The Northwest Division isn’t exactly short on storylines. How will the Oklahoma City Thunder adjust to life after Kevin Durant, with a newly empowered Russ in the lead role? Will Portland prove last season’s success was for real, or will it prove to be a fluke? Can Utah take a big step forward and become a top-four or top-five seed in the West? Can a young Minnesota team, led by Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine, sneak into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed? But the team I’m most interested in is the Denver Nuggets, who find themselves in a very curious spot.
The young cores with upside in Minnesota, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles get more of league-wide attention, but Tim Connelly and Mike Malone have built a solid foundation in the Mile High City. Nikola Jokic is one of the best young big man prospects in the NBA, and he’s still just 21. Gary Harris rebounded from a tough rookie season to have a very solid 2015-16 campaign, and is on the path toward a nice career as a three-and-d wing. Center Jusuf Nurkic has the potential to be an imposing force as a rebounder and defender for years to come. The jury is out on point guard Emmanuel Mudiay, who was incredibly raw his rookie season, struggling to shoot (36 percent on field goals) and hold onto the ball (he was one of the most turnover-prone players in the league), but he’s still an intriguing young player in his own right. Then there are the three top-19 picks from this past year’s draft - point guard Jamal Murray (the No. 7 overall pick), forward Juancho Hernangomez (No. 15) and two-guard Malik Beasley (No. 19).
What to make of so many young players who probably deserve an extended look? Further complicating matters is the presence of multiple veteran players with multiple seasons remaining on their contracts: Kenneth Faried, Jameer Nelson, Will Barton, Wilson Chandler and Darrell Arthur, all of whom merit a spot in the rotation. Not to mention sharpshooter Danilo Gallinari, who can opt out after this coming season and will be highly motivated to prove he is healthy and worthy of whatever contract might come his way next summer.
Will Denver deal one or two of the veterans to alleviate some of their positional logjams, sacrificing a few wins this season for a future asset or two? Faried and Gallinari seem perpetually involved in the rumors, and if Wilson Chandler shows he’s all the way back from a hip injury that sidelined him all of last season, a contender could come calling for his services. Or will they keep this core together, attempting to leverage their depth and natural home-court advantage into a run at the 8th seed as soon as this season? Winning, and the playoff atmosphere, could be really good for the team’s four top young assets - Jokic, Harris, Murray and Jurkic.
There are arguments to be made for either strategy - it will be fascinating to see how the Nuggets decide to move forward.