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5 DENVER NUGGETS

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A MODEST PROPOSAL ...

BABY STEPS ON DEFENSE

Denver's path to ending a five-year playoff drought—which includes missing the eighth spot by one game last season—is just the right amount of obvious: Improve the defense. Not that it will be easy with Nikola Jokić, who's not exactly agile, but as the engine of the offense, is too talented to take off the floor.

Still, there are positive signs. The Nuggets finished last in opponents' field goal and three-point percentage last season but only by a hair, so even minor changes will mean a few more wins. The presence of plus-defenders Paul Millsap (who played just 38 games last season due to a left-wrist injury) and Gary Harris (who missed 11 of the final 13 games with a right-knee injury) should provide an automatic boost. And 21-year-old Jamal Murray has the physical gifts to become better at guarding on the perimeter.

Critically, coach Mike Malone will have to determine how to use 5'9" Isaiah Thomas. While he can be a major scorer off the bench, Thomas is a negative when it comes to getting stops, especially after undergoing right hip surgery in March.

By becoming just a slightly more cohesive defensive unit, the Nuggets will have what it takes to get where they want to go.

STARTING 5

COACH MIKE MALONE

2017--18 RECORD: 46--36

PREDICTION: Lose 1st round

PG JAMAL MURRAY (55 [SI'S TOP 100 PLAYER RANKING])

16.7

PPG

SG GARY HARRIS (44 [SI'S TOP 100 PLAYER RANKING])

48.5

FG%

SF WILL BARTON (70 [SI'S TOP 100 PLAYER RANKING])

15.7

PPG

C NIKOLA JOKIĆC (18 [SI'S TOP 100 PLAYER RANKING])

10.7

RPG

14.6

PPG

PF PAUL MILLSAP

In the first year of Millsap's two-year, $61 million deal, his scoring average was the lowest it has been since 2012--13, his final season in Utah.

BENCH

PG ISAIAH THOMAS [MASON PLUMLEE]

PF TREY LYLES

C MASON PLUMLEE

(*) NEW ACQUISITION

(#) SI'S TOP 100 PLAYER RANKING

ENEMY LINES

A RIVAL SCOUT SIZES UP DENVER

I WORRY that they'll get exposed as a regular-season team. They have a lot of minus defenders in their rotation and their offense can't perform at an elite level when NIKOLA JOKIĆ leaves the court.... They can play shooters or a guy like JAMAL MURRAY, who isn't a traditional point guard, because Jokić is such a good passer and playmaker. He's right there with Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Arvydas Sabonis as the best passing centers of all time. It's not too soon to say that.... Losing Wilson Chandler will hurt a little, but WILL BARTON is a nice option as a starting forward because you can put him into motion off the ball and use him and GARY HARRIS as cutters off Jokić. Barton's got a good change of pace and he can create his own shot. I could see him being one of their better playoff performers because of his confidence and offensive skill.... PAUL MILLSAP didn't play enough last year to get a rhythm. He still makes great sense on paper, but with all the other weapons they've got, his identity will have to change from his Atlanta years. He'll do less offensively and we'll have to see whether he can still defend at a high level.... It's fair to put Murray into the Most Improved Player conversation. Every year he's trended upward. This could definitely be a year where he blows up.... Signing ISAIAH THOMAS is high-reward, low-risk. Supercheap contract. He fits who they are.... MASON PLUMLEE is one of the best backup centers in the league. They don't have to change much between him and Jokić.