From 2003 to 2012, the Denver Nuggets made 10 straight playoff appearances. But in the three seasons since, the team has averaged 33 wins, missed the playoffs, and made a habit of dwelling in the basement of the Western Conference standings.
This season could be different. It has the promise of a postseason showing, and, in the second year of coach Mike Malone’s tenure, a resurgence of the franchise back to a perennial playoff contender.
But there’s work to be done to get there. Here are the five keys to the team’s success, plus my prediction of how the Nuggets will fare in 2016–17:
Center Jusuf Nurkic and power forward Nikola Jokic give Denver two seven-footers in the starting lineup, thus making the Nuggets an anomaly in a league that’s trending toward smaller rotations that rely on the three-point shot. The continued development of Nurkic, who spent most of last season recovering from knee surgery, and Jokic, who finished third in 2015–16 NBA Rookie of the Year voting, will be a big factor in determining whether the Nuggets can be versatile enough to compete with two tall players down low.
Last year’s high hopes were dashed thanks to several key injuries, including extended absences by Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler. Despite expanded roster depth this season, it’s crucial for Denver to stay healthy—especially Gallinari, the team’s leading scorer last year at 19.5 points per game. The chances of that happening, however, aren’t good: Gallinari has missed more than a third of his NBA playing career due to injuries.
The Nuggets cashed in on a trio of first-round picks in June’s draft, as Jamal Murray, Malik Beasley, and Juancho Hernangomez each have the potential to be immediate impact players. Murray and Beasley are sure to bolster the team’s perimeter shooting, while the little-known Hernangomez put together an impressive Summer League campaign and could be a pleasant surprise off the bench.
It’s going to take more than Gallinari’s scoring prowess, a couple seven-footers, and rookie breakouts for Denver to reach its true potential. The Nuggets need Emmanuel Mudiay, Will Barton, and Gary Harris to step it up. Mudiay must limit turnovers and shoot better than last season’s 36.4 percent in order to become the orchestrator the Nuggets offense needs. Barton has the ability to increase his scoring again after averaging a career-best 14.4 points per game last year. And the defensive-minded Harris has the potential to give Denver more consistency at the three-point line.
MALONE’S SOPHOMORE YEAR
The hiring of Malone in June 2015 was supposed to be the start of a new chapter in Nuggets history, but the same old script remained last year. For Denver to truly take a step forward as a franchise—and for the team to not only make the playoffs, but win a series—Malone needs to press all the right buttons, which may or may not include help from upper management in dealing a player such as Kenneth Faried from the team’s crowded frontcourt. ‘The Manimal’ saw his minutes drop last season, and he’d be great trade bait to give Malone the additional guard talent he needs to make a playoff run.
A LOOK INTO THE CRYSTAL (BASKET)BALL
The Nuggets are certainly going in the right direction: They have enough veteran talent, rookie skill, and raw athleticism to compete for a playoff spot in the Western Conference. But this team is far from proven, which is why fans shouldn’t bank on a breakout season. I imagine the team could go 41-41 and earn the 8th seed in the Western Conference. But making it past the first round remains a fairytale—at least for one more year.