Nuggets journal: 5 pressing questions on eve of training camp

During a normal year, the Nuggets would’ve had more than two days between the NBA draft and the start of free agency.

They could’ve nailed down their plans, discussed fit and triple-checked with their free agents about their intentions. In a normal season, one not so weird that it necessitated a “Bubble”, maybe Jerami Grant doesn’t upend Denver’s offseason plans. What happened a week ago Friday, with Grant signing with Detroit, sent a jolt through the organization. If it didn’t, it should’ve underscored how fragile championship windows are.

One moment you think you’ve got a reliable answer to defend LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard, the next you’re scrambling for a starting power forward less than two weeks before training camp starts.

Months of a traditional offseason got consolidated into weeks, and here we are. Nuggets training camp opens Dec. 1 (which is a surreal sentence to write having left Orlando two months ago).

The Nuggets have more question marks than one would like as a title contender and only a few short weeks to address them. Coach Michael Malone’s objective has never been harder: Assimilate a team with five new players, develop young talent, revitalize old talent and compete in a loaded Western Conference.

These are his most pressing questions with training camp on the horizon.

5. What’s Will Barton’s status?

There’s hardly been a word from the Nuggets about Will Barton, who was Denver’s third-most reliable player last season. After an injury-marred season in 2018-19, Barton bounced back with career-highs in rebounding, assists and shooting percentage. When the shot clock wound down, Barton was one of the few players who could still create something productive. His absence in Orlando, due to a knee injury, was apparent. Michael Porter Jr. played well in his stead, raising the obvious question: Is the starting small forward job Porter’s to lose?

Perhaps more importantly, has Barton recovered from his knee injury and can he contribute at all? If not, does that elevate rookie Bol Bol to the backup small forward? Plenty will be answered about Barton in the coming days. The depth chart at small forward is probably the most fluid on the team.

4. Can Gary Harris find his old form?

Harris is in a bit better position than Barton in that he rehabbed his hip diligently in the “Bubble” and was eventually able to contribute to their dual 3-1 comebacks against Utah and then the Los Angeles Clippers. His defense remains unassailable, meaning he’ll never find himself in Malone’s doghouse. But his offense over the last two regular seasons has dropped dramatically.

In Orlando, Harris averaged just 7.4 points on 37% shooting. To be fair, those were his first games in six months. On several occasions Malone offered impassioned defenses for Harris, who’s the longest-tenured Nugget. The question with him becomes how much longer does Harris deserve the benefit of the doubt?

On too many occasions Harris was hesitant to pull the trigger or tentative in attacking the basket. Depending on Malone’s appetite for rookie R.J. Hampton, there might be a three-level scorer ready and waiting.

3. Who’s the starting power forward?

It’s significantly easier to tell (or sell) a $10 million-a-year player on coming off the bench than a $30 million-a-year one. Such is the world Paul Millsap now finds himself in, having been a starter for the last decade on various playoff teams.

The Nuggets wanted to bring Millsap back the entire offseason, but they needed to bring him back after Grant’s abrupt departure to Detroit. The question facing Malone is whether to lean on Millsap again this season as the starter — a decision he probably never thought he’d face — or use newly acquired JaMychal Green, who’s five years younger, in that role. Both are versatile, skilled defenders who shoot surprisingly well from outside.

It might be far easier to begin the season with Millsap as the starting four and turn to Green later, if need be. Green’s only started seven games the past two seasons.

2. How to incorporate the new guys?

The team that lost to the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals may have a much different feel than the one that opens up this season. Out are Grant, Mason Plumlee, Torrey Craig, Keita Bates-Diop, Troy Daniels and Noah Vonleh. In are Green, Facundo Campazzo, Isaiah Hartenstein, R.J. Hampton and Zeke Nnaji, with two new two-way players as well.

In the backcourt, Campazzo is probably the most likely to see minutes from the jump. It’s doubtful he would’ve left Real Madrid without assurances that he’d get to play. Green will be a fixture in the rotation, and Hartenstein may well draw backup center duties. Then the spotlight turns to the two incoming rookies, Hampton and Nnaji. (Don’t forget Bol is technically a rookie, too). Of the two, Hampton’s skills are more unique. If he can prove a reliable 3-point shooter and a capable defender, he might be more useful than a typical rookie.

1. Have Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic recovered?

It wasn’t too long ago that Murray was slinging Blue Arrows and carving up whatever defensive coverages were in his way. To what degree were his 26.5 points per game on 45% 3-point shooting in the postseason an aberration? With far more time between March and August than there was between September and December, how much more could Murray have realistically added to his game? In the past year he got noticeably stronger, competed more on the defensive end and offensively, his game exploded. A notoriously slow starter, how quickly can he find his rhythm?

Similarly, it wasn’t long ago that Jokic was barreling his way through Anthony Davis en route to that bully basket in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals. No one needs a reminder of what happened next. Back home in Serbia, Jokic spent his offseason getting married and relaxing. Is he ready for another mental grind so soon after the last one just ended? We’re about to find out.

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