When you look up the word "injury" in the dictionary, you'll find last season's Denver Nuggets team picture posted on the side of the definition. However, after a full summer of rehabilitation, their top guns are returning to physical form and they're ready to rock n' roll in 2014-15.
This team is still built to play at a fast pace. With Ty Lawson, spot up shooting guards and forwards, and bigs that like to get out and run in McGee, Kenneth Faried, and Hickson, this team will excel whenever it steps on the gas pedal. The fact that Shaw's team is two or three deep at every position should help mitigate dips in play when reserves are mixed in with starters. In fact, many of Denver's reserves could be starters for other teams. This has been the case with the Nuggets for years and it should once again be a benefit.
Shaw will want to keep instituting more of a half-court game with the Nuggets, and this season he'll have more play-makers on the floor to aide in that quest. Lawson, Robinson, and Foye all proved to be capable creators last season and with Gallo and Afflalo back in the mix, Shaw should be able to get very creative on the offensive end. We saw a lot of moving pieces last season on offense and we should see more motion away from the ball, that should allow for a lot of open looks.
Shaw's team was pretty good at forcing teams to take lower percentage shots and Timofey Mozgov proved to be a pretty good paint protector. The team's 105.4 defensive rating (21st in the NBA - the number of points allowed per 100 possessions) wasn't exactly pretty compared to the Pacers' league leading 96.7 defensive rating, but we'll see if those numbers can improve with a healthy team. With two centers that can offer rim protection and athletic wings that can cover the perimeter, this could be one of Denver's better defensive teams. You don't often think about defense when it comes to the Nuggets, but Shaw wants that to change and he has the personnel to make it happen.
2013-14 IN REVIEW
4th in Northwest Division - 11th in Western Conference
Last year's Denver Nuggets experienced somewhat of an emotional roller coaster, not because of a cancerous locker room but perhaps more due to health concerns and personnel changes to begin a new era. To kick things off, changes were made up top as executive Masai Ujiri left the Nuggets to take the general manager position in Toronto. Tim Connelly would take over Ujiri's role shortly after, but the big moves didn't stop there. Denver went on to fire 2012-13 NBA Coach of the Year George Karl after nine years with the club, in which he produced five 50+ win seasons. Replacing Karl would be first-year head coach Brian Shaw, who had spent the previous nine years as an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Lakers and Indiana Pacers. Shaw has always been well-respected by his peers and is battle-tested both as a player and coach.
Shaw won just 36 games in his first year with the keys to the car, but the significant drop-off from the previous 57-win season wasn't because Shaw killed the heart of the team. A lot of it was beyond anyone's control. Danilo Gallinari, Denver's second-leading scorer from 2012-13, missed the entire 2013-14 season as he recovered from a torn ACL. The newly acquired Nate Robinson tore his ACL mid-season, as well, causing him to suit up for just 44 games. Hell, J.J. Hickson tore his ACL in March, too. Denver's projected starting center for last season, JaVale McGee, appeared in just five games after experiencing a stress fracture in his left tibia. On top of that, Ty Lawson missed 20 games with a rib fracture and a sprained ankle while Wilson Chandler, the Nuggets sixth man, nursed groin and hip injuries that kept him out of the lineup for an equal amount of time.
Not only were some of Denver's most productive players missing significant time, they also lost their biggest veteran presence in Andre Miller when they dealt him to Washington for Jan Vesely at February's trade deadline. Coach Shaw committed his first "party foul" a month and a half prior to the trade, where he kept Miller on the bench for an entire game without warning after 239 consecutive games played, which Miller felt was disrespectful. Shaw has every right to make his own coaching decisions, but decreased playing time accompanied by how Miller handled that incident publicly ultimately lead to both sides parting ways.
Regardless of the tough times in the wins and loss columns, a lot of positive things happened for the Nuggets last year. Ty Lawson has been the team's best player since Carmelo Anthony was traded in 2011, but he played his best basketball last season as he posted career highs in scoring (17.6 PPG), rebounding (3.5 RPG), steals (1.6 SPG) and assists, where he finished fifth in the league at 8.8 dimes per game. Once Lawson went down and missed extended time in February, Kenneth Faried stepped up to play some of his best basketball, as well. After the All-Star break, Faried accepted the challenge of leading the team by averaging 18.8 points and 10.1 rebounds per game. The more opportunity he receives, the better he performs.
Coach Shaw also got a lot out of Timofey Mozgov, who put together a career year in his own right by producing over nine points and six rebounds per contest, highlighted by a monstrous month of April where he put up 15.9 points and 9.1 boards to finish the season strong. If you had the 7'1" Russian center on your fantasy team to close the season, Rick Kamla wouldn't be mad at 'cha. Shaw also gave Randy Foye a chance to make his presence felt in a starting role, and he played his best ball since he left Minnesota five years ago.
Had the Nuggets been healthy last season, there's a strong chance that they would have competed for a spot in the Western Conference playoffs. Unfortunately, that's part of the game. It happens. Denver is in the process of building a new brand of basketball and that rarely happens overnight, especially with a rookie head coach and physically depleted roster. Growing pains are to be expected, but it will be interesting to see how they can rebound from a 36-win season if they can come together at full strength.
SUMMER OF 2014
Key Additions - Arron Afflalo, Gary Harris, Jusuf Nurkic
Key Losses - Evan Fournier, Aaron Brooks, Jan Vesely
Denver was extremely aggressive on draft night, and they made out like bandits. Just prior to the beginning of the draft, the Nuggets sent Evan Fournier and the 56th overall pick to Orlando in return for Arron Afflalo, who previously played in Denver from 2009-2011. The seven-year veteran will return to the club as a completely transformed player, as he is coming off a career year with the Magic in which he put up over 18 points per game while shooting approximately 43% from beyond the arc. Afflalo was one of the most notable Eastern Conference All-Star snubs last year, and he is going to pair up with Ty Lawson to form one of the most lethal backcourts in the west this coming season. In terms of talent, this deal was a steal and a half for Denver.
The Nuggets also traded their lottery pick, 11th overall, to Chicago in a deal that would move them down to the 16th and 19th overall picks. After selecting Doug McDermott for the Bulls at 11, they went on to take 6'11" 280-pound center Jusuf Nurkic at 16 and then perhaps reeled in one of the biggest steals of the draft by acquiring Michigan State's Gary Harris at number 19. Nurkic will provide a big body with a lot of long term upside and offensive skill, while Harris is a quality all-around performer that should put together a productive career as a rotation wing. Due to Denver's depth, it may be difficult for each of them to crack the lineup consistently right away but the Nuggets certainly got terrific value at each pick.
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
C - JaVale McGee / Timofey Mozgov / Jusuf Nurkic
PF - Kenneth Faried / J.J. Hickson / Darrell Arthur
SF - Danilo Gallinari / Wilson Chandler / Quincy Miller
SG - Arron Afflalo / Randy Foye / Gary Harris
PG - Ty Lawson / Nate Robinson / Erick Green
X-FACTOR - Health
Sure, you could say "health" for any team but last year's Nuggets record was not indicative of what they're capable of doing at full strength. They've got to buy into Brian Shaw's philosophy and continue to progress individually, but it's hard to reach the playoffs out west with a roster as banged up as theirs was last season. Gallinari missed all 82 games, McGee sat out of 77 and Robinson was out the entire second half of the year while both Lawson and Chandler missed 20 games apiece. Even J.J. Hickson, who put up 26 double-doubles last season, tore his ACL and missed the last 13 games of the year.
This team is young, but they've acquired quality depth at each and every position on the floor. Can they bounce back and reintroduce themselves to the 50-win plateau this coming season? I don't know, but I do know that a healthy Denver Nuggets roster is certainly not a miniscule 36-win squad.
WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2014-15
If the Nuggets were in the Eastern Conference, I would easily pencil them in for a top three seed. Out west, however, it is a different ballgame. Denver has a terrific chance to get themselves back into the playoff picture this season if they can steer clear of the injury bug. It won't be easy by any stretch of the imagination and they're going to have to battle with equally capable teams like Houston, Dallas, Memphis and Phoenix, but they've got it in them.
With that said, I could also see a scenario where they drastically improve from last year and still fall just short of a postseason berth, much like Phoenix in 2013-14. The Mavericks won 49 games last season and just barely squeaked by to get the eighth seed. They've improved over the summer and Memphis isn't going anywhere if the big fellas stay healthy.
Nuggets Nation should be realistically hopeful for the playoffs, but it's going to be tough. They will absolutely be in the hunt, but nothing is guaranteed. Injuries, whether they come within Denver or elsewhere, may ultimately decide their fate. Don't be surprised if Denver earns a 5-8 seed, and don't be surprised if they win just a hair under 50 games and still fall short. Regardless of how that shakes out, this team will be extremely fun to watch and should be one of the most improved teams from last season.
3rd - Northwest Division
9th - Western Conference
Keep your eyes peeled for the Cleveland Cavaliers team preview, coming tomorrow.