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Return to Play: Three keys to the Nuggets finding success in 2020

In the coming days, each of the major professional sports in the United States will get underway. After being on hiatus due to the coronavirus epidemic, the “big four” will return to the field, court and ice.

As part of this process, Colorado teams will also return to play. The Rockies begin their 2020 season on July 24. The Broncos start training camp on July 28. The Nuggets tip off their eight-game end of the NBA regular season on August 1. And the puck drops on the Avalanche’s three-game round robin on August 2.

Prior to each team getting back to action, will preview their chances of making the second half of 2020 memorable. It continue today with a look at the Nuggets.


1. Find the continuity again

Prior to the season being suspended due to COVID-19, the Nuggets were preaching that their biggest attribute was their continuity. While other teams made big, splashy moves during the offseason and/or at the trade deadline, Denver mostly remained steady, choosing to let their core group develop and grow together.

That decision was positioned as a strategic one. Tim Connelly believed that familiarity, hitting the court with the same teammates game after game, would help the Nuggets be a better team. They’d be used to playing together, which would lead to better results.

In the bubble, this theory has been put to the test. Yes, the Nuggets are down there with the same team they had before the break, and mostly the same group they had a year ago in the playoffs, but they haven’t been on the court much together.

Nikola Jokic was late arriving because of testing positive for the coronavirus while in Serbia. Gary Harris, Michael Porter Jr., Torrey Craig, Monte Morris and P.J. Dozier were also delayed in getting to Orlando. Jamal Murray missed time in the scrimmages because of stiffness that resulted from the team’s golf outing. While Paul Millsap somehow missed a mandatory COVID-19 test and was forced to be absent.

As a result, the Nuggets have been together for practice, much less games, for months. How quickly they can find some cohesion, exhibiting the continuity that was positioned as so valuable, will ultimately decide how well they fare in the restart.


2. Jamal Murray has to play like a star

Before the season was stopped, Jamal Murray was having a very good campaign. The Nuggets point guard was averaging a career high 18.8 points per game, to go along with 4.8 assists and 3.9 rebounds.

While not quite playing at an All-Star level yet, it was clear that Murray was trending in that direction, finding a groove on the court with Nikola Jokic. This all came on the heels of a postseason performance a year ago when the point guard elevated his game, averaging 21.3 points in 14 playoff performances.

That’s a little misleading, however. When Denver needed Murray in their second-round series against Portland, the point guard didn’t rise to the occasion.

In the seven games, Murray shot just 36.1 percent from the field. And in the final two games, when the Nuggets had a chance to close out the Blazers, he was 11 for 39, including a putrid 4 of 18 in the Game 7 loss at Pepsi Center.

Denver signed Murray to a five-year, $170-million deal at the end of last season. That’s the type of contract given to a star player.

Jokic has a similar deal. Thus far, he’s lived up to the billing, becoming a first-team All-NBA selection. For the Nuggets to be successful, they need Murray to prove worthy of those millions, as well.


3. Michael Malone has to find a rotation

Pat Riley had a simple philosophy when it came to who played in the postseason. The former head coach of the Lakers, Knicks and Heat used to say, “You rotate eight players, play seven, use six and trust five.”

Michael Malone needs to figure out who his eight, seven, six and five are going to be. That’s not easy given that the Nuggets have some interesting options.

The first five are easy, as Jokic, Murray, Gary Harris, Paul Millsap and Will Barton are Denver’s starters. Mason Plumlee is come off the bench at center and power forward. But who else is in the mix consistently?

Is Torrey Craig a regular contributor? How much will Jerami Grant play? Does Monte Morris get significant minutes?

If all three are a part of the rotation, the Nuggets are now up to nine. And the discussion about Michael Porter Jr. and Bol Bol hasn’t even begun. In addition, Troy Daniels and/or P.J. Dozier might get some minutes since Denver is a little thin at guard after trading Malik Beasley.

Malone can’t afford to play a guessing game in the playoffs. He can’t expect to find success with an inconsistent, find-the-hot-hand approach to his rotation.

That’s why the eight games before the postseason need to be able shortening the bench. The Nuggets need to figure out their eight, seven, six and five.