SALT LAKE CITY — This was supposed to be the year the Denver Nuggets became a legitimate contender.
The Nuggets, who finished the season as the No. 3 seed in the NBA’s Western Conference, feel like they have all the necessary pieces, but concerns that plagued them in the postseason last season — injury and depth — are still cropping up, and defensive problems have begun to mount with the playoffs right around the corner.
A 4-3 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers in the 2019 Western Conference semifinals, a series that included a wild quadruple-overtime contest, set the wheels in motion for the Nuggets to try to move into an even higher echelon in the West. They came into the 2019-20 season hopeful and confident that they could take the leap from playoff contender to Finals contender.
With health finally on their side and continuity steering the ship, the depth problems seemed like an issue of the past. Instead, Nuggets coach Mike Malone had an abundance of depth. Behind the starting unit of Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton and Paul Millsap, there were multiple options, including Michael Porter Jr., who would be making his NBA debut after injury kept him out the entirety of the previous season.
(3) Denver Nuggets
vs. (6) Utah Jazz
Nuggets 135, Jazz 125 (OT)
Jazz 124, Nuggets 105
Jazz 124, Nuggets 87
Jazz 129, Nuggets 127
Nuggets 117, Jazz 107
Nuggets 119, Jazz 107
Nuggets 80, Jazz 78, Nuggets win series 4-3
But shortly after the season began, the bench struggled to produce in crucial moments. In a loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Nov. 12, Malone lamented his ineffective second unit.
“When we go to our bench, we need something from them,” he said. “We need guys who are ready to play, who are going to give us energy. That’s something else I’m going to have to figure out because we’re just not getting enough efficiency or productivity from our bench unit.”
A reserve rotation of Torrey Craig, Monte Morris, Malik Beasley, Jerami Grant, Mason Plumlee, Porter Jr. and a smattering of others sometimes left players with DNPs for no reason other than there weren’t enough minutes for everyone.
Things started to become a little more clear in mid-December when the Nuggets went on a seven-game win streak and 15-4 run through mid-January. Porter Jr. became a more regular part of the rotation, but it was around that time that injuries once again began to mount.
As Millsap, Harris and Murray navigated different ailments, the Nuggets turned to their depth once again. Porter’s playmaking and defense were improving with increased time on the floor, and Craig’s defense shined against some of the tougher assignments, including holding Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell to a single made field goal in their Jan. 30 contest.
But when the trade deadline came around, the bench was somewhat revamped, and with a handful of players headed to other teams and the injured list growing, the Nuggets had just seven players available when they again faced the Jazz again on Feb. 5. They showed resolve and heart, winning the game despite the depleted roster.
Although there had been good developments and flashes of greatness from the Nuggets, when the All-Star break neared, it started to become clear there was still work to be done, and injuries were impeding the Nuggets’ ability to truly move forward in a cohesive way. This might not be the year.
After the annual All-Star intermission, the Nuggets were gearing up for the home stretch of the season and realizing that small defensive lapses here and there throughout the year were becoming a regular occurrence. Denver had the 10th best defense in the league in 2018-19 but was slowly dipping throughout the 2019-20 season and was regularly letting their offense dictate the game rather than the other way around.
“In the six games since the All-Star break, we are bottom two in defense in the NBA,” Malone said at the time. “We’re going nowhere fast if that continues to happen.”
Then, the coronavirus hit.
Positive COVID-19 tests forced the Nuggets to shut down their practice facility while other teams were ramping up individual workouts in preparation for the NBA bubble, and then when the team arrived in Orlando on July 7 they were roughly seven players short of their full roster.
The most important player on the Nuggets, Jokic, had tested positive in Serbia, and then travel complications delayed him further even after he returned negative tests. Which players were missing was kept secret for weeks as the team attempted practicing with half a roster. The NBA said that teams didn’t need to disclose which players had arrived or who, if anyone, had tested positive for the coronavirus.
Eventually Jokic made it to the bubble, having dropped a significant amount of weight, as did Porter Jr., who turned out to be one of the missing players.
But even with players rejoining the team and things coming together, the Nuggets would not see a reprieve from injury woes.
Starters Harris and Barton have not played in the bubble, dealing with injuries that have continued to nag, and Malone, unsure if the two will be able to return to action in the postseason, is forging forward.
Murray, Denver’s starting point guard, was nursing a hamstring injury and returned to the lineup, making his bubble debut against the Jazz in what would be a playoff-preview, double-overtime thriller last Saturday.
The Nuggets came out on top in that game, but Malone said that he’s felt like a broken record through the seeding games, begging his team for defensive effort that has been completely missing. Pre-suspension, the Nuggets defense was waning, but in the bubble it’s taken a nosedive. Of 22 teams in Orlando, the Nuggets’ defense is dead last.
Though Denver is the No. 3 seed in the West and will be in an opening-round series against the Jazz, a series in which the Nuggets are favored, depth and injuries are familiar territory that are holding the team back from taking any sort of significant steps forward.
Add that to the defensive concerns, and things are seeming a little more bleak than they should for a third-seeded team with the best passing big man in the game and a ton of young talent.