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Best Case, Worst Case: Denver Nuggets

The no. 11 team in The Ringer’s preseason rankings has another chance to end its playoff drought. But as good as their offense may be, they won’t go very far unless the defense makes improvements.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Break out your Ben Simmons hand trackers—the NBA is back. We’re counting down the days until the 2018-19 season tips off on October 16 by taking a hard look at the floor and ceiling of every team in the league. This year, each Best Case, Worst Case capsule is also accompanied by The Ringer’s preseason ranking, our staff’s best guess about where that team will finish this season. We look forward to your emotionless, considered responses.

Ringer Preseason Ranking: 11

Last Season: 46-36 (ninth in West)

Notable Additions: Michael Porter Jr. (draft), Jarred Vanderbilt (draft-day trade), Isaiah Thomas (free agency)

Notable Subtractions: Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur

Vegas Over/Under: 47.5

Team MVP: Nikola Jokic

Best-Case Scenario: Denver makes the postseason. And it isn’t close.

There was reason for optimism at the end of last season, even if it didn’t feel like it at the time. (Falling one game short of the playoffs is a running sore spot for this team: In 2017, the Nuggets lost to the Thunder in Game 80 to seal their fate; and in 2018, the Nuggets lost to the Wolves in Game 82.) Falling to Minnesota last season was especially cruel at the time, since the matchup became its own play-in game, with the winner earning the Western Conference eighth seed. That blow hurts less now. You can group the Nuggets in with the teams in the West that improved this offseason. (The Wolves don’t make the list.)

No blockbuster moves went down in Denver over the summer, but the sheer promise of its core is enough to raise expectations. Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris, and Jamal Murray are all under 25 and have a potpourri of grown-man skills. Because of their ages and heavy hands in the offense, it’s too early to give Denver a ceiling. And that’s not yet considering what a healthy Paul Millsap will bring over an entire season. Even with their most-established player sidelined with a wrist injury for 44 games last season, the Nuggets controlled the boards, finishing tied for second in rebound percentage. They were also second-best in contested rebounds and offensive rebounds, which is some proof they’ll fight for possessions (if the basket is directly in sight, anyway).The high offense-rebound count might be a product of Denver being less concerned with getting back on defense. But it’s also crucial for a team that can’t be relied on to shut its opponents down. The Nuggets took advantage of second-chance scoring last season (finishing top-three) and allowed the fifth-fewest. It sums up the good and the bad for Mike Malone: find all possible ways to score, because there’s no counting on getting stops.

Denver threw the remainder of its cap space at its current roster in July, re-signing Jokic to a five-year, $148 million max deal and Will Barton to four years, $53 million. (Some luxury tax breathing room was later created by trading Kenneth Faried and Darrell Arthur to Brooklyn and Wilson Chandler to Philadelphia.) Some franchises gave out contracts this summer based primarily on potential—for example, Jabari Parker and Zach LaVine are now Chicago’s two highest-paid players. Denver got that and proven production: Jokic, 23, is one the craftiest big men in the game, and Barton aced an on-court wonderlic last season, filling in as point guard, 2-guard, and small forward.

There are possibilities for growth up and down the roster. Earlier this week, league general managers voted Murray most likely to have a breakout season. No surprise there: The 21-year-old was a must-watch by the end of the season. Health concerns dropped Michael Porter Jr., once a top-three projected pick, to the Nuggets at 14 in the 2018 draft. Porter Jr. is out indefinitely as he recovers from a second back surgery—the first kept Porter out for almost his entire freshman season at Missouri—without any reason to be rushed back. If Porter is able to return, that’s another shooting threat to put on the floor with Murray, Harris and Jokic. Denver also added Isaiah Thomas, who, like Porter, fell rather quickly in the public eye because of injury. Thomas is still rehabbing the hip injury that’s plagued him since the 2017 playoffs, but the once record-breaking Boston point guard was signed on a minimum deal, making him another low-risk addition. If he can close in on the player he was in Boston, the Nuggets are looking at one of the strongest backcourt rotations in the league.

Worst-Case Scenario: Scoring brilliance is overshadowed by a bad defense.

Maybe a full season of Millsap will be able to salvage the Nuggets’ frontcourt defense. If anyone can act as the responsible adult who refuses to let another 108.8 defensive rating pass, it’s Millsap. But the vet can only erase so much damage. For all the praise Murray has received this summer (and above), it ends at his defense. He’s a live body on the perimeter at best, and didn’t improve between his rookie season and last season. (And if Thomas does recover, he’ll be hurting more than helping there.)

For as sharp as Murray and Jokic are when it comes to getting a bucket, they’re heedless on the other end of the court. Even growing into average stoppers—if not roadblocks, then road bumps—would be an improvement. Dumping Chandler’s contract might’ve provided immediate tax relief, but dealing the veteran wing also means one fewer reliable (and versatile) defender to count on.

The Nuggets’ flurry of scoring might be enough to hook a playoff spot. (Always take the over.) Earning a postseason spot may be enough for Denver, which hasn’t played past mid-April since 2013, to call the season a success. But it could be a short high. Their defensive weaknesses will likely dropkick them out in the first round, which they haven’t advanced from in a decade.

TL;DR: Denver’s high-powered offense gets the Nuggets into the playoff conversation, but defense might shut them up again.