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Keeler: Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic are going to have to outscore teams. Because Nuggets just lost three of their best defenders. — today

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Say you’re Nuggets coach Michael Mal­one. Say you’re charged with sketch­ing out the mas­ter­plan for anoth­er con­fer­ence finals rhubarb with the Lak­ers.

Who guards LeBron?

Who guards A.D.?

Paul Mill­sap?

Say the Clip­pers have the ball last, Nuggets up two, dur­ing a win­ner-take-all Game 7 of the West­ern Con­fer­ence semis.

Who guards Kawhi?

Who guards Paul George?

Michael Porter Jr.?

Come back, Paul West­head. All is for­giv­en.

We kid. Sort of.

After the bonkers open­ing hours of free agency, the 2020–21 Nuggets look like they’re going to have to outscore the snot out of peo­ple at alti­tude, like the Michael Adams and Orlan­do Wool­ridge days of old.

(Remem­ber the win­ter of 1990–91? The Nug­gs, in Westhead’s first wacky sea­son as coach, scored 119.9 points per con­test. They also gave up 130.8 points a tilt and wound up 20–62, the worst record in the West. Although it also helped ‘em land Dikem­be Mutombo with the No. 4 pick of the ’91 NBA Draft, so there’s that.)

In a blink, the West­ern Con­fer­ence run­ners-up saw a trio of their best defen­sive pieces, includ­ing two of their best wing defend­ers, walk out the door. On Fri­day, for­ward Jera­mi Grant and back­up cen­ter Mason Plum­lee agreed to free-agent deals with the Detroit Pis­tons. The next day, the Nuggets rescind­ed their qual­i­fy­ing offer to defen­sive spe­cial­ist Tor­rey Craig, mak­ing him an unre­strict­ed free agent.

Grant and Plum­lee ranked No. 3 and No. 5, respec­tive­ly, on the Nuggets in terms of Basketball-Reference.com Defen­sive Win Shares dur­ing the ’19–20 reg­u­lar sea­son. Grant ranked fifth, Craig sixth and Plum­lee ninth in post­sea­son Defen­sive Win Shares, although those num­bers were skewed by play­ing time. Mill­sap, who’s return­ing on a one-year, $10-mil­lion deal, ranked No. 3 among play­off defend­ers and No. 6 dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son.

And it’s true: Plum­lee and Craig were non-fac­tors, rel­a­tive­ly speak­ing, dur­ing that mag­i­cal Orlan­do run. As for Grant, well, we’ll always have Dis­ney.

The kid want­ed more shots, alleged­ly, and that was nev­er hap­pen­ing here. The Post’s Mike Singer report­ed that the con­tract offered by Nuggets pres­i­dent of bas­ket­ball oper­a­tions Tim Con­nel­ly was large­ly the same deal that the Pis­tons plopped on the table: three years at $60 mil­lion.

For a guy who scored a neg­a­tive plus/minus on 35 out of his 71 reg­u­lar-sea­son appear­ances (49.3%) in ’19–20, that’s a lot of bread. The man Con­nel­ly more or less swapped out for Grant, for­mer Clip­pers forward/center JaMy­chal Green, wound up with a neg­a­tive score in 23 out of 67 reg­u­lar-sea­son con­tests last sea­son, or only 34.3% of the time.

Where Grant stands taller is on the eye test. The Nuggets will bad­ly miss his defen­sive ver­sa­til­i­ty, the abil­i­ty to guard the 2–5 spots on the floor, depend­ing on the oppo­nent and cir­cum­stance. The for­mer Syra­cuse stand­out does the lit­tle things that stick out more in play­off series, where pos­ses­sions get mag­ni­fied and crap­o­la defens­es have long since gone fish­ing.

He became one of Malone’s favorite matchup toys in the bub­ble, a dude you could use to throw length at Utah sharp­shoot­er Dono­van Mitchell or bang with for­wards such as Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James and Antho­ny Davis.

It was a glo­ri­ous lux­u­ry to have in the post­sea­son, where Niko­la Jokic and Jamal Mur­ray need­ed defend­ers who could cov­er in space and pull more of the rope on that side of the floor.

Green is a physique like-for-like with Grant in terms of height (6–8) and wingspan (7–2 ½). He held his own against the Nuggets in Orlan­do as part of the three-head­ed anti-Jok­er pla­toon that Doc Rivers chucked at Big Hon­ey. He’s a bet­ter career shoot­er from dis­tance (37.4% on treys) than Grant (34.7%) and more com­fort­able, alleged­ly, as a 3‑and‑D role guy.

But this isn’t about build­ing the best reg­u­lar-sea­son ros­ter, build­ing for the marathon, any­more. The Nuggets are sup­posed to be past that point now. A play­off berth is assumed. The goal is to add pieces to the super­star core of Mur­ray-Jok­er-Porter who help push it through a West­ern brack­et that hasn’t got­ten any less deep. Or unspar­ing.

To put it anoth­er way, say you’re Mal­one, you’re down three games to two against the Jazz. Say Mitchell’s on anoth­er one of those God-for­sak­en, NBA-Jam tears where the bug­ger can’t miss.

Who do you stick in his grill now? Who stops the bleed­ing? For a fran­chise that spent most of 2020 tak­ing two steps for­ward, why did this week­end feel like three steps back?

dp sports?d=yIl2AUoC8zA - Keeler: Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic are going to have to outscore teams. Because Nuggets just lost three of their best defenders. - today dp sports?i=d8sksp5lcDs:uzBi4mqYvq4:F7zBnMyn0Lo - Keeler: Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic are going to have to outscore teams. Because Nuggets just lost three of their best defenders. - today dp sports?d=qj6IDK7rITs - Keeler: Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic are going to have to outscore teams. Because Nuggets just lost three of their best defenders. - today dp sports?i=d8sksp5lcDs:uzBi4mqYvq4:V sGLiPBpWU - Keeler: Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic are going to have to outscore teams. Because Nuggets just lost three of their best defenders. - today

d8sksp5lcDs - Keeler: Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic are going to have to outscore teams. Because Nuggets just lost three of their best defenders. - today

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