The Denver Nuggets have almost everything. Almost.
After a series of intelligent offseason moves, the Nuggets—fresh off a Round 1 playoff exit last season—have assembled one of the NBA’s deepest and most balanced rosters.
They’ve got size up front in JaVale McGee, Kosta Koufos and Kenneth Faried. There’s plenty of skill on the wings in Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Andre Iguodala. And the point guard position is both solid (Andre Miller off the bench) and spectacular (Ty Lawson as the starter).
With all that depth it’s easy to see why the Nuggets are emerging as a popular pick to finish in the top four of the Western Conference playoff race. But don't expect them to make a deep postseason run.
In many ways, the Nuggets are perfectly constructed to dominate over an 82-game slate. They play faster than any other team in the league, and with so many thoroughbreds in the stable, fatigue isn’t an issue.
Denver is built to fly up and down the court for 48 minutes, substituting frequently, often playing small and generally wearing down the opposition. That style results in a ton of free throw attempts as defenses struggle to stay in front of the hard-charging Nuggets.
Plus, the Nuggets’ speed doesn’t hurt their overall efficiency on offense. They had the NBA’s third-best true shooting percentage last year, due in large part to their ability to get to the basket and, subsequently, the free-throw line. Their depth and athleticism allowed them to relentlessly push the pace, which led to a nightly pile of easy points.
But that’s not a recipe for success in the postseason. In fact, solid depth and a fast paced style hasn’t been a defining trait for any NBA champion of recent memory.
The 2011-12 Heat squad was about as different from this year’s version of the Nuggets as a team could possibly be.
When you look back on NBA history, it becomes increasingly obvious that there are two clear ingredients that recur in every recent NBA champion: they all had at least one superstar and they all were equipped to win with a defense-first, slowdown pace.
The Nuggets definitely don’t have a transcendent star, but stars don’t grow on trees, so most other teams don’t have one, either.
What’s really interesting is that the Nuggets might actually have the players needed to defend at a playoff level. It’s just that George Karl doesn’t seem to want to play that way.
Think about it. There’s no quesiton that the Nuggets’ front office recognized the need for a defensive presence after the way their season ended a year ago.
Andre Iguodala—newly arrived as part of the blockbuster Dwight Howard deal—is among the NBA’s best perimeter stoppers.
And JaVale McGee, who came over midway through the season in the deal that sent Nene to Washington, can block a few shots.
Heck, Iguodala even earned his first All-Star berth last season, largely due to the strength of his reputation on defensive.
In addition to the new faces, the Nuggets’ roster actually has a lot of defensive potential.
Kenneth Faried is exceptionally active on defense, and is strong enough to become a good defender with experience and coaching.
Wilson Chandler could also use his length and athleticism to a greater defensive effect, and at just 25, he has the tools to improve.
Lawson’s a pest, while Miller, though individually limited, has always been savvy enough to be a decent team defender.
The pieces seem to be in place for the Nuggets to turn into a team capable of slowing things down and playing solid defense. But if that actually occurs, it will be the first time a George Karl team has ever played that brand of basketball.
So don’t hold your breath.
The Nuggets have done absolutely everything they can to build a winning team, and virtually all of the decisions they’ve made over the past year have been the right ones. This is a team that could easily win 60 games in the regular season.
But they don’t have a bona fide star and they don’t play a style that translates to success in the playoffs. For the moment, the front office can’t do anything about the former and the coaching staff doesn’t seem interested in addressing the latter.
Denver fans will get to enjoy a strong regular season, but unless there are some drastic changes for the Nuggets, they won’t like what happens in the playoffs.