The Nuggets have potential. They always have potential. What separates this class?
Jamal Murray’s steal and three free throws in Milwaukee was a star play. Gary Harris’ Thunder-beater was a star play. Jokic is simply a star. This past season was their awakening. No more passes, no more missed playoffs. In two years, the Nuggets should be pushing for the NBA Finals.
The Core have the star potential. For Harris and Murray, the scoring averages need to press above 20 per game. They both have favorable assist-to-turnover numbers.
Here are the Nuggets clutch statistics according to NBA.com. Clutch situations are the last five minutes of the game with the team up-or-down by no more than five points. Denver performed average in clutch situations but their top-5 clutch players have pretty impressive stats. Not coincidentally, it was also largely the starting-5 for the season-ending surge. Jokic, Murray, Harris, Barton and Millsap all have significant aspects of clutch performance which mesh well. Significant is that as a squad, the Nuggets make their free throws in clutch situations. There’s no better measurement of star potential/power than clutch performance.
In the time before, the Nuggets premier player was Carmelo Anthony. Here is a breakdown of the Thunder’s clutch stats for this past season. Note that Anthony posts a dismal 28.9 FG% and an even more shocking 20.9 3PT% during clutch situations. This despite his average of 3.9 of the 5 minutes. Here is Anthony’s final full season in Denver. He averaged the most points in clutch time but was fifth in FG% and shot a disheartening 14.3% from three. His stats compare unfavorably to the top-5 current Nuggets. Three of those five are 23 or younger and Will Barton is just 25.
Where that leaves Denver is with a mission to get to that last five minutes within the five-points. That’s where maturity and experience will impact this squad most. A bounce pass instead of a behind-the-back pass here and there and maybe the Nuggets are still playing for us. The West was that close this season.
With a highly competitive Midwest division promising to need the best effort of the Nuggets night-in and night-out and with a trio of stars-in-waiting, Denver’s NBA fortunes are bright.
The Nuggets fan in all of us may wonder how they’ll squander this but as a 40+ year fan, I see something different in this iteration. Analytics is a dangerous game but the statistics linked above are real and solid.
We have players that get better as winning pressure increases. Several of them. It matters that this isn’t a team with an image problem. It matters that it doesn’t take 11 shots to score four points down the stretch of games. Sometimes statistics are salve, soothing the knee-jerk need to tinker too much with this roster.
The Nuggets have some work to do around the edges and not a lot of room to do that work. The Core, however is sound.
Our reward is coming, long-suffering Nuggets fans, this playoffs shows us there’s nothing out there for our team to fear.
Just a little more patience.