The Nuggets were shorthanded and worn down in their loss to the Suns, but they’ll still need to make meaningful improvements this offseason to reach the NBA’s top tier of title contenders.
Getting swept by a legitimate championship contender while missing three key rotation players shouldn’t send the Nuggets into crisis mode, but it should be cause for honest self-evaluation. Perhaps the only silver lining of Denver’s swift second-round defeat to the Suns is the clarity it should give the franchise moving forward.
The Nuggets are a very good basketball team with the reigning league MVP and three more starters under 27 years old on the roster; their goal should be winning a championship as soon as possible. As presently constructed, however, they still sit outside the NBA’s inner circle of contenders — a reality even a healthy roster wouldn’t have changed. Jamal Murray’s devastating ACL injury irreversibly lowered the trajectory of Denver’s season in April, but Murray (and Will Barton and P.J. Dozier, who missed most of the playoffs as well) doesn’t fully account for the difference between a championship run and a second-round sweep. Denver lost because it was outclassed, but greater heights are within reach, and how the team handles the upcoming offseason could determine whether they make that leap or not.
What do the Denver Nuggets need to do this offseason?
For as much as the 2019 and 2020 postseason revealed about the talent and resolve of Denver’s best players, this year’s playoffs exposed many of the roster’s faults — most notably on defense, where Michael Porter Jr. and Nikola Jokić were repeatedly attacked by a merciless Suns backcourt. Both Jokić and Porter have made real defensive strides in their young careers, but the playoffs pose a different challenge than the regular season in both intensity and specificity of an opponent’s gameplan. The Nuggets can get through a 72-game schedule by hiding their weakest defenders on off-ball offensive players or staying in sound position against an opponent’s pet plays. It’s significantly harder to mask a weak link in the playoffs, let alone two, and Phoenix found astonishing success by exploiting Porter’s upright gait and Jokić’s slow lateral movement and lack of resistance at the rim.
Those kinds of limitations from such central offensive pieces require a more specific vision for how their team must build around them. Aaron Gordon, a shrewd mid-season pickup before Murray’s injury, could eventually become the kind of rim protector necessary to protect Jokić, but his talents are more useful on the perimeter. Michael Malone used Gordon in almost every possible matchup in the playoffs, but still, the Nuggets lacked enough point-of-attack defenders to slow two of the NBA’s best backcourts. (Murray’s return will do little to improve the team’s point-of-attack defense.)
Barring a major shakeup (i.e. trading one of Murray or Porter), Denver doesn’t have much trade ammunition, and with Jokić and Porter already signed through 2023 and 2025, respectively, and Porter soon due for a huge raise, the Nuggets will have limited means of improving the personnel around its three stars. Will Barton appears unlikely to opt out of his $14.7 million player option this summer, which would prevent Denver from upgrading that spot on the roster. The Nuggets can use the mid-level and biannual exceptions to upgrade on the margins, but it’s unlikely either nets a player who moves the needle for a team with such specific, pressing needs. Murray will miss the beginning of next season, and may not be himself in the months immediately following his return, which could increase the need for another ball-handler to take some of the strain off of Jokić on offense.
None of these constraints necessarily prohibit the Nuggets from emerging from this defeat as bona fide championship contenders — or even favorites. Internal improvement from Jokić and his supporting cast could elevate Denver in the Western Conference hierarchy even without external moves.
But the front office must assess this roster — and its future — honestly and act accordingly prior to next season. The Nuggets may have had their weaknesses exposed, but that should tell them exactly what they need to fix.
Kevin Durant, in complete control
The brilliance of Kevin Durant’s Game 5 masterpiece wasn’t just in the way he dominated his individual matchup, or how easily he got into whatever shot he wanted, but in the degree of mastery he showed over each element of the game. Durant has always been able to dominate an individual matchup, often with incredible ease, while the other elements of the game — pick-and-roll passing, beating double teams, manipulating weak-side defenders, off-ball movement — have waxed and waned throughout his career. He’s flashed but never consistently displayed the kind of meticulous control over a game’s every possession that the NBA’s other elite playmakers do.
But on Tuesday night, those pieces all coalesced into 49 points, 17 rebounds and 10 assists in 48 minutes while missing just seven of his 23 shots, without the luxury of another superstar (or two) to ease his workload. This was Durant at his best, picking apart one of the best defenses in the NBA as both a passer and a scorer, burying contested pull-up jumpers of his own and setting up wide-open ones for teammates. He read everything Milwaukee threw at him and made the right decision at almost every turn. When the Bucks shaded toward him, he routinely found the right pass:
When Milwaukee single-covered Durant (or miscommunicated switches), he punished them with untouchable jumpers:
The Bucks did little to cool Durant off once he got going, sticking to their default drop coverage instead of sending hard doubles or even bringing Brook Lopez a step or two higher on the floor. Brooklyn leveraged that against its opponent by setting high ball screens near halfcourt designed to give Durant a long runway to the rim:
On the rare occasion that Milwaukee successfully denied Durant his spots, he responded not with resignation to a stalled possession, but with quick moves back to the ball and into a threatening position:
Playing as hard as Durant did in such a central offensive role for a full 48 minutes is incredibly taxing, and it remains to be seen how he and James Harden (who played 46 minutes in Game 5 while clearly hobbled by a hamstring injury) respond to such heavy workloads the rest of the series. But even if Durant’s superhuman effort isn’t fully replicable in Game 6, it still moved the Nets within a single win of advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals, with Durant still at the peak of his powers.