The Denver Nuggets’ 2016-17 season was bittersweet.
On one hand, it was a success. Nikola Jokic turned into a star and quarterbacked the best offense in the NBA. Gary Harris took a massive leap forward. Rookies Jamal Murray and Juancho Hernangomez showed promise. The Nuggets won seven more games than they did last year.
On the other hand, it was a disappointment. They were horrible in late-game situations and blew lead after lead. They were a terrible defensive team. They traded away Jusuf Nurkic when it became clear he’d never be happy being Jokic’s backup. They then watched Nurkic play an instrumental role in Portland overtaking Denver in the playoff race.
A lot of good, a lot of bad. To help explain it all, I’ve enlisted the help of a classic American movie: “Legally Blonde.” (“Legally Blonde” is a classic, don’t @ me.) I’ve handed out six quotes from the film to six different players. I hope you enjoy and also that you pay your respects to Reese Witherspoon, who is a G.D. legend.
“You got into Harvard Law?”
“What? Like it’s hard?”
To Nikola Jokic. Jokic was the best offensive center in basketball this year, and he didn’t turn 22 until February. He finished with six triple-doubles, which was the most by any center since the NBA/ABA merger in 1976. His passing ability got a lot of attention. Rightfully so.
Jokic also showed that he can be an extremely efficient high-volume scorer. After Dec. 15, he averaged 19.2 points on a 64.8 true shooting percentage, a metric that accounts for twos, threes and free throws. There was only one player who averaged 19 or more points per game with a 64.8 true shooting percentage or greater over the course of the entire season: Kevin Durant. And to think that as recently as two years ago, Jokic was chugging three liters of Coca-Cola on a daily basis.
“I worked so hard to get into law school. I blew off Greek Week to study for the LSAT. I even hired a Coppola to direct my admissions video.”
To Jusuf Nurkic. You can’t talk about Jokic’s season without discussing Nurkic’s. Nurkic initially earned Denver’s starting center spot after losing 30 pounds last summer. Denver coach Michael Malone raved about Nurkic’s work with Nuggets strength and conditioning coach Steve Hess. The Nuggets tried to pair Nurkic and Jokic together in the starting lineup, but the combination never worked.
Then Denver abandoned the #BalkanBuddyBall plan and went with just Nurkic in the starting lineup. That didn’t really work either. The Nuggets were 9-16 when Jokic took over for Nurkic as the starting center; they’d go 31-26 the rest of the way.
Nurkic was never happy in his diminished role. “I’m not here to sit on the bench, I’m here to play basketball,” he said in late December.
Denver shipped Nurkic to Portland for Mason Plumlee in February. Nurkic found immediate success in his new home. The Trail Blazers went 14-6 with him in the lineup and leapfrogged the Nuggets in the standings. It is unclear if he’ll be available in Portland’s first-round series against Golden State. He’s still recovering from a fractured leg.
“Benddddddd and snap”
To Gary Harris. If you think about it, all shooting a 3-pointer comes down to is bending and snapping. You bend your knees and snap your wrist. Few players were better at shooting the 3 ball this year than Harris.
Denver’s third-year shooting guard sank 42 percent of the 4.5 3s he jacked up per game. He was particularly lethal spotting up. Harris made 46.6 percent of catch-and-shoot 3s — the best mark out of anyone who shot at least three of those per game.
Harris was more than just a shooter, too. He showed off an improved handle and was brilliant about cutting when he didn’t have the ball. He and Jokic seemed to link up at least once every game for an easy bucket.
Harris is a fantastic fit next to Jokic, which might be part of the reason why Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly said Thursday that Harris is going to be a Nugget for a “long, long time.”
“Ugh. All day long I felt like white open-toes shoes after Labor Day.”
To Wilson Chandler. The Nuggets’ versatile forward seemed unhappy in Denver this year. In December, he reportedly left the bench and walked back to the locker room with 4 minutes to go in a close game. In February, Sam Amick of USA Today, citing two unnamed sources, reported that Chandler “wants to be traded.” Then after a Nuggets’ win earlier this month, there was this:
Chandler is under contract next season, and he looks like a good fit with Denver’s young core. So is this situation salvageable?
“It’s something we’ll talk about as the offseason progresses,” Connelly said Thursday. “But I really enjoy Wilson as a player and a person.”
“Don’t stomp your little last-season Prada shoes at me, honey.”
To Kenneth Faried. Faried was in and out of the starting lineup this season. Back issues limited him to 61 games. But when he did play and shared the front court with Jokic, he looked great. Faried and Jokic outscored opponents by 10.9 points per 100 possessions in the 479 minutes they played together. His above-the-rim game meshed well with Jokic’s passing wizardry.
Literally every blogger ever wanted Faried traded away from Denver, including me. I’m changing my tune now though. I’m on board with Faried as the starting power forward next season as long as he plays the heavy majority of his minutes alongside Jokic.
“I don’t need backups. I’m going to Harvard.”
To Juancho Hernangomez. When the Nuggets chose Hernangomez 15th overall last June, some believed they’d let him develop overseas in Europe for a year before bringing him to the U.S. It’s called drafting and stashing in NBA-speak. Only that never happened.
Hernangomez impressed at Summer League and forced his way onto the roster. He received spotty playing time this season with so many veterans eating up minutes at small forward. But there were some major bright spots like his 27-point game against the Warriors in February. Hernangomez shot 41.1 percent on 3s this season.
It’s going to be fun to see how he — and so many of Denver’s other young guys — develop in the coming year.
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