With the start of the NBA season just days away, it’s time to look into the crystal ball and see what the 2015-16 season might hold for the Denver Nuggets. After finishing the preseason with a 4-3 record, Denver opens the regular season on Wednesday night at the Houston Rockets before returning to the Mile High City for their home opener against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday night.
Last season, Denver finished 12th in the Western Conference and fourth in the Northwest Division with a 30-52 record, including an 11-30 mark on the road. With the addition of new head coach Michael Malone and rookie point guard Emmanual Mudiay, the Nuggets are expected to be much-improved this season. How much, you ask? Here are five bold predictions for the Nuggets for the upcoming season.
Mudiay will finish as the runner-up in the Rookie of the Year voting. The Nuggets are giving the keys to their offense to the draft’s seventh overall pick and the point guard has shown flashes of brilliance in the preseason. He was Denver’s leader in the preseason in points per game (15.0 in five outings) and also had 5.4 assists per game. He’ll need to cut down on the turnovers (4.8 per game in the preseason) and become an improved shooter, but that will come with experience. Mudiay will have a very solid season but will finish second in Rookie of the Year voting to Minnesota’s top overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns.
Denver will finish second in the Northwest Division. Let’s face it. This is the Oklahoma City Thunder’s division this season unless the loaded Thunder undergoes even worse injury situations than they did last season (and that seems very unlikely). Portland is trying to find its identity after the LaMarcus Aldridge trade in the offseason and is expected to tumble from its 51-win season of last season. Utah was as strong as any defensive team in the NBA towards the end of last season and was much more successful after trading Enes Kanter to the Thunder (Utah was 19-10 after Kanter’s departure) but there’s still questions about how productive the Utah offense can be. Minnesota is young and rebuilding and will be dealing with emotion during the early part of the season with the death of Flip Saunders.
However, this prediction is as much a tip of the hat to Denver’s improvement as a questioning of the strength of the Timberwolves, Blazers or Jazz. Denver’s offense and defense is expected to be better this season and the toxicity that existed in the Nuggets’ locker room last season is gone. Much like Utah excelled with Kanter’s negativity jettisoned, Denver can improve greatly with internal peace and a renewed focus on improving on the court.
Denver will not be involved in a major trade this season. There will always be whispers out there about Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, or another member of the Nuggets being dealt near the trading deadline. However, just as the Colorado Rockies kept Carlos Gonzalez despite the rumors that swirled around the talented outfielder at the end of July, Gallinari and Chandler are both simply too valuable to the construction of the Denver roster moving forward.
If Denver is going to return to the NBA playoffs, it will need veteran players like Gallinari and Chandler and their offensive prowess playing alongside Mudiay and “the next generation” of Nuggets.
Those who bet “the over” will be winners. The Westgate Las Vegas Superbook has put Denver’s win total at 26.5 this season. The Nuggets are simply too talented and have invested too much time on an improved defense to finish 26-56 or worse. With a new coach and new philosophy on both ends of the court, Denver will surprise people this season … including those so-called experts in Las Vegas.
Gary Harris will be Denver’s X factor this season. He has a season under his belt, but it wasn’t the season that Harris or the Nuggets wanted. He was never able to get into a rhythm last season with some rough substitution patterns and saw just over 13 minutes of action per game. This season, Malone is expected to use him with much more regularity and allow Harris to show he can be more than just a good defender on the perimeter. Like fellow Northwest Division shooting guard Andre Roberson of the Thunder, Harris is known for his defense. However, unlike Roberson, Harris can also bring an offensive threat. He averaged 11.5 points in six preseason games and his 44.8 percent of his shots, including 40 percent from 3-point range.