#CrystalBasketball: Ranking the Denver Nuggets in 2017-18

How does every NBA player stack up heading into 2017-18, based solely on the level at which we expect them to play during the upcoming season?

That’s the question 16 NBA Math staff members and contributors sought to answer, ranking each and every player in the sport’s premier league on a 1-to-12 scale and then seeing who emerged with the highest averages. The distant past was irrelevant. Long-term potential doesn’t matter. Only what could come to pass in 2017-18 is factored in, assuming health for those currently healthy and full recoveries from those presently injured. For example, Brandon Knight will still be included in this analysis; we just assumed he’d already completed his rehab for the torn ACL and now has that as a prior portion of his overall injury history.

All players were graded on the following scale by each evaluator, and ties between players with identical averages were broken by sorting the 16 scores from best to worst and propping up the men who had the highest mark at any point in the top-down progression:

  1. Shouldn’t Get Minutes
  2. End-of-Bench Pieces
  3. Depth Pieces
  4. High-End Backups
  5. Low-End Starters
  6. Solid Starters
  7. High-End Starters, Non-All-Stars
  8. All-Star Candidates
  9. All-NBA Candidates, Non-MVP Candidates
  10. Lesser MVP Candidates
  11. MVP Frontrunners
  12. Best Player in the League (only one player could earn this grade on each ballot)

Journey with us team by team as we unveil the entirety of these rankings, culminating in a look at every player set to suit up for the 2017-18 campaign.

Today’s featured squad? The Denver Nuggets, who added Paul Millsap to form an All-Star frontcourt that might carry them back into the Western Conference playoffs for the first time since 2013.

14. Tyler Lydon: 1.75

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 21
  • Position: SF/PF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 13.2 points, 8.6 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.4 blocks, 185.37 TPA (for Syracuse Orange)
  • Highest Grade: 3 (Nick Birdsong)
  • Lowest Grade: 1 (multiple voters)

Tyler Lydon functioned as a combo forward during his time at Syracuse, but his 6’9″ frame and shot-blocking instincts make him a slightly better fit at the 4 once he starts earning NBA minutes. Of course, the roster composition of the Nuggets will push him to small forward more frequently, since the team is overflowing with bigs who could keep him glued to the bench throughout his rookie season.

Either way, he needs to add strength.

He can already space the court (39.2 percent from beyond the arc on 3.7 attempts per game as a Syracuse sophomore) and swatted plenty of shots last year while showing comfort working off the bounce, but he’ll be bullied by bigger professional forwards who are used to leveraging their fully grown bodies on the blocks. It’s time to hit the weight room in the Mile High City, and Lydon should have plenty of opportunities to do so since these Nuggets still haven’t consolidated their rotation and don’t figure to give him much real-time run.

13. Malik Beasley: 2.44

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 20
  • Position: SG
  • 2016-17 Stats: 3.8 points, 0.8 rebounds, 0.5 assists, 0.3 steals, minus-13.52 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 4 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 1 (Brian Sampson)

The long-term plan here is for Malik Beasley to blossom into a legitimate three-and-D contributor for the Nuggets.

Set back by a stress fracture that kept him out of summer league and minimized his involvement with the team before the start of his rookie season, the Florida State product didn’t get many opportunities to strut his stuff after becoming the No. 19 pick of the 2016 NBA draft. Now, he’s flying under the radar, still only 20 years old and in possession of the vaunted athleticism that offers so much upside on the preventing end.

But the first key is finding success from beyond the arc. Beasley only hit his 1.3 attempts per game at a 32.1 percent clip, and misfiring that frequently won’t help him work out of his near-permanent position on the pine.

12. Trey Lyles: 3.00

  • Age at start of 2017-18: PF
  • Position: 21
  • 2016-17 Stats: 6.2 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.3 blocks, minus-66.3 TPA (for Utah Jazz)
  • Highest Grade: 4 (Tim Stubbs)
  • Lowest Grade: 2 (Adam Spinella)

Don’t give up on Trey Lyles just yet.

He was supposed to break out during the 2016-17 campaign and didn’t, much to the chagrin of the Utah Jazz. But he’s still just 21 years old with two go-rounds of professional experience under his belt, and the tools remain in place. His athleticism hasn’t gone anywhere, and he continues to project as a stretch 4 who can contribute on both ends of the floor. He just…hasn’t yet.

Lyles’ mobility helped him defensively during his final year in Salt Lake City, but his offensive game was an abject disaster. Until he fixes his three-point stroke and proves he’s not more likely to record a turnover than an assist whenever he handles the rock, that won’t change.

11. Darrell Arthur: 3.19

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 29
  • Position: PF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 6.4 points, 2.7 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.5 blocks, minus-3.92 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 4 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 2 (Nick Birdsong)

Thank goodness Darrell Arthur’s overall grade was close to exactly three, because he’s the living embodiment of a useful depth piece. The 29-year-old’s game contains little glamor, and he rarely produces gaudy statistics in any given contest. He just knows his role, sticks to it and tries to maximize whatever time is granted to him by head coach Mike Malone and the rest of the Denver coaching staff.

Though Arthur has turned into a versatile contributor, two skills stand out above all the rest: pick-and-pop jumpers and rangy defense.

This veteran is the preferred option when the Nuggets need to guard an opposing 4 with three-point range (though that role will likely change after the addition of Paul Millsap), and the squad allowed 0.8 fewer points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor in 2016-17. He also shot 45.3 percent from downtown after adding three-point range to his arsenal, thereby making himself even more useful after setting a screen and popping into the vacated space.

10. Jameer Nelson: 3.25

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 35
  • Position: PG
  • 2016-17 Stats: 9.2 points, 2.6 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.1 blocks, minus-79.57 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 4 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 1 (Brian Sampson)

Jameer Nelson isn’t the type of player you want starting at point guard for a competitive organization, but it’s also not a disaster if he does. The veteran floor general is a steady presence at the 1, making smart decisions until he occasionally falls in love with his own shot and starts firing away with reckless abandon. Still, the Nuggets can live with those spells because of the 35-year-old’s playmaking acumen.

During the previous season, he averaged 5.1 assists while turning the ball over just 1.7 times per contest. Complaining about that type of production is tough, especially with the Nuggets still in possession of significant upside throughout their backcourt. Nelson should settle into a more realistic role in 2017-18, coming off the pine to provide quick bursts of offense without exposing his ever-growing defensive limitations.

9. Juan Hernangomez: 3.31

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 22
  • Position: SF/PF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 4.9 points, 3.0 rebounds, 0.5 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.2 blocks, minus-22.41 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 5 (Adam Fromal)
  • Lowest Grade: 1 (Nick Birdsong)

Somewhat quietly, Juan Hernangomez emerged as one of the Nuggets’ more dangerous off-ball threats, thanks to his dual ability to cut to the hoop for a finish in close proximity or spot up on the perimeter for a quick-trigger jumper. He possesses beautiful shooting form, catching the ball and firing away in a simple, single motion, and the numbers—in certain areas, at least—may well be even prettier.

Hernangomez scored 1.4 points per possession (PPP) as a cutter and another 1.1 as a spot-up shooter, adding plenty of value in those two areas. Now, the next step for the No. 15 pick of the 2016 NBA draft involves smoothing out the rest of his offensive game while simultaneously developing some defensive discipline.

8. Emmanuel Mudiay: 3.69

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 21
  • Position: PG
  • 2016-17 Stats: 11.0 points, 3.2 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.2 blocks, minus-106.54 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 5 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 2 (Andrew Bailey)

Somehow, the expectations have shifted for Emmanuel Mudiay.

When he entered the league, he was supposed to be a raw point guard with no college experience, since he’d instead spent his time playing professionally in Chiina. His jumper was broken, and he was a growing product who would need plenty of development on both ends of the floor. All of that has come true, but the tides have shifted to prematurely label Mudiay as a massive bust. Sorry, but it’s too soon for that.

To be clear, Mudiay has not been a good player thus far. His offense is plagued by an inconsistent jumper and an inability to finish effectively around the rim—and that’s when he’s not coughing up the rock to the opposition. His defense sometimes looks stellar, but then he fails to recognize that he’s supposed to keep moving after running into a screen on the perimeter.

A breakout is still possible, and four voters saw him developing into a low-level starter this season.

7. Will Barton: 4.19

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 26
  • Position: SG/SF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 13.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.5 blocks, 10.47 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 6 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 2 (Brian Sampson)

“Will Barton also fits the player type of a prototypical sixth man. He’s a change-of-pace player who sometimes works outside the scheme of the offense to generate points every now and then,” Ryan Blackburn wrote for Denver Stiffs. “The Nuggets have a limited number of dribble creators now that Danilo Gallinari is gone, and Barton is the best of the bunch.”

At 6’6″ but only 175 pounds, Barton just doesn’t have the physical profile to thrive on the defensive end. But he tends to make up for his point-preventing deficiencies by excelling in transition and as an offensive creator, producing points both off cuts and with the ball in his hands. In somewhat of an abnormal statistic for a player who logged exactly 0 percent of his minutes at the point, the 26-year-old required assists on only 34.6 percent of his two-point makes and just 72.4 percent of his made triples.

The frontcourt will make his life easier with its passing, but Barton can comfortable create for himself when that need arises.

6. Kenneth Faried: 4.44

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 27
  • Position: PF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 9.6 points, 7.6 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.7 blocks, 21.24 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 6 (Adam Spinella)
  • Lowest Grade: 3 (Tom Rende)

Do you focus on the positives or the negatives?

Kenneth Faried can be a decent defender unless he’s dragged out to the perimeter. He struggles immensely against stretch 4s and can be blown by when switched onto a quick guard in a pick-and-roll set. Offensively, he has similar limitations, showing little ability to develop a mid-range or three-point game and struggling as a distributor. He is, of course, a tremendous alley-oop finisher, thanks to his explosive athleticism.

It’s a confusing mix.

As the Denver frontcourt deepens, Faried should have more of a specialized role. His penchant for clearing the glass on both ends of the floor is invaluable, and it doesn’t hurt that he can run the floor in transition while either maintaining his dribble or acting as an off-ball homing missile with sights set on the rim. Every playoff-chasing team needs an energy/hustle/glue guy, and he’ll get a chance to serve as such while playing fewer minutes in 2017-18.

5. Jamal Murray: 4.94

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 20
  • Position: PG/SG
  • 2016-17 Stats: 9.9 points, 2.6 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.3 blocks, minus-86.7 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 6 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 3 (Tony East)

If Jamal Murray is to serve as Denver’s starting point guard—or even spend a significant amount of time at the 1—he needs to improve his work as a distributor. Though the vision is there, the willingness isn’t always present for this backcourt player. It wasn’t during his lone season at Kentucky, either, as he averaged just 2.2 assists while turning the ball over 2.3 times per contest.

Still, it’s easy to drool when thinking about Murray’s upside as a scorer.

Unafraid to pull the trigger in the biggest moments, the “Blue Arrow” is remarkably adept at shooting off the bounce. With tight handles and an even tighter shooting motion that allows him to get off quick releases with defenders blanketing him, he rarely relied on teammates’ set-up passes during his rookie season. That bodes well for his development at the 1, since he can use screens to free himself and then take advantage of the gravity he provides off the bounce to open up larger passing lanes and mitigate his lack of established facilitating skill.

4. Wilson Chandler: 5.31

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 30
  • Position: SF/PF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 15.7 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.4 blocks, minus-35.99 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 6 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 4 (multiple voters)

Wilson Chandler will be forced into a small forward role out of necessity, but he does have the versatility necessary to excel at that assignment. Often used as Malone’s failsafe option in numerous situations, he’s proved comfortable guarding bigger and smaller players while making the most of his myriad skills on the offensive end.

Need someone to body up against a big man? Fine. Need someone to switch onto guards in pick-and-rolls? That’s cool. Want a player who’s comfortable blowing by bigger, slow-footed frontcourt players or backing down smaller backcourt ones in the post? Chandler’s your guy.

The 30-year-old combo forward doesn’t do anything at an elite level these days. His knack for filling just about every role in adequate fashion, though, makes him a valuable piece for a team hoping to climb the ladder in the increasingly difficult Western Conference.

3. Gary Harris: 6.31

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 23
  • Position: SG
  • 2016-17 Stats: 14.9 points, 3.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.1 blocks, 58.39 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 8 (Arjun Baradwaj)
  • Lowest Grade: 6 (multiple voters)

Maybe Gary Harris will develop into a stronger defensive presence now that the Nuggets have a capable interior stopper behind him. He was often tasked with the toughest perimeter responsibilities, and that can weigh on a young wing attempting to find his footing in the NBA. But even if he continues to remain a statistical liability—he finished with a remarkably negative score in ESPN.com’s defensive real plus/minus (No. 87 among 96 listed 2-guards), and the Nuggets allowed an additional 6.2 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor—he’s getting so good at offense that it almost won’t matter.

Some players are great shooters. Others are tremendous cutters.

Harris is both, connecting on 42 percent of his three-point attempts as a junior while scoring 1.39 PPP when cutting to the hoop. He displayed tremendous—oftentimes, almost literally unbelievable—synergy with Nikola Jokic when dashing to the hoop and waiting on a perfectly timed feed, and he stands to be a primary beneficiary of the passing added to the lineup by the Paul Millsap signing. Get ready for a significant breakout, both in terms of production and national recognition.

2. Paul Millsap: 8.00

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 32
  • Position: PF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 18.1 points, 7.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.9 blocks, 123.61 TPA (for Atlanta Hawks)
  • Highest Grade: 9 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 7 (multiple voters)

Paul Millsap is a perfect fit in the Denver frontcourt, and his skill set meshes in ideal fashion with everyone surrounding him. His versatile defensive ability will help make up for Jokic’s porosity, and it may even make the starting center look like a positive defender due to high-quality positioning. His knack for spotting up, creating off the bounce and serving as a secondary offensive hub could also help the Nuggets boast one of the league’s best offenses yet again.

But we’re not going to wax poetic about the ex-Atlanta Hawks’ game for too long. Instead, we’ll turn the microphone over to T.J. McBride, who wrote the following for BSN Denver: “For Millsap to rack up assists at the rate he does is spectacular and he does so in virtually every way possible. Whether he is working on the perimeter, in the low or high post, in transition, or any other way; Millsap possesses the creativity, vision, and touch to make plays for his teammates at any point in time.”

Now, go read McBride’s entire article, and you’ll immediately understand exactly why every single member of our panel saw Millsap as no less than a high-end starter.

1. Nikola Jokic: 8.88

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 22
  • Position: C
  • 2016-17 Stats: 16.7 points, 9.8 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.8 blocks, 342.24 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 10 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 8 (multiple voters)

For whatever reason, Nikola Jokic has become Twitter’s offseason litmus test for the dichotomy between the eye test and analytics. Those two schools of thought often (and should) go hand in hand, but that’s beside the point.

What’s more relevant is the nonsensical nature of the Jokic choice at the center of the argument.

Yes, numbers paint a rosy picture of his game, and it’s remarkably easy to use stats in his defense. But if the Nuggets spent more time gracing national broadcasts, casual basketball fans might realize he passes the eye test with flying colors. He makes the game look easy with his unstoppable touch shots around the basket, and he displays wizardrous passing flair few bigs in the history of this sport have ever possessed. Just watch this compilation of his feeds in 2016-17 and try explaining that he doesn’t look the part of a full-fledged superstar:

It’s time to gather and sing Kumbaya. Numbers and film sessions should yield the same results when it comes to evaluating this 22-year-old center, pegging him as one of the sport’s brightest talents. The former explains the latter, and the latter validates the former.

 

Who’s rated too high? Who are we selling short? Join the conversation using #CrystalBasketball on Twitter.

Follow NBA Math on Twitter @NBA_Math and on Facebook.

Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from NBA Math or NBA.com.

Many thanks to our entire panel of voters: Andrew BaileyArjun BaradwajNick BirdsongMichael BrockTony EastDan FavaleAdam FromalRyan JarvisJordan McGillisTom RendeBrian SampsonAdam SpinellaEric SpyropolousTim StubbsFrank UrbinaLouis Vicchiollo

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