BDL's 2017-18 Season Previews: Denver Nuggets, on the verge of striking gold

The 2017 offseason was the wildest in NBA history. LeBron James and Kyrie Irving are now Eastern Conference rivals. Out West, Chris Paul joined James Harden, while Paul George and Carmelo Anthony united with Russell Westbrook. Ten recent AllStars changed uniforms, and we haven’t even gotten to Kevin Durant’s strange summer, so let’s get to previewing. The 2017-18 NBA season is finally upon us.

The arrival of Paul Millsap will help Nikola Jokic kickstart the Nuggets. (AP)

DENVER NUGGETS

2016-17 finish: 40-42, ninth in the West
Offensive rating: 110.0 (5th)
Defensive rating: 110.5 (29th)

Additions: Paul Millsap, Trey Lyles, Tyler Lydon
Subtractions: Danilo Gallinari, Mike Miller, Roy Hibbert

Did the summer help at all?

With the addition of Millsap, the Nuggets went from playoff sleeper pick to real expectations for a potentially devastating offensive outfit that should have its sights set beyond the first round. How they measure up to preseason predictions that have them competing for a fifth seed in the Western Conference will ultimately determine whether this summer helped, but it’s hard to imagine it didn’t.

Millsap is an ideal fit for a free-flowing offense that desperately needed muscle on defense. A four-time All-Star and former All-Defensive pick, the 32-year-old gets in where he fits in. He demands little, but can dominate the post or stretch the floor (league-average 36 percent from 3-point range when his Atlanta Hawks were at their best), and his averages (roughly 17 points, eight boards, three assists and three combined blocks and steals for the past seven seasons) have been remarkably consistent despite playing for three coaches on two teams with countless roster adaptations in that span.

Built like a brick, Millsap thrived on the Hawks alongside Al Horford — a center more skilled than the traditional bruiser, much like Nikola Jokic. The Serbian 7-footer’s re-insertion into Denver’s starting lineup transformed the Nuggets into the league’s top-ranked offense over the final four months of last season. Millsap may not space the floor as well as the departed Gallinari in that lineup, but he’s every bit the scoring threat, and he should shore up a defense that ranked dead last during that same span.

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Lyles and Lydon give the Nuggets even more depth at the 4 position. The former regressed last year in Utah after a promising rookie campaign, but minutes were scarce in a crowded Jazz frontcourt, and he was had for a pick swap with Utah that also landed Lydon — another floor-stretching power forward who shot nearly 40 percent from 3 for Syracuse last season. That group seems to have pushed Kenneth Faried down the depth chart, much to his chagrin, which speaks to Denver’s wealth of talent.

The summer also provided another offseason of hopeful improvement for second-year players Jamal Murray, Malik Beasley and Juan Hernangomez, as well as third-year former lottery pick Emmanuel Mudiay, who is entering a make-or-break season. Mudiay earned a start in the second game of the preseason after an impressive opener, only to struggle again, so we’ll see which version Denver gets.

The summer head-scratcher was a three-year, $41 million extension for Mason Plumlee. Denver may have felt compelled to double down on the backup big, so as not to be seen as a victim in Portland’s theft of Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick in February. I’m not sure that had the desired effect.

The Nuggets now face another tricky contract situation with Gary Harris. The two sides are reportedly close on an extension that would presumably pay him upward of $20 million annually. Speaking of increased expectations, the 23-year-old would then immediately transition from one of the league’s most underrated two-way 2-guards to a guy who needs to prove his value all over again.

Is Jamal Murray primed for a breakout season as Denver’s starting point guard? (AP)

Best-case scenario: Jokic is the real deal, a unicorn playmaker who spins solid gold records in Denver. Millsap is the perfect complement, shoring up the defense in the process. Mudiay and Murray realize their potential as a potent point guard tandem, and the Nuggets don’t have to rely on a 34-year-old Jameer Nelson again. Denver’s depth, including Wilson Chandler and Will Barton on the wings, rolls through opponents in waves. And the Nuggets are a fifth seed with upset aspirations in the first round.

If everything falls apart: Jokic’s revelatory 2017 run wasn’t quite the transformative evolution we’ve made it out to be. The knee injury that plagued Millsap last season starts to chip away at his rock-solid body of work, and he plays like a man in his mid-30s. Plumlee and Harris aren’t worth the $35 million Denver plans to invest in them annually for the next few years. Mudiay is a complete bust, and Murray works his way onto a similar track. Faried fractures the locker room. The defense is a disaster. And the Nuggets are no better than the entertaining lottery team they were last season.

Best guess at a record: 47-35

Read all of Ball Don’t Lie’s 2017-18 NBA Season Previews:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Atlanta HawksBoston CelticsBrooklyn NetsCharlotte HornetsChicago BullsCleveland CavaliersDetroit PistonsIndiana PacersMiami HeatMilwaukee BucksNew York KnicksOrlando MagicPhiladelphia 76ersToronto RaptorsWashington Wizards

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Dallas MavericksDenver NuggetsGolden State WarriorsHouston RocketsLos Angeles ClippersLos Angeles LakersMemphis GrizzliesMinnesota TimberwolvesNew Orleans PelicansOklahoma City ThunderPhoenix SunsPortland Trail BlazersSacramento KingsSan Antonio SpursUtah Jazz

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Ben Rohrbach is a contributor for Ball Don’t Lie and Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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