The Denver Nuggets have long owned one of the best home-court advantages in all of sports. It was so extreme at one point that the NBA was making a conscious effort to limit their edge to some degree. They’re a scheduling problem unto themselves, perched at high altitude in a location that always requires a fair amount of travel. In the past, the second game of a back-to-back in Denver was death, a visit there late in a road trip a near certain loss.
The Toronto Raptors have managed in recent years, though, winning three of their last four visits to Denver after losing nine in a row. On Wednesday, they’ll try to extend their recent run of success in the mountains, in a game where a win would lock in at least a .500 record on this early-season six-game west-coast trip. To say that splitting the trip would be a success would be an understatement given some of the stumbling blocks the Raptors have hit of late, and it looks like they could be receiving a significant boost in the frontcourt to help achieve that end.
Beyond the home-court edge, the Nuggets pose threats in the forms of Nikola Jokic, Canadian sophomore Jamal Murray, and former object of Raptor fan affection Paul Millsap. Denver’s a strong offensive rebounding team in the early going, an adequate 3-point shooting team, and no extreme weakness has really presented itself. What’s more, no defense has prevented teams from shooting at the rim better than Denver so far, putting a heavy emphasis on 3-point shooting for Toronto (and more or less clearing out the mid-range for DeMar DeRozan to work). The Raptors’ defense has looked terrific of late, and Denver should be an opportunity to keep that rolling, as they’ve generally proven open to taking the kind of lower-efficiency looks the Raptors want opponents to take. It’s a nice test both ways, with the extra challenge of potential fatigue hanging over things 11 days into a trip.
The game tips off at 9 on TSN and TSN 1050.
Blake Murphy: We have to start with the player I have claimed as my own, Jamal Murray, the single greatest basketball export from the 519 area code of all time. Murray turned in a solid rookie season, with some of the expected bumps but a lot of really nice glimpses of what he might be down the line. So far this year, he’s shot pretty poorly but has taken strides as a playmaker. The guess here is the shot will come, given he’s, you know, Jamal Murray. What’s the feeling so far in Denver about his growth as a point guard and what his long-term role might be with this group?
Zach Mikash: There’s no doubt that the guy Denver fans are most excited about long term is Nikola Jokic, but Murray is going to be second on that list. His growth at the point guard position is probably coming along a little slower than some would prefer, but a lot of that is just because of unfair expectations. Still, he’s struggled to be the floor general and initiator on offense. Luckily with Jokic on the floor Murray doesn’t have to be a top tier playmaker, but he does have to get his shooting on track, which I assume he will as well. If he can shoot like he should, and be a secondary playmaker then he’ll be a big part of Denver’s core for a long time.
Blake Murphy: A much more divisive building block for the Nuggets is Nikola Jokic, whose name single-handedly forced me to take a break from Twitter this offseason as the Analytics vs. Eye Test people argued themselves into a black hole. Polarity and rankings aside, Jokic is, uhh, extremely good. A big man with passing gifts like few others, a deft touch and range, and the body to bang with true centers. Is Jokic the complete package? He is The Guy for the Nuggets already at age 22, right?
Zach Mikash: First of all, what game are the eye test people watching? Because if they think Jokic doesn’t pass the eye test then they’re not watching basketball. At the same time, while he’s definitely THE GUY in Denver, I wouldn’t call him the complete package. Jokic has no vertical to speak of, he doesn’t have good lateral quickness and he has average size for a center. He’s never going to be a great defender because of those limitations. He still has the instincts to be a decent defender however and if he does that then the sky is the limit because on offense he’s an incredible talent.
Blake Murphy: Will this be the first season I don’t have to answer questions from Raptors fans about acquiring Kenneth Faried at the trade deadline? Please say yes. Also, why is he playing over Trey Lyles?
Zach Mikash: Kenneth Faried trade block watch will continue, sorry to say. Your best hope is he gets dealt before the deadline but I wouldn’t count on it. He’s stuck in a log jam at the power forward which is limiting his minutes and Denver is very much open to moving him. However, the Nuggets front office won’t make a deal unless it’s a really good one (see: Mozgov) or they have no choice (see: Nurkic). Faried’s too good of a trooper to quit on them like Nurkic did but his skill set is viewed as a luxury not a necessity so no one is surrendering 1st round picks for him and thus he continues to be stuck in trade rumor limbo. As for Lyles? Again, log jam, but also Faried plays so well next to Jokic that it’s hard to justify playing Lyles over him.
Blake Murphy: The Nuggets made a couple of big cash outlays on deals for Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee and on an extension for Gary Harris. Those are good pieces (I understand the Plumlee deal less), but the cap sheet is now pretty tied up for the foreseeable future. What is this team banking on this year and next to make them a bigger threat in the West?
Zach Mikash: The Nuggets are locked in to the core you named right there. They’ll dodge the luxury tax by letting guys like Wilson Chandler and Will Barton go when their deals expire but there’s little room for free agent additions. That means Denver will have to rely on internal development to become contenders in the short term but I don’t think they really expect to. The Nuggets will be happy to be a low playoff seed for the next 3 years and then Millsap, Murray, Plumlee and Juancho Hernangomez will be free agents and they can change gears if needed.
The Raptors could be getting a big boost on Wednesday, as both Serge Ibaka (knee) and Jonas Valanciunas (ankle) were called probable on Tuesday, though they’re listed as questionable on the game notes. Ibaka reportedly looked fine at practice Tuesday, and it seems like his absence Monday was a precautionary measure more than anything else. Valanciunas has missed four games in a row and had a stated goal of returning on this road trip, so what better opponent than Jokic to get back into things against.
If both frontcourt players return, Wednesday’s rotation will obviously look quite different. Both players will move back into their starting positions, and how things shake out from there is unclear. OG Anunoby and Jakob Poeltl were the backups before the injuries and neither has done anything to lose their spots, but Pascal Siakam has been terrific over the last few games and Lucas Nogueira had maybe the best game of his career on Monday. Dwane Casey has some tough decisions to make here, and it’s possible he expands the rotation to keep five of the six frontcourt pieces in the mix. If your particular favorite of the group doesn’t play Wednesday, a reminder that depth is a very good thing to have and there will be ample opportunity at some point again this season.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan
SF: Norman Powell, C.J. Miles, Alfonzo McKinnie
PF: (Serge Ibaka), Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Bruno Caboclo
C: (Jonas Valanciunas), Lucas Nogueira, Jakob Poeltl
TBD: Jonas Valanciunas, Serge Ibaka
905: Malcolm Miller, Lorenzo Brown
Outside of some mononucleosis for Juancho Hernangomez, the Nuggets enter play healthy here. There’s no reason to expect a dramatic shift in the way the rotation has played out, which has a clear set top-eight and some game-to-game calls after that. Darrell Arthur drew in last game out, relegating Kenneth Faried to spot minutes and Trey Lyles to the bench. The point guard position is where the Raptors have their biggest edge, and Kyle Lowry is in a good position to continue building some offensive momentum, while DeMar DeRozan will see shared attention from Wilson Chandler and Paul Millsap. Norman Powell and Gary Harris, meanwhile, get to fight over who got signed to the better contract (Harris might see time on Lowry, Powell on Murray, depending on how things are going).
PG: Jamal Murray, Emmanuel Mudiay
SG: Gary Harris, Will Barton, Malik Beasley
SF: Wilson Chandler, Richard Jefferson
PF: Paul Millsap, Darrell Arthur, Trey Lyles, Tyler Lydon
C: Nikola Jokic, Mason Plumlee, Kenneth Faried
OUT: Juancho Hernangomez
G-League (no affiliate): Monte Morris, Torrey Craig
The Raptors are 1.5-point underdogs with a 213.5 over-under. Given that it’s Denver on game five of a road trip, it’s probably fair to give Denver the slight edge in a near-push.