Opening up the preseason with a pair of losses is not what one would want but for the Denver Nuggets, but those two games were exactly what the Mile High city needed. It has been barely two years since Jamaal Murray surprised the Jazz with a 50-point explosion in the Bubble.
A little more than two weeks later Murray’s 40-point night would close out the Clippers to seal Denver’s first run to the Conference Finals since Carmelo Anthony was rocking the braids in his powder blue uniform. That magical run that feels impossibly long ago.
Seeing Murray take the court after 500 days left everyone asking ‘how he would look?’ The answer was ‘good’. Murray moved with a fluidity one would not expect from a player sidelined for the last year. He opened the night as a willing passer, finding Gordon on the cut.
A few possessions later on the break Murray would redirect a pass from Jokic to the open Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Murray’s shooting struggled to find the bottom of the net in Denver’s first two games, but he maintained his aggression. Over the two games, Murray displayed his wide offensive repertoire showing off stepbacks, strong drives, post-up, and more. His reclamation to the Denver offense, which was already 6th in net rating last season, should vault them into the top echelon of offenses in the league.
Murray exited the second preseason game with what has been called both a thigh injury from Nuggets’ Twitter account and a Hamstring injury by Nuggets’ coach Michael Malone. The injury is not expected to prevent Murray from playing in the regular season.
In addition to Murray, the Queen City of the Plains welcomed back their rising star Michael porter Jr who showed no fear. Porter seemed to be on a mission to take the most challenging shot and make it. He spent the first two games of the preseason staring his defender in the eye, letting the defender crowd him then knocking down the jumper.
In these outings, Porter would go 6 for 12 from the three-point line. He also showed some impetus for being a help defender. Porter’s timing was late but he is attempting to make the right rotational reads to be a weak side rim protector.
Denver desperately needs him to develop on that end of the floor. The Nuggets were an average defensive team last season finishing with the 15th-best defensive rating. The additions of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown will help on the wings. Caldwell-Pope has already had two steals in his limited preseason action.
Their presence in addition to Aaron Gordon gives Denver another solid defensive trio. The 2020 Conference finals team was able to deploy Gary Harris, Jerami Grant, and Torrey Craig. The new three should fit even better given they are not as offensively limited as their predecessors.
Denver was also treated to the Bones Hyland show in their second matchup. When Denver traded away reserve point guard staple Monte Morris during the offseason, Bones received a call from Murray telling him this was his time. The sophomore attacked Chicago relentlessly showing off his craftiness with the ball and willingness to pull from deep.
With as much optimism there is surrounding Denver we must not become Charlie Brown lining up to kick the football. The Nuggets’ roster still contains two holes. The Nuggets need rim protection and a bench scorer.
Both the Thunder and the Bulls were able to get into the paint and score without objection. DeAndre Jordan’s play was higher than expected given the bar had been set by his 1.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game last season but his defensive impact is a far cry away from being able to save Denver.
Watch out for the Nuggets to get frisky in the trade market. Zeke Nnaji continued to show flashes as an offensive player but his defense gives up far more than he can score. With the excitement for Victor Wembanyama hitting a fever pitch, it would not be too surprising for the Spurs to move Jakob Poeltl or the Pacers to part ways with Miles Turner. Could a flier on Nnaji and some future assets entice them? Maybe.
An additional problem for the Nuggets is their ball movement with bench lineups. Coach Malone stuck to his distinct starts and bench units for the majority of their preseason outings as opposed to blending the two. This coaching choice made sense to help players acclimate but the results often left the Nuggets’ offense struggling to create an action. When the second unit did get a pick and roll, or Hyland got past his man, the play would quickly end in a kick out and three shots being launched. Denver’s bench attempted 24 threes against Chicago, converting on 9 of those attempts.
On the misses though, the Bulls were out running. Chicago beat Denver 23-5 in fast break points. The Nuggets have always been a fast-paced team and at home, that style of play with these young legs will work. Their high altitude in Denver gives them an unreplaceable home-court advantage. Opposing teams are not used to running that much at that high.
On the road, Denver needs to be able to play another style. They need to have someone off their bench who can score out of the mid or low post to supplement their young legs. They need someone who can take 15 seconds off a possession clock to give their stars a breather. They need Carmelo Anthony to return to where he started. Melo remains a free agent after 13.3 points per game last season for the Los Angeles Lakers. The one-time star for Denver turned over a new leaf for the Lakers, applying himself on the defensive side of the ball leading to a career-high in blocks. In a limited role, Anthony could provide a stable scoring presence to the Nuggets’ bench without diminishing their questionable defense.