The Denver Nuggets have come to a crossroads. They are currently heading to London to take on the Indiana Pacers with no momentum and a cloud of negativity surrounding the team with the club on a five-game losing streak. The potential savior, highly coveted Paul Millsap, who the Nuggets were actively looking to acquire not just in the past few days but going all the way back to last summer, has been taken off of the trading block by the Atlanta Hawks and the Nuggets are left looking for answers.
Do they stick with the current roster without being able to trade for an all-star caliber player and continue fighting to make the playoffs or do they look to raise the overall ceiling of the roster by focusing on the 2017 NBA draft which has been said to contain so much talent that it has been consistently compared to the infamous 2003 draft class?
If the Nuggets are truly looking to build a team that can compete for an NBA championship within the next decade and not just to sell tickets then focusing on the upcoming draft should now be priority number one.
The Nuggets are having trouble contending for the 8th seed when the bottom of the western conference is as bad as it has been in years. Currently, the Portland Trailblazers occupy the eighth seed in the west and they are on pace for just 34 wins. If the Nuggets current roster is struggling to even flirt with being .500 then how will they be able to turn a corner and become a legitimate threat to the upper-echelon playoff teams? The Nuggets simply do not currently have a roster with the ceiling to contend and need to find a way to raise the current talent level.
In addition to that, the current construction and defensive scheme of the team has led to absolutely atrocious defense. In the past five games, the Nuggets have given up 120 or more points and have lost every one of those matchups.
“It’s embarrassing how we go out and attempt to defend every night,” Malone said. “That is something that we have to try and fix as soon as possible because it’s at an all-time low right now and that is a huge concern of mine.”
What is even more discouraging is that the Nuggets have had one of the best offenses in all of basketball and have still failed to secure wins. Denver is just 14-23 but is still the sixth-highest scoring team in the league at 108 points per game. They have scored over 100 points in all but eight games this season and of those eight games, they have not won a single matchup.
"It's a losing proposition, offense sells tickets, defense wins championships," Malone said. "Right now our defense is the worst in the NBA."
It also seems as if there is a disconnect between Malone and his veteran players. If the Nuggets are to make a run at the playoffs it would be behind the leadership of players like Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, and Jameer Nelson but according to Malone the Nuggets lack that type of on-court leadership from their current group of veterans.
"Right now, we have no leadership. We have no veteran leadership on this team stepping up," Malone said, "Don't hear anyone speaking, taking the lead. We have two young guys trying to speak up on the team's behalf. You applaud them, but we need some leadership to shine and step up when we are struggling, which we are.”
While these comments were directly after one of the Nuggets many tough losses and may be exaggerated to a degree it is worth considering. Malone is known as a coach who always has his player's backs and he has very rarely, if at all, called out his players to the media or thrown them under the bus. For Malone to snap the way he did suggests some validity behind his words.
The Nuggets attempt at making the playoffs has also hindered the development of rookie sensation Jamal Murray, who the Nuggets consider a future foundational player. In the month of November, Murray was on fire. He was playing 24 minutes per game while contributing 12.3 points, 2.9 rebounds, and 2.1 assists and shooting 42.7 percent from beyond the three-point arc with a usage percentage of 22.1 percent. In both December and January, combined Murray is only playing 18.2 minutes per game while scoring only 5.5 points per game and shooting a meager 20.6 percent from deep. His usage percentage also has plummeted to just 16.8 percent. The Nuggets, since becoming healthy, have gone away from getting Murray involved in the offense and it has severely hurt his production and development.
With all of these issues compounding each other the next step for the Nuggets should be to start preparing for the 2017 NBA Draft. The elite talent level in this draft class in combination with the mixture of multiple first round picks, young talent, and veterans on movable contracts the Nuggets currently have is a potent concoction for the Nuggets to raise the ceiling of their roster rapidly.
With the top-10 prospects in the upcoming draft all being arguably elite talents the Nuggets have the opportunity to target a couple different players and aggressively pursue trades to move up in the draft. This draft may be one of the few where picks 4-10 could be traded being that the talent pool is so deep. Teams that are looking to rebuild through the draft may be looking to trade back and acquire either an additional first round pick or a young asset. The Nuggets have the ability to build all different kinds of deals to go after the player they see as a foundation pillar to go along with Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray.
Going all in for the draft would also bring along a few other changes. The Nuggets would most likely move on from at least one veteran. Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, or Will Barton would most likely net a mid to late first round pick and the Nuggets still have Jameer Nelson and Kenneth Faried to offer in any deal. They could also consider trading either of Jusuf Nurkic or Emmanuel Mudiay if the right deal presented itself.
Consolidating the roster could lead to increased roles for both Murray and Juancho Hernangomez, who has shown to have a considerably high ceiling himself. Hernangomez is currently shooting 40.7 percent from deep with the ability to play positions 3-5 depending on the matchup. In addition to his offensive prowess Hernangomez has shown an even higher defensive ceiling. Opponents shoot just 29 percent from three-point distance and just 54.5 percent within six feet of the basket. Hernangomez is also proving to be an above average rebounder being that he averages over eight rebounds per 36 minutes.
While taking a step back from contending for the playoffs for the third straight year is obviously not something the front office or team wants to do it may allow the Nuggets to take significant steps towards relevance. Allowing Murray and Hernangomez to develop while letting Jokic have the keys to the offense will allow the future of the roster to develop chemistry while also allowing the Nuggets to go all-in for one of the most talented drafts in recent memory. For the Nuggets, the way forward may start with a step backwards.