If you’re a Denver sports fan desperate to watch a winning team again (sorry Broncos), you’re in luck. A few months after making a run to the Western Conference Finals in the NBA bubble, the Nuggets are back from a blink of an offseason. The team opens the 2020–21 season against the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday night.
With a strong core returning, including guard Jamal Murray and center Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets should once again be one of the best teams in the NBA. There are also plenty of new faces in the the mix for Denver, though, adding to the intrigue of how head coach Michael Malone will manage a talented roster. Here, we put together a list of things you should be watching for as the season gets underway.
New Kids on the Block
In true Nuggets fashion, the front office was able to make some impressive grabs in the draft, even though the team didn’t pick until late in the first round. Denver pounced on athletic guard R.J. Hampton, a highly thought of prospect out of high school who played professionally in New Zealand for a year, instead of attending college in America. The team also snagged center Zeke Nnaji, who will compete for backup center minutes with free-agent pickup Isaiah Hartenstein. Walking bucket Markus Howard is another intriguing addition. Howard was an All-American at Marquette University last year, but skepticism remains about his size and athleticism. We don’t exactly know yet what minutes will look like for these rookies, but hopefully we see some exciting growth from the young guns.
After a unique “bubble” setup helped the NBA successfully avoid any COVID-19 cases during the 2020 playoffs, the league has changed direction for the 2020–21 campaign. The plan is to have a condensed season, with some matchups being played in a series-like structure to limit how much teams travel. With the pandemic far from over, some are concerned that the looser setup and more ambiguous protocol could welcome positive cases—and with them, complications—to the league’s season. The NBA has only released half of the 72-game schedule in an attempt to create a buffer for adjustments. But after the Nuggets’ own flurry of positive cases before the bubble this past summer, can we count on the boys not to be Covidiots without a bubble to rein them in?
The Argentinian Anomaly
The newest Euro-league recruit, Facundo (Facu) Campazzo, requires his own section in this roundup because it’s going to take laser-like focus to even keep up with this man’s passing sorcery. Campazzo had been playing whiplash-inducing basketball for Real Madrid in Spain and the Argentinian national team for half a decade before getting plucked by the Nuggets this offseason—a plan that’s been in the works for some time. Though we don’t exactly know how Malone will make use of the ball-handling wizard, his teammates are already energized by the fiery point guard’s spidey-like senses—and the sheer thought of him and Nikola Jokic chopping it up is the stuff of dreams. Basically, the Facu hype train is going to get crowded, so you might want to hop on now.
A Veteran Presence
Every Denverite’s biggest fear for the free agency became a reality when versatile power forward Jerami Grant signed a three-year, $60 million deal with the Detroit Pistons. (The Nuggets allegedly offered him the same contract.) In turn, the Nuggets were forced to quickly nab gritty power-forward JaMychal Green from the Los Angeles Clippers to inject some experience back into the team’s frontcourt. Denver’s desperation aside, Green should add an energizing change of pace.
The Nuggets can also find comfort in the fact that forward Paul Millsap decided to return on a one-year, $10 million deal. He looked reenergized during the team’s preseason games. Guard Gary Harris will still have plenty to prove coming off a lingering hip injury and lackluster season. And Will Barton is back from a knee injury and hungry to start after missing the Nuggets playoff run last year.
All eyes are on Michael Porter Jr. and the question of whether the small forward is a long-term fit with the Nuggets looms large over the season. The young star got his first chance at consistent playing time during the NBA bubble a few months back and showed he undoubtedly has otherworldly offensive talent. But his defense is still a work in progress. Pretty much everyone is in agreement, though, that head coach Michael Malone needs to give the kid a whole-hearted chance at being a core piece for the Nuggets this season. If he can in fact prove that he’s willing to put in the work—and if a potential Jokic-Murray-Porter trio can gel—the resulting offensive engine should be *chef’s kiss* unstoppable.
All the Fanfare, With No (In-Person) Fans
Due to continued COVID-19 public health measures, there will be no butts in seats at the Mile High City’s newly named Ball Arena to start the season. That will likely only compound the continued frustrations of many Denver fans who can’t watch most of the Nuggets’ games because cable provider Comcast still isn’t carrying Altitude Sports due to a contract dispute that has lasted more than a year.
As for how SuperMascot Rocky will fare without fans in the stands to pester? Only time will tell. Though we’re sure he’ll find some way to pull through with his age-old antics—as he always does.