With just under three seconds remaining in the NBA's March 23 contest involving the Philadelphia 76ers, Emmanuel Mudiay had already recorded 24 points, 11 rebounds and four assists for the Denver Nuggets. It was the point guard's strong performance during the second half of his rookie campaign when he noticeably shored up some major flaws—poor shooting percentages and turnover problems chief among them.
But his signature moment would come ticks later in the aforementioned game, as he took a baseball-style inbounds pass from forward Darrell Arthur, dribbled toward the center of the court and heaved a cross-body jumper toward the hoop. The orange sphere rotated perfectly, rising through the Pepsi Center's thin air and dropping through the net for a one-point victory.
That shot represented what the Nuggets wanted most during the 2015-16 campaign.
The season was about progress and providing the young guns with opportunities to build confidence—opportunities that may or may not result in wins. This one did, but it was one of only 33 victories on the season and came against the lowly 76ers. Denver still finished tied with the Sacramento Kings for No. 10 in the Western Conference and earned yet another lottery pick.
Still, there was progress. And now, the Nuggets have to feed off that momentum as they strive for greater things in 2016-17.
"The game really slowed down for me late in the season," Mudiay told Christopher Dempsey of the Denver Post before the start of summer league. "I'm just trying to build off that, keep my confidence up, especially with the young (players) that we've got (on the summer league team)."
Somehow, with only a year under his belt, the 20-year-old floor general can refer to new teammates as "young." He's something akin to a veteran in the Mile High City, coming off a second half that saw him discover his three-point stroke and average 14.9 points, 3.7 rebounds and 4.9 assists. And he's fully aware the franchise's hopes depend on his continued development and burgeoning leadership.
Biggest Offseason Move
The Nuggets desperately tried to make an offseason splash, whether by leveraging their cap space in free agency or making trades that would consolidate their younger talent into a singular superstar.
They offered Dwyane Wade a two-year, $52 million deal, per The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski, but the shooting guard spurned them to join his hometown Chicago Bulls. Dan Woike of the Orange County Register reported back in February that they reached out to the Los Angeles Clippers about Blake Griffin, and speculation about such a trade continued swirling into the summer.
But the Nuggets made nary a ripple in the offseason pool; though they traded young big Joffrey Lauvergne to the Oklahoma City Thunder for a pair of protected second-round picks, re-signed a few veterans and held steady otherwise. The only truly notable additions came in the draft, where they brought in two top-20 selections coming off spectacular collegiate seasons:
|Nuggets' 1st-Round Additions|
|Malik Beasley||Florida State||15.6||5.3||1.5||47.1||38.7|
Of the two is Jamal Murray who will provide the bigger boost in 2016-17. That's not just because he was taken a dozen spots sooner, but because he plays a position where Denver actually needs more depth. While Malik Beasley will be fighting for playing time with Gary Harris, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Will Barton and others on the wing, Murray only needs to beat out Jameer Nelson to earn a role as the backup point guard.
As Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes wrote after Murray's breakthrough performance at summer league, even stalling at his rookie floor would make him somewhat valuable:
Denver's promising rookie produced enough positive flashes to alleviate the concerns his first two games presented. At worst, Murray looks like a spark-plug reserve who could take over games for short spurts. If he works out the hero-ball kinks—and rest assured, he has loads of time to do that; the guy hasn't played a regular-season minute yet—he could be something even better.
The Nuggets don't need Murray—or one of their other rostered rookies—to contribute. Internal improvement alone should allow them to reach new heights. But if Murray can play a controlled game and make the most of his shot-creating ability, he'd be an interesting change-of-pace guard off head coach Mike Malone's bench.
Last season, the Nuggets used 19 different starting lineups—due to injuries to key players and because the team was still trying to piece together its identity. This year, assuming everyone can stay healthy, that number should shrink dramatically.
Mudiay and Nikola Jokic should be locked in at the 1 and 5, respectively, and grow as franchise centerpieces while rotations shift around them.
Even if Jusuf Nurkic is healthy and pushes his way back into the starting lineup, he'll be grouped alongside Jokic. It was a lineup Malone used with surprising frequency at the end of 2015-16, though nbawowy.com shows the Nuggets could only muster up a minus-7.1 net rating in those 93 minutes.
But Nurkic should begin most games on the pine because Gary Harris, Danilo Gallinari and Kenneth Faried need to join the two aforementioned youngsters for the opening tip. It's only small-ball that will push Faried to the bench, because this team does need his rebounding ability and energy to counteract its lack of extreme size. However, the Nuggets must try to mitigate his negative defensive impact against stretch 4s.
|Denver Nuggets' Projected 2016-17 Rotation|
|Emmanuel Mudiay||Garry Harris||Danilo Gallinari||Kenneth Faried||Nikola Jokic|
|Jameer Nelson||Jamal Murray||Will Barton||Darrell Arthur||Jusuf Nurkic|
|Malik Beasley||Wilson Chandler||Juan Hernangomez|
The Nuggets boast enough positional flexibility, and the depth of talent here is superb. Even some of the listed third-stringers will have key roles.
Chandler told BSNDenver.com's Harrison Wind:
I think our bench has a lot of potential. Going back to the good years that we had, our bench was a big part of our success and I think that emphasis should be made on the coaches on the bench and starters mixing well and getting back to that because we can beat a lot of teams if we use the bench the right way.
Chandler missed the entire 2015-16 campaign with a season-ending hip injury suffered before the first game, but he should be ready to go in late October and beyond. That gives this deep bench another veteran presence to pair with the many upside-laden upstarts.
The bench was already a strength: HoopsStats.com shows the Nuggets' backups ranked No. 2 in offensive efficiency and No. 8 in defensive efficiency last year. But with Nurkic and Chandler returning to health, two impressive rookies coming to the Mile High City and Barton preparing to build upon his breakout, it could be stronger still.
Reasons for Confidence
Continuity makes a big difference in the NBA, and the Nuggets will surely benefit from keeping the majority of their 2015-16 lineup in place—especially because so many key pieces are still moving toward their primes.
Randy Foye (1070 minutes played) is the biggest continuity loss, and Denver already adjusted to life without him after he finished last season with the Thunder. Lauvergne is the next biggest loss (1041 minutes played), but Denver brings back a staggering 82.51 percent of its minutes, and it's filling the vacancies with players who boast more upside.
What if Gallinari, Nurkic and Chandler hit their pre-injury forms? What if Mudiay continues to build upon his strong second half and blossoms into an upper-tier point guard? After all, he has the physical profile and was a lottery lock for a reason. What if Jokic continues to play like a per-minute All-Star but while filling a larger role this time?
What if Murray and Beasley play so well that they can't be confined to end-of-bench roles, giving Denver even more currently contributing talent? What if Barton gets even better and proves that his No. 5 finish in last season's Most Improved Player voting was no fluke?
Not all of these hypotheticals will come true, but the Nuggets only need a few of their lofty aspirations to become realities in order to move up the Western Conference standings.
Reasons for Concern
The Nuggets are a long way from competing with elite squads on a nightly basis, and the progress—while it was indeed made—still didn't result in much tangible success. Offensive gains were typically met with defensive declines, and vice versa, as you can see in the month-by-month progression of the team's offensive and defensive ratings:
Encouraging as it may be that they closed the margin of defeat toward the end of the year, they failed to finish strong and didn't complete any months with a positive net rating (excluding October's two-game slate). Even as the offense reached praiseworthy levels, the defense never followed suit.
Denver was never more stingy than in February, when it allowed just 105.5 points per 100 possessions. But even that defensive rating would've finished tied with the Detroit Pistons for No. 12 in the season-long standings—just barely better than an average unit.
Though Jokic proved himself a quality interior defender and Gallinari can hold his own against wings, the other members of the presumptive opening lineup are too porous. According to NBA Math's defensive points saved, Mudiay (No. 418 out of 476), Harris (No. 393) and Faried (No. 255) were all minuses, and it's tough to overcome weakness at three of the five starting spots.
Without substantial strides from the backcourt or a breakout that leaves Jokic on the verge of All-Defensive consideration, it's hard to see this defense finishing in the top half of the league.
Player to Watch
Entering his rookie season as an unheralded second-round pick, Jokic didn't suffer from the burden of expectations. Now, as a sophomore coming off a campaign that saw him trail only Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis in the Rookie of the Year voting, he will.
Per 36 minutes, he averaged 16.5 points, 11.6 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.0 blocks while making more shots than he missed—numbers matched by only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Charles Barkley throughout the entirety of NBA history. And he did that while posting a positive defensive box plus/minus and a player efficiency rating that only 20 qualified rookies have ever topped.
According to NBA Math, he added 165.84 points to the Denver cause, leaving him sandwiched between DeAndre Jordan and Isaiah Thomas for 19th place on the league-wide leaderboard.
Now, he's ready to assert himself as a force in a bigger role. With a year under his belt—as well as a head-turning performance in Rio highlighted by a dominant showing against Team USA—he could single handedly end Denver's quest for a true star.
Expect progress but not perfection.
The Nuggets should continue moving up the Western Conference hierarchy as their many young players improve under fire, but they're not yet a playoff team. That won't happen until the team boasts a stud who can take over games that see everyone else struggle.
Despite Jokic's excellence as a rookie, he isn't that guy yet.
Denver will hang tough with most squads and upset a number of contenders, showing off an improved defense and an offense capable of exploding against the right matchups. Above all else, it'll look the part of a more confident squad that expects victories.
"I hate to lose," Malone recently told CBSSports.com's Matt Moore. "I'm competitive. I go into every game truly expecting to win. My expectation, going into every game because we're prepared, we've got everything down, is to win."
That expectation should be met about half the time in 2016-17, and the near misses will inevitably pile up to push the playoff hopes and dreams back one more year.
Final Record: 40-42
Division Standing: 5th
Playoff Berth: No
B/R League-Wide Power Rankings Prediction: 21st
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @fromal09.