It's no doubt the Nuggets are an exciting team to watch—perhaps the most exciting team in the league before James Harden went to Houston—but excitement doesn't equal playoff success, and the Nuggets have learned that the hard way.
Every team that has won an NBA championship over the past decade has been defensive-minded. The Nuggets lack this quality, allowing 101.6 points per game, although they are 13th in defensive efficiency. But what the Nuggets don't have that every other NBA champion over the past 20 years—except the 2004 Detroit Pistons—has had is a bona fide superstar. Someone who when the balance of the game is up in the air decides to take over. Someone who wants to take the last shot with the game on the line. Someone who strikes fear into the opposing team, becoming the focus of its game plan.
The Nuggets don't have that player on their roster.
Denver is a collection of very talented, but not quite superstar, players. Heck, they are barely even All-Star caliber players. The only player on the roster who has made an All-Star game is Andre Iguodala, and he's only been there once.
Plus, Iguodala's days of being a near-superstar are over. When his career began in Philadelphia, he was the alpha dog, primed to become the next big thing. For a stretch of five years, Iguodala was a poor man's LeBron James—something he should be proud of. Honestly he deserved more than one All-Star appearance, and, quite frankly, the year he made it—last year—was one of the worst of his career. But the days of Iguodala being the go-to guy on a team are over.
He still helps out in other areas of the game (defense, rebounds and passing), but he is a hot-and-cold shooter from outside and has lost all touch on his three-point shot (31 percent) and free throws (57 percent). When you watch the games, he looks less aggressive around the rim and tends to dish it off rather than take it to the hole hard like he would in Philadelphia. Iguodala is still a very good player, but a superstar?
Not even close.
The next-closest player the Nuggets have to a superstar is Ty Lawson. Lawson has been fantastic over the past two months, averaging 22 points per game on 50 percent shooting from the field and 42 percent from three. A brilliant second half of the season has masked a Roy Hibbert-like disappointing first half, though. The Nuggets gave Lawson a huge contract extension in the offseason, and lately he has lived up to the expectations. But even with his recent hot streak, it doesn't quite make Lawson a superstar—not yet, at least.
Lawson is a really good point guard—definitely top-ten in the league—but he is not on the level of Chris Paul or Tony Parker. Lawson is a rung below those guys, somewhere in between above-average and elite. He can struggle to create his own shot away from the rim, and even when he goes inside he has a propensity to get blocked (20 percent of the time, as per 82games.com).
When being mentioned as a superstar, a player must not only compare favorably to the players at his own position, but must match up against the LeBron Jameses and Kevin Durants of the league. The idea of Lawson being a superstar under that criteria is hard to grasp, leaving the Nuggets without a defined go-to guy.
Denver needs that type of player when the playoffs come, because its fast break style of play hasn't worked in the past, and there's no indication the trend will change anytime soon. Individual players have carried their teams to championships the last two years. LeBron had Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, but when the series was on the line against the Boston Celtics, who decided to take over the game?
Same with Dirk Nowitzki two years ago. The Mavericks were a solid group of players, but Dirk brought them to the next level. He single handedly willed that team to a championship over a much more talented Miami team. The evidence goes back years; in fact, the farther you go back, the more superstars each team had.
Kobe Bryant was a superstar for the Lakers all throughout the 2000s, and while he was there he was paired with an even more distinguished player, Shaquille O'Neal, or an upper-echelon inside scorer in Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. The Celtics had the "Big Three" with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, and San Antonio had the "Big Three" before the "Big Three" was a common thing.
Go back and look at every championship team from the past two decades, and you will find at least one superstar. The exception is the 2004 Pistons, but even they had a starting lineup of Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace. The Nuggets lineup of Lawson, Iguodala, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried and Kosta Koufos has some similarities, but it still doesn't match up with that Pistons team.
The Nuggets are a good team—perhaps even a very good team—but they are not a championship-caliber team. Unless someone takes their game to the next level by becoming a superstar, they will plateau at the first or second round of the playoffs. When it comes down to crunch time, no one on the Nuggets is capable of putting the team on their back, and that will be their ultimate downfall.