Deconstructing a 57-win team: Denver Nuggets Season Preview

Starting five: PG Tywon Lawson, SG Evan Fournier, SF Wilson Chandler, PF Kenneth Faried, C JaVale McGee
Key bench contributors: PG Andre Miller, SG Randy Foye, PG Nate Robinson, PF Darrell Arthur, SF Danilo Gallinari (expected back in December-February from a torn ACL), PF JJ Hickson
Offseason additions: JJ Hickson, Darrell Arthur, Nate Robinson, coach Brian Shaw
Offseason subtractions: Coach George Karl, SF Andre Iguodala, SF Corey Brewer, C Kosta Koufos
FACT OR FICTION: Did the Denver Nuggets spend the offseason dealing themselves out of the playoffs?

FICTION. Without one single All-Star player, the Denver Nuggets (literally) ran through the rest of the NBA last season. George Karl’s squad nabbed the third-best record in the Western Conference, winning a remarkable 57 games–just one less than the seconds-away-from-a-title San Antonio Spurs. They finished with the NBA’s fifth most efficient offense, ran the second fastest pace and racked up a deceivingly good 11th ranked defense.
But it all started and ended for the Nuggs on the run, as they were terrors on the fast break, destroying teams with run and gun specialists like Tywon Lawson, Corey Brewer, Andre Iguodala, Kenneth Faried and a sneaky set-up maestro in Andre Miller. They compounded this offensive attack with the league’s best offensive rebounding and started it all with fantastic rim protection from Kosta Koufos, JaVale McGee and Faried. Still, the Nuggets featured two facets of their basketball identities that absolutely belied their excellent record. Surprisingly, they were one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the NBA last season (.343%, good for 25th) and yet, they still sent opposing defenses scrambling. And yet, despite the facade of a reckless scoring avalanche, they were actually one of the most careful teams in basketball–only three teams in the league turned the ball over less. It’s for all those reasons just stated that the Nuggets were such a strange anomaly in the NBA last year: a fast paced team that couldn’t shoot three pointers well, never turned the ball over, didn’t have a single dominant scorer and lacked a post scorer whose hair didn’t look like a newborn baby’s.
Perhaps for those reasons, and many more, it was so easy for ownership to almost completely reshape the face of the Nuggets this offseason. In a matter of weeks, Denver had allowed the newly minted Executive of the Year, General Manager Masai Ujiri to take a job with the Toronto Raptors and had fired newly crowned Coach of the Year, George Karl. With a new front office regime in place, two starters were traded (Koufos to Memphis for Darrell Arthur and Iguodala sign-and-traded to Golden State) and the bench was almost completely turned over. New hires like Nate Robinson, Randy Foye and JJ Hickson were brought in to try and recreate some of last year’s reserve’s offensive energy that they no longer will have with Corey Brewer gone to the Minnesota Timberwolves and both JaVale McGee and Wilson Chandler elevated to a starting roles. Coach Brian Shaw was finally given his shot at running a team and is almost certain to slow things down from the break neck speed Karl operated his squad at last year.

It’s strange to say, but maybe tearing down a young, 57-win team wasn’t the worst mistake the Nuggets could have made. Though Denver was tremendously successful last year, their schizophrenic basketball identity made for a careful on-court balancing act that could easily turn sour like a batch of strangely tattooed bad apples. Maybe it was the playoffs who saw how quickly the Nuggets could be undone–the sixth seeded Golden State Warriors fed off of their opponent’s fast-paced attack and feasted on Denver’s poor perimeter shooting in a six game elimination. Last year’s edition of the Nuggs were put together like a house of cards; everything came together just right. However, with Andre Miller getting older, Danilo Gallinari guaranteed to miss most of the season with a knee injury and the team not willing to match Golden State’s four year, $48 million dollar commitment to Iguodala, it was clear that Denver wasn’t going to be able to match last year’s unique chemistry.

For them to come even close to replicating last year’s magical formula, Brian Shaw is going to have to find answers in players that have for so long proved basketball (and common sense) enigmas:

  • He’ll have to center the team around Lawson’s playmaking and driving abilities with his only other offensive creator in Gallo on the shelf until late winter/early spring.
  • 21 year-old Fournier will have to turn into a starting-caliber guard despite just 38 regular season games of experience his rookie season.
  • The amazing, incredible, perplexing JaVale McGee must start to live up to his potential and massive contract. McGee has gotten this far in the league with essentially his raw athleticism and immense size. It’s clear that he doesn’t have great basketball instincts and/or isn’t a great learner. However, even dogs can learn where to take a crap. Shaw must find a way to get through to McGee, seeing as there’s no longer a Kosta Koufos fallback option.
  • Robinson, Foye and Chandler must become steady, dead-eyed shooting presences on the perimeter. Each are capable, but have as much a spotty record of consistency as they do injuries.

Just looking at this long checklist, this seems like too many question marks for a rookie coach to solve in his first season. I expect a big learning curve from the Nuggets this year with a brand new staff in place and so many new faces. It seems that there’s a much more tenable long-term situation for the Nuggets, but the present won’t be as tidy.

Best case scenario: Brian Shaw takes a look at this blog, prints it out, puts a bunch of big fat check marks next to all items in question and then punches me in the face. He gets stability from his big men, excellent perimeter play from his swing men and Ty Lawson is a no-doubt-about-it All-Star. The Nuggets aren’t as good as last year, but win 54 games without blinking.

Absolute apocalypse: Brian Shaw takes a look at this blog, stares blankly for ten minutes and starts openly weeping in public. Ty Lawson can’t take another step forward, JaVale McGee literally takes steps backwards on the court every single night and the newly constructed bench doesn’t work out. The Nuggs win less than 40 games and fall out of hte playoffs for the first time since 2003–though everyone in Denver stopped paying attention to them in November when they realized that the Broncos were going to win the damn Superbowl.

Expected outcome: 2nd in the Northwest, 7th in the Western Conference

Do you smell what MAMBINO is cooking? Check out the rest (so far) of our 2013-2014 NBA Season Preview series:

Southeast Division

Atlanta Hawks
Charlotte Bobcats

Miami Heat
Orlando Magic
Washington Wizards

Northwest Division

Portland Trailblazers


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