The No. 5 team in my 2023-24 NBA Power Rankings Offseason Edition may surprise some, as the defending NBA champions, the Denver Nuggets, take the spot.
2023-24 NBA Power Rankings Offseason Edition: No. 5 Denver Nuggets
Denver was finally healthy as the playoffs rolled around last year, and it paid huge dividends. The Nuggets were the best in the Western Conference from December 20 and on. They finished with the fourth-best overall record (53-29) and were two games better than the Memphis Grizzlies in the West. But it was in the playoffs where the Nuggets thrived.
Denver posted a 16-4 record in the 2023-24 playoffs, the second-best record for an NBA champion behind the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors (16-1), since the league moved to a full seven-game format. The Nuggets, who won 10 of their final 11 games, played six games against the Phoenix Suns in the semifinals. The Nuggets then swept the Los Angeles Lakers in the conference finals. Denver defeated the Miami Heat in the finals to claim their first NBA title.
Denver still has one of the best starting lineups in the league, led by Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. But their depth took a huge hit this offseason. The Nuggets lost Bruce Brown, Jeff Green, and Thomas Bryant in free agency. Vlatko Cancar, who was expected to be a major contributor off the bench, was lost for the season with a torn ACL. Cancar suffered the injury while playing for Slovenia during FIBA World Cup prep games.
Best Offseason Decision: Re-Signing Reggie Jackson
Jackson was one of Denver’s most important signings this offseason. Keeping the veteran point guard turned out to be essential, particularly following the loss of Brown.
Jackson has been inconsistent since producing a solid six-year run with the Detroit Pistons. The 33-year-old struggled last season after getting picked up by the Nuggets shortly after the NBA trade deadline. In 16 games with the team, Jackson averaged 7.9 points and 3.1 assists. He compiled a shooting slash line of 38/28/83. He had little impact during the Nuggets’ playoff run, seeing 18 minutes of action over six contests.
Jackson signed a two-year, $10 million deal, which is considerably cheap for a backup point guard. Jackson projects to see 20 minutes a game off a weak bench. So, he will have the opportunity to put up some quality numbers while also picking up spot starts when Murray takes days off.
Worst Offseason Decision: Failing To Re-Sign Bruce Brown
Even before the postseason ended last year, Brown said he wanted to remain with the Nuggets. He is a versatile two-way player who produced a career season a year ago. His absence is a significant blow for the Nuggets bench because he was the team’s best perimeter defender and can play every position but center. He also showed he could score in bunches, with four games of 20+ points, while rebounding and passing the ball well. Brown recorded three double-doubles and one triple-double.
The thing is, Denver was kind of hamstrung in trying to re-sign Brown. Before the start of free agency, the Nuggets were already very close to the luxury tax line and didn’t hold Brown’s bird rights. So, they were limited to what they could offer him. Re-signing Brown would have likely sent the Nuggets over the punitive second apron. He signed a two-year, $45 million deal with the Indiana Pacers, though the second year is a club option.
What’s Next: Figuring Out Second Unit
Denver appears set with their roster heading into training camp. The Nuggets have 21 players, with 15 on fully guaranteed standard contracts. The Nuggets also have all three of their two-way spots accounted for.
However, Denver will have a whole new second unit this upcoming season. So, that will be coach Mike Malone’s most significant decision. Jackson, Holiday, and Christian Braun project to be locked as the primary backups.
Jackson and Holiday are versatile veterans who bring shooting and ball-handling. Holiday is very versatile and can defend.
Braun can play all three backcourt positions, though he is essentially an emergency fill-in at the point. The 22-year-old guard shot the ball exceptionally well and held his own defensively. In 76 appearances, he averaged 4.7 points and 2.4 rebounds in about 16 minutes. Braun also compiled a shooting slash line of 50/35/63.
Jordan or Zeke Njaji will be the first bigs off the bench.
The Nuggets probably prefer Nnaji, who has been a part-time rotational player for the past two seasons. Nnaji could get a few more minutes this year with all the Nuggets’ offseason losses. He averaged 5.2 points and 2.6 rebounds in 53 games, including five starts, in 2022-23.
But Jordan played well in 39 games for the Nuggets a year ago. The 35-year-old compiled 5.1 points and 5.2 rebounds across 15 minutes of action per game in 2022-23. He also converted 76.5% of his field goal attempts.
Second-year wing Peyton Watson has the upper hand for the last spot with the second unit. However, Strawther could conceivably sneak into the unit.
Watson didn’t get as much run as Braun last year, but the final pick in the first round of the 2023 draft did enough for the Nuggets to see him as a significant contributor this year. The 21-year-old wing is long and athletic and shot the ball well last season, though he did struggle in his two starts. He can play either wing spot and projects as a good defender.
Watson played exceptionally well in his two 2K24 summer league appearances, averaging 19 points with a slash line of 52/20/81. Watson, who attempted 16 free throws, also averaged 3.5 rebounds, 1.5 steals, and 1.5 blocks in Vegas.