Can an MVP get a little help around here?
The Lakers and Warriors make splashes. The Nuggets tread water.
Will Barton? Shooter. Juice. Consummate pro. But where are the wing defenders? The rim protectors? The steak to complement Nikola Jokic’s MVP sizzle?
The Lake Show landed Russell Westbrook, Kendrick Nunn, Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony. Golden State brought in Otto Porter Jr. The Nuggets added … Jeff Green.
Yes, there’s a ways to go. Yes, Melo and Howard are on their last legs. Yes, Jamal Murray will return. Yes, Jokic just proved to the rest of the world what we already knew: That he can carry a team on his back for months at a time.
But in this league, teams with title aspirations don’t make their superstars carry that load all by themselves.
For the second straight offseason, the Nuggs front office did enough at the start of free agency to stay salty and relevant. Just not enough, at first blush, to declare themselves significantly improved. Instead of pushing forward or making sexy moves, it’s been about maintenance and tiny tweaks.
“Uncle” Jeff Green, the Nuggets’ newest stretch-4, may well have more in the tank at 34 — he’ll turn 35 at the end of the month — than Paul Millsap, whom he’ll likely replace in the rotation, does at 36.
But according to Basketball-Reference.com, Green also hasn’t produced a seasonal Defensive Rating lower than 110 (and lower is better) since the spring of 2016. Millsap never had a number higher than 110 in any of his four seasons with the Nuggets.
Green adds versatility, range (1.5 treys per game last season at a 41.2% clip) and veteran savvy. He won’t do much to slow those endless opponent drives to the hoop.
But he helps. Heck, Barton helps. You want the rock, Thrill? It’s yours. Have at it. Until Murray returns, the Nuggets have shots to take and looks to give. But here’s the thing: Barton isn’t a bonus anymore. He’s necessary. For a guy who’s appeared in 69.2% of the Nuggets’ last 227 regular-season contests — that’s 57 out of 82 games, if the trend continues — it’s also a calculated risk.
It also puts more of the onus on Michael Porter Jr. being able to handle the weight of 100-ish games, postseason included, while progressing as a defender, adding responsibilities to match a potential max contract extension.
Instead of mortgaging the future — MPJ won’t come cheap — the Nuggets are gambling on the now. On one hand, you could well be wasting a year of Jokic’s prime, a window to lighten his lading.
On the other, you can see the logic of running it back and playing it safe. The De-Arrowed Nuggets and a rotating cast of guards finished the regular season with a 13-5 mark (.722). Extrapolate that onto the first 50 games of 2021-22, and you start the season 36-14. That’s a top 3 seed in the West with a roster that’s only going to get better once it’s at full strength.
Mind you, it’s also not that simple. The Nuggets’ final two months of the 2020-21 marathon were a testament to the creativity of coach Michael Malone and his staff; to the locker room chemistry; to the spirit of Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno built by the braintrust of Tim Connelly and Calvin Booth; and to the bedrock that was Jokic, our hoops unicorn, a tank on two legs, night after night.
Can you replicate over 16-18 weeks what you’d managed, so deftly, in eight? Projections that look clean on a calculator can get complicated once flesh and blood enter the equation. Backs ache. Knees give. Tendons tear. Egos bruise.
A saner offseason gap should help — the Nuggets spent 83 days in the Orlando bubble, followed by a respite of just 77 days between the end of the Western Conference finals and their first preseason contest of 2020-21. The break will be closer to 120-ish days this time around, which ought to ease collective legs and psyches as much as anything else.
But not even time can shield you from every injury, every twist — physical or mental — of a season’s grind. As waters go, the Western Conference remains as deep as it is dangerous.
The Nuggets, as currently composed, aren’t sinking. But unless MPJ has another gear or Jokic gets more help, they’re no closer to swimming for the gold than they were three months ago.