The doubters would have you believe that the 2012-13 Denver Nuggets did little to change their fortunes this offseason.
After all, swapping Arron Afflalo for Andre Iguodala amounts to a trade of one defensive-oriented player for another. Until they land a true star, a scoring talent in the ballpark of oh, Carmelo Anthony, praise for this upstart roster is just a lot of whistling Dixie.
But that's a superficial and ultimately flawed analysis. Look closer at this Nuggets team and you'll see that it has the characteristics necessary to make noise in the regular season and beyond.
Here are the seven reasons anyone sleeping on Denver may soon find themselves on the wrong side of the argument.
Wilson Chandler. Andre Iguodala. Danillo Gallinari. Corey Brewer. They can all play multiple positions and, more importantly, guard multiple positions.
That’s an asset in a league where the premier talent is concentrated at the wings.
Two of the NBA’s best teams, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Miami Heat, can play multiple All-Stars on the perimeter at once. And being able to corral them on defense, while making them work on offense, is the only way to keep the big guns in check.
Beyond matchup scenarios, the Nuggets’ versatility is key to their transition game. In 2011-12, Denver’s offense played with the second-fastest pace in the league (behind Sacramento) and aim to run opponents out of the Pepsi Center with their stable of athletic swingmen.
Speaking of the Pepsi Center, the Nuggets' added depth and speed is a perfect complement to the arena they call home.
The altitude is a dizzying 5,280 feet above sea level. For athletes not used to those conditions, fatigue and shortness of breath are common. And when the Nuggets get into the open court, visiting teams soon find themselves in a track meet they can’t win. That's the trap Denver sets game after game.
According to a recent interview with head coach George Karl, they’ll press their advantage even more in 2012-13 (via Yahoo! Sports):
I think you will see us rotate the game very positively to the second unit. Now, would we keep the second unit and not kind of bridge them together by meshing certain guys with other certain guys with different units? I understand what you're trying to say. I've never seen it be that successful in the NBA, but I think the big thing for us is, who is going to commit to playing fast? We talked about it and last year we did a good job at it, but there's no way I want to slow down. I want to try to prove the world wrong—that you can run and win in the NBA, and you can win big if you keep running. The problem is, can you run for 82 games every minute, every possession of every game?
It’s an interesting question, and one the Nuggets will answer soon enough. Much to the annoyance—and possible nausea—of opponents.
It seems that every season, pundits are ready to call the time of death on the center position in the NBA.
But last I checked, Marc Gasol, Tim Duncan, Chris Kaman, Kendrick Perkins, Al Jefferson, Marcin Gortat, Andrew Bogut and a quickly improving DeMarcus Cousins were all slated to start for Western Conference teams this season.
And with Dwight Howard’s arrival in Los Angeles, a stud frontcourt is a must-have for teams hoping to advance in the playoffs.
Enter Javale McGee and second-year man Kenneth Faried. Neither is a polished offensive player, but both are capable of changing games with their speed in transition and activity on the defensive end.
Faried in particular was a revelation for last season's Nuggets. A natural power forward, he blends seamlessly with Denver’s uptempo game when they slide him to the 5.
You can quibble with me about the order, but here’s how I’d rank the Nuggets five most valuable players: Ty Lawson, Andre Iguodala, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, Javale McGee.
24, 28, 24, 22 and 24, respectively.
Except for Iguodala, who is already a finished product, there’s a lot of room for upside with this roster.
Ty Lawson, especially, has shown the kind of improvement you want out of a young point guard. He posted PERs of 16.4, 17.9, 19.4 in each of his first three seasons, and he took his game to another level during the 2012 playoffs with a 23.2 rating in the Nuggets’ seven-gamer against the Lakers (via Basketball Reference).
But the real dark horse is Danillo Gallinari.
He played just 14 games for the Nuggets after he was traded from the Knicks in 2010-11 and missed 23 games with injuries in the condensed 2011-12 season. He's hardly had a chance to get comfortable in the Mile High City. Given the benefit of a training camp, a preseason and, if he’s fortunate, full health, it wouldn’t surprise me to see the fifth-year swingman post All-Star-caliber numbers in 2012-13.
If you wouldn't want your team to pay Andre Iguodala and Javale Mcgee $15 million and $10 million per year, respectively, I’d understand completely.
But neither contract is absurd in today’s NBA. Unideal, sure. But they're hardly liabilities.
In fact, Denver doesn’t have a single unmovable salary on its books. GM Masa Ujiri did a remarkable job of signing Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari at below-market value rates and rounded out the team’s depth with cheap but talented rotation players like Corey Brewer and Anthony Randolph.
Which means that If the current roster fails to meet expectations, he’ll have the flexibility to reshuffle the deck, as he’s done at the two previous trade deadlines. Upgrades may still be in the offing.
Don’t look now, but the Northwest is the most competitive division in the NBA.
After offseason improvements to the maligned Portland Trail Blazers, every team now has a chance to compete for a playoff spot.
What does that mean for Denver?
Well, a deflated regular-season record, for starters.
Because they’ll play a good number of their games in-division, they’ll have more hard-fought contests than say, the Miami Heat, who are on an island in the sea of lottery teams (Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Bobcats, Orlando Magic, Washington Wizards) that make up the Southeast Division.
As a result, the Nuggets’ final win tally will belie their strength as a team. They may be as slept on at the end of the season as they will be when they begin it.
Last season, Denver's starting lineup might not have recognized each other on the street.
With trades, injuries and the ascension of Kenneth Faried as a starter, George Karl’s rotation was chameleonic, to say the least.
Case in point, the Nuggets’ top five-man unit in terms of minutes played, Lawson-Afflalo-Gallinari-Nene-Mozgov, saw a paltry 135.4 minutes of floor time together all season (via 82games.com).
Compare that with minutes played by the top five-man units on the Thunder (664.0), Heat (533.6), Lakers (592.7) and Grizzlies (522.1) and you realize that the Nuggets aren’t close to approaching their ceiling, chemistry-wise. Given more time to gel, they'll take their play to levels previously unseen in the post-'Melo era.