With three first round picks in the 2016 NBA Draft, the Denver Nuggets received glowing reviews from the league’s top experts. With a clear need for shooting entering the event, Denver selected guard Jamal Murray, forward Juancho Hernangomez and guard Malik Beasley, all players who can fill the basket.
Hernangomez may play in Spain again next season, but Murray and Beasley will be on the Nuggets’ roster in 2016. The team’s young core is coming together, featuring guards Emmanuel Mudiay, Gary Harris, Murray and Beasley, as well as big men Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic.
All of these players are nice pieces, but the Nuggets will need at least two of them to turn into bonafide stars for Denver to be a competitive team in today’s NBA. Mudiay is very athletic and has great vision, but a wildly inconsistent jump shot holds him back from star potential. Murray is nearly the opposite, owning a sweet shooting stroke but also limited quickness. The players complement one another nicely, but neither is projected to be a top 10 player in the NBA.
Nurkic is an effective rebounder and is flat-out massive, but has yet to show many post moves or an effective jump shot. Playing the stretch-four role, Jokic has great range with his shooting and finished third in NBA rookie of the year voting. Again, these players complement one another well but are each limited in their own right.
Denver is rolling the dice on two of these four players emerging as superstars, the framework for a championship NBA team. Mudiay, Murray, Nurkic and Jokic are good players with low likelihoods of being great. Denver may see success with them, likely returning to the playoffs in the next three years with these guys at the center of it. But to truly contend for championships you need a transcendent talent supported by elite players.
The top four players in the league are, not incidentally, on the top four teams. LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard captained their teams to strong seasons last year. Each one had an elite sidekick or two as well, with Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Russell Westbrook and Tim Duncan providing secondary scoring.
Denver may never be able to compete with these superior teams. Even if one of their players is able to breakthrough into superstar status, there are numerous examples of lonely, elite players on underwhelming NBA teams. Paul George, Damian Lillard, Demarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, James Harden, Chris Paul and Jimmy Butler can attest to that.
The Nuggets haven’t landed a top-5 pick in the NBA Draft since Carmelo Anthony and don’t look likely to secure one in the next few years with their developing core. Denver is a nice city, but it’s not a basketball mecca marketable enough to land a star in free agency.
Playoff basketball will return to Denver in the coming years, but the Nuggets will need to critically decide on their definition of success. Teams like the Atlanta Hawks, Memphis Grizzlies and Toronto Raptors have gone far in the playoffs lacking a star player and instead orienting their game around team basketball, but they’ve never truly been close to a championship in recent years.
The optimism surrounding the Nuggets is justified, as the team’s impending improvements mark the return of quality basketball and a team ready to challenge for a playoff spot, if not next year then the year after. But at the end of the day, the Nuggets’ championship aspirations are tied to developing or acquiring a top 10 NBA player, along with probably another top 20 player. Maybe they’re able to get there—but I wouldn’t bet on it.