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Best Case, Worst Case: Denver Nuggets

The Nugs’ high-powered offense makes them a must-watch, but how far will that take them?

Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic USA Today/Ringer illustration

NBA back! To prepare for a new season, we’re breaking down one team per day, each day, until tipoff on October 17.

Team: Denver Nuggets

Coach: Mike Malone (third year)

Last season: 40–42 (ninth in Western Conference)

Notable additions: Paul Millsap (free agency), Trey Lyles (trade), Tyler Lydon (draft-day trade)

Notable subtractions: Danilo Gallinari (free agency)

Vegas over/under: 45.5

NBA Preview 2017

Best-case scenario: The Nuggets are the 2016–17 Jazz of the 2017–18 season: a young and inexperienced team that nonetheless breaks into the playoffs by sheer depth and talent, and makes things interesting past the first round.

This is my League Pass must-watch. From the first day of the new year in 2017 to the end of last season, the Nuggets had the second-best offense in the league (113 points per 100 possessions), which was only two-tenths of a point behind the Warriors. Hell, they beat the Warriors the day before Valentine’s Day by hitting 24 of their 41 3-point attempts — and that was without Danilo Gallinari, their best and most versatile scorer.

Believe it or not, this will be the first full season in which passing genius Nikola Jokic is the undisputed focal point of the team. Nuggets fans would have wiped the memories of the fraught Jokic–Jusuf Nurkic coupling from their minds already if it didn’t help make the case that Jokic is already one of the best players in the league. Jokic, the unicorn galloping in quicksand, is now joined by Paul Millsap, a player I’ve called “LeBron, but cut from limestone instead of marble.” Together, they forge a bizarro depiction of what an intimidating frontline looks like, and invert (or perhaps embody) the game’s point-guard revolution, recycling the pass-happy Webber-Divac Kings into 2017.

They’ll have reinforcements. Gary Harris is the ultimate role player, and he made a considerable jump last season into becoming one of the most efficient wings in the league. Wilson Chandler and Juancho Hernangomez are shapeshifters at either the 3 or 4 spot. Second-year players Jamal Murray and Malik Beasley are potential-laden marksmen who will create maximum space for Jokic, and can serve as secondary and tertiary ball handlers on offense. And they still have Will Barton, a firebrand who can drop 30 points in his sleep.

The Nuggets are going to hail buckets. It’s going to be a blast.

Worst-case scenario: The Nuggets are the 2016–17 Timberwolves of the 2017–18 season: a young and inexperienced team that fails miserably to live up to expectations, and whose lack of care on the defensive end is so apparent that it becomes grating to even the casual fan.

In addition to being the second-best offense in 2017, they were the league’s worst defense in the last four months of the season. How much they’ll improve on that end is largely contingent on Millsap’s ability to get the team to fall in line. If he can’t? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

That’s the worry here — Millsap is a near-perfect upgrade for the Nuggets, and a signal that the team is gearing up to make a serious leap. But what if the Nuggets just aren’t ready? What winning culture existed in Denver died after 2012–13’s 57-win season so that the Warriors could live and thrive. Since then, they’ve checked off all the requisite rebuilding marks. They’ve drafted well (let’s ignore this past June, thanks), kept options open, and over the summer landed Millsap, as big a get as a small-market team with nonexistent fan interest could net. But are they ready for what happens next?

Jokic was recently polled as the 16th-best player in the NBA by ESPN’s annual top-100 player ranking, and his opposition will force him to live up to that standard every second he’s on the court. If you thought DeMarcus Cousins was overaggressive when he was on Jokic last season, imagine him now that he was ranked one spot below the big Serbian. There aren’t many precedents for Jokic’s starring role as a plodding, floor-bound lead facilitator at center. Star turns come with unrealistic expectations for growth, and with a player like Jokic, whose physical gifts are capped, it can be difficult to rise to a higher tier when scouting reports are centered on your individual strengths and weaknesses. Handling the added pressure won’t be easy. Just ask Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Tom Thibodeau about last season.

TL;DR: Unless you’re abnormally invested in watching Jokic fail to live up to his billing as a top-20 player, it’ll be hard to deny the Nuggets as one of the most exciting teams in basketball.