine the Nuggets repeat the process they did with Porter Jr., allowing him to get fully healthy before seeing the floor. When Bol comes back though, the Nuggets are getting a 7-foot 2-inch center who averaged 21 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks while shooting 52% from three at Oregon.
When Hall of Fame center Shaquille O’Neal was asked who in the 2019 NBA Draft would he build an NBA franchise around, Shaq said, “I don’t even think I go with Zion, believe it or not, I’d go with Bol Bol.”
O'Neal, who coached Bol when he played AAU in high school, said his team never lost when he played. “He's got it all. He's 7-feet 2-inches, can shoot, dribble, can pass. Nobody really knows it because he was always hurt."
The Lakers have James and Davis, the Clippers have Leonard and George, Rockets have Westbrook and Harden, and the Nuggets have a team. The Nuggets can go 12 deep into their rotation and still have a serviceable player at every position. Led by Coach of the Year candidate and 2019 All-Star head coach Mike Malone, the Nuggets are my pick to win the 2020 NBA Championship.
Jorie Mickens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.