After a historic and record-setting regular season for the Denver Nuggets, it was another early exit in the playoffs for George Karl's team.
The Nuggets set multiple franchise records this season, including 57 victories and 38 home wins. They also didn't have a losing record against any of the Western Conference playoff teams.
Denver protected home court two of three times against the Golden State Warriors but couldn't overcome the environment of Oracle Arena in any of the other three contests.
Now that the postseason is over for the Nuggets, we can assess what was true and false in the first round and what must be done before the start of the 2013-14 season.
Was it that the Nuggets just choked in the first round again and Karl simply can't get over the hump? Or was it that the Warriors were just that good and are getting hot at the right time?
Let's take a look.
It's easy to say the leading scorer for the Nuggets was the best player in the playoffs, but it goes much further than his 21.3 points per game. Had it not been for Ty Lawson's ability to penetrate the lane and create his own shot, Denver could have easily been blown out in all three games at Golden State.
Lawson was the one player who was effective working with and against momentum. When Stephen Curry caught fire, mainly in the third quarter, Ty was the only player who could respond to at least somewhat limit the damage.
The speedy point guard gets a lot of attention for what he does in transition, but Lawson deserves as much or more credit for how well he does in the half court off the high-ball screen. His ability to finish at the rim, complemented by his mid-range jumper, was deadly in the playoffs.
On top of that, his 3.7 assist-to-turnover ratio was crucial. This was particularly evident in Game 5 when the Nuggets led 36-22 at the end of the first quarter behind Ty's guidance. Lawson finished the game with 19 points, 10 assists and only one turnover.
Lawson is signed through the 2016-17 season and is due to make $10,786,517 next year with an increasing salary of $808,989 each year (per Hoopshype.com). For how much he does offensively and his ability to get steals and push the ball, Denver is getting a bit of a sweet bargain.
George Karl is now 80-105 in his playoff career, but that is too easy of a fact to point to on why the Nuggets fell short to the Warriors.
With no Danilo Gallinari and with Kenneth Faried not at 100 percent in the first round (from the Denver Post), Karl used three different starting lineups in the six games to try and slow down Golden State.
Evan Fournier went from starter to not seeing any playing time. Kosta Koufos started all 81 games he played in during the regular season then started coming off the bench in Game 3. JaVale McGee started his first game of the entire 2012-13 season in Game 5.
Some of the reasoning behind this was that Mark Jackson was shuffling his lineup without David Lee, but Karl needed a lineup and a rotation that was going to be effective in stopping the Warriors altogether.
Essentially, other than Stephen Curry's mind-blowing shooting, the Denver big men really cost the Nuggets. When David Lee went down in Game 1 with his torn hip flexor (via Ken Berger of CBS Sports), and despite a very brief and bizarre appearance in Game 6, the Nuggets should have had a huge advantage in the paint.
Andrew Bogut, who only played in 32 games during the regular season, was far too effective. In Game 6, besides Curry's hot streak in the third quarter and somehow overcoming careless ball-handling in the fourth, Bogut's 14 points and 21 rebounds prevented a Game 7.
In Game 5, the one contest the Nuggets controlled for much of the game, Denver won points in the paint 50-24 and held Bogut to two points and five rebounds.
The Nuggets flourished in the regular season by attacking the rim, scoring in the paint (first) and rebounding the ball (tied second). The Nuggets dropped to 13th out of 16 teams in rebounding during the playoffs.
Blame the 2012-13 NBA Coach of the Year all you want, but it's just an excuse. The 7-footers didn't show up...
Since the Nuggets were punished in the lane for much of the first round, is this an area Denver needs to address?
Kenneth Faried continued to get better each game after the ankle injury and posted double-doubles in the final two games.
JaVale McGee can re-energize his team at any point on both ends of the floor with his relentless motor, but he had an average series at best and his ceiling is limited.
Outside of Game 5, Kosta Koufos had a horrendous series. Not only did he lose his starting job and see limited minutes, he was minus-21 in 21 minutes in Game 6. No other Denver player was worse than minus-five.
Despite the poor performances, it still wasn't enough to encourage Karl to give Timofey Mozgov a chance off the bench. Mozgov played in 41 regular-season games but only played double-digit minutes one time since the All-Star Game.
According to Hoopshype.com, Mozgov will be a free agent in the offseason and Koufos only has one more guaranteed year before a team option in 2014-15.
It also seems clear that Karl doesn't feel that Mozgov either fits the Nuggets current system or can't be a big enough contribution.
It's time for Denver to look for a center that can bring at least 25 minutes of great energy, run the floor and protect the rim.
Should the Nuggets address this area in the NBA draft with their 27th overall pick, there are three players that could fall to the end of the first round that would fit the role. They are Gorgui Dieng from Louisville, Jeff Withey from Kansas and Lucas Nogueira from Brazil.
When Wilson Chandler moved to the starting lineup to replace Danilo Gallinari, Corey Brewer essentially became the sixth man. Even with the slight increase in minutes, Brewer continued to struggle shooting the rock.
After making 42.5 percent from the floor and 29.6 percent from three-point range in the regular season, Brewer decreased to 30.9 percent and 25 percent from behind the arc in the playoffs. Corey's streaky shooting came to life once again. He was hot in Game 2 and Game 3 but finished 2-of-19 and 0-of-10 from three in the last two contests.
The positive factors from Brewer's game are that he's 6'9" playing the 3, has great athleticism with his ability to attack the rim and forces turnovers. He fits the style of the Nuggets.
The negative side is that he is extremely inconsistent, doesn't provide a lot outside of scoring and doesn't have much of a post game at 188 pounds. Therefore, he can sometimes be more of a liability than an asset.
Even though Brewer has been in the league for six seasons, his shooting percentages have been in a straight decline since arriving in Denver. Corey should be able to land a contract for the same amount of money over the next three or four years, but it shouldn't be with the Nuggets.
Denver needs a more reliable shooter. The Nuggets were tied for 25th from behind the arc at 34.3 percent and shot 31.1 percent in the playoffs. If that number increases with a more serious threat off the bench, the lane opens up with more opportunities to attack the basket.
Who should the Nuggets bring in? According to Marc Berman's article at the New York Post, Earl Smith (J.R. Smith's father) expects J.R. to opt out of his contract and test free agency in the offseason.
Not only is Smith familiar with Denver and can play in transition, his ability to score in isolation in the half court would take some of the pressure off Ty Lawson.
The Nuggets would have to put up more money than Brewer is worth to snag Smith. However, as Chris Tomasson of Fox Sports Florida points out, Iguodala is likely to opt out of his contract next season. Iggy is due to make just under $16 million next year and would give the Nuggets some cash to play with.
Granted the Warriors have one of the greatest backcourts with two of the best shooters in the NBA, the Nuggets need help defensively on the perimeter. This is true even if Iggy stays in Denver.
After giving up 36.3 percent from behind the arc in the regular season (20th), the Nuggets gave up a devastating 40.4 percent to the Warriors. The next closest was Houston giving up 35.9 percent to Oklahoma City.
Ty Lawson has great speed, hands and awareness when it comes to guarding the prolific point guards in the West, but at 5'11", the opposition can shoot over him or create a mismatch in the post.
Andre Miller is taller at 6'2" and is one of the smarter defenders at point guard, but he is 37 years old with 14 years of mileage on him.
There isn't a lot to go off of when it comes to rookie Evan Fournier, considering he only played 13.3 minutes against Golden State and didn't get any playing time the last two games.
While he did have a few games at the end of the regular season when he created multiple steals, he's also given up some easy baskets. It's tough seeing him making a huge impact defensively in the near future.
Wilson Chandler is someone that can defend some of the great shooters, but while he's 6'8" and has great athleticism, he doesn't have the greatest speed defensively and some guards can get around him.
Essentially, the Nuggets are picking their poison outside Iguodala.
If the Nuggets lose Iggy, who finished ninth in NBA Defensive Player of the Year voting for 2013, this will be a more pressing issue. Even if he sticks around, Andre spends so much energy on both ends of the floor and on the glass that he needs some additional help.
While Golden State is giving San Antonio a headache with its tremendous guard play and there aren't many teams with a backcourt like that, if the Nuggets want to win the title, this gap must be filled.
As for who Denver should target, one excellent possibility would be Memphis' Tony Allen, who will become an unrestricted free agent in the offseason (per ESPN.com). Allen was paid $3.3 million for the 2012-13 season (via Hoopshype.com) and would be a great addition for the Nuggets for how much they would have to pay.
The debate can go on for whether George Karl should be fired, but it simply doesn't make sense. He helped the Nuggets set multiple franchise records just two-and-a-half years removed from losing Carmelo Anthony.
Denver has three players under contract through the 2015-16 season for at least $10 million per year that fit Karl's system (via Hoopshype.com). That doesn't even factor in Iguodala's player option next year. The timing of Karl being dismissed wouldn't work.
It's easy to just get rid of the coach. Understandably, the Denver fans are frustrated with another first-round exit, but Denver has made a lot of progress. The Nuggets were first in the NBA in points per game, points in the paint and fast-break points. They were also tied for second in rebounding and third in assists.
With a few additions to the franchise, the Nuggets can go from a good to a great team. Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried are only going to get better in their young careers, and having Danilo Gallinari would have helped a great deal against Golden State.
Angry Nuggets fans may also want to wait until Stephen Curry and the Warriors get bounced from the playoffs and realize what they were really up against before passing too much judgement.
According to Mark Jackson from Sean Highkin of USA Today, the Golden State head coach believes the Warriors currently have the best shooting backcourt that has ever played in the NBA. He might just be defending his team, but there's no doubt it's one of the best we have ever seen in the playoffs so far.