Despite coming off a franchise-record 57 wins last season, the Denver Nuggets are up against several challenges to start their 2013-14 campaign.
It's Brian Shaw's first head-coaching gig, Danilo Gallinari will still be out with his ACL injury and four new players will likely be part of the primary rotation. Plus, with major contributors Andre Iguodala, Kosta Koufos and Corey Brewer no longer on the team, communication and chemistry are particularly important for the Nuggets to get off to a good start.
The No. 1 offense from last season has its work cut out. There are always new wrinkles to every team each year, but normally not this many for a team that was the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference a season ago.
Luckily for the Nuggets, there are some factors in their favor. Playmakers Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried return, guards Nate Robinson and Randy Foye have experience switching franchises while remaining effective and Shaw was part of multiple NBA titles as an assistant coach and a player for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Still, there are plenty of things Denver must overcome as it gets ready for training camp to begin Oct. 1.
Adapting to Brian Shaw’s System
Former Nuggets head coach George Karl strongly emphasized attacking the basket with an up-tempo offense, but what will be Shaw’s style of play?
He spent a lot of time with Phil Jackson as it pertains to the triangle offense, but according to Benjamin Hochman of The Denver Post, Shaw is more interested in creating a system based on his players’ strengths.
Although I played in the triangle and coached the triangle, I also played in a lot of systems, so that's not something I'm looking to bring to the Nuggets and try to implement. I'm going to look at a lot of film of things the team did well, running was one of them. And I'll continue to build on things they did well and get more of a feel for the personnel and what I think will be conducive to everybody's ability.
This is an excellent move. Even though there are some new players on the Denver roster, a solid core of last year’s team is still there, so taking away the fast-break element would be a mistake.
Nevertheless, no matter who is the new man in charge, a different coach means there will be an adjustment period. There are verbal and nonverbal communication changes and everyone needs some time to get used to each other.
Most notably, we'll see an altered starting lineup and rotation. Within that, unfamiliar sets will be called, players will be in different spots and new roles will be defined.
Instead of seeing the dribble-drive motion offense in the half court a lot of the time, the Nuggets will likely have more balance. That will mean some of Denver's big men taking jumpers, a higher volume of three-point attempts and more ball movement.
The good news is that Shaw helped improve the young Indiana Pacers the past two seasons as an associate head coach. There's no reason why he can't do the same with Denver.
But there is a lot more responsibility in being the head coach and the Nuggets have had a contrasting style to Shaw's Indiana teams. Shaw will be tested to see how he handles the burden of being the top guy in a completely new setting.
Beginning Without Danilo Gallinari
To make matters more interesting for Shaw, he doesn't get to begin with a healthy roster. Gallinari, who started all 71 of his games and scored 16.2 points last season, will still be recovering from his ACL injury that he suffered on April 4.
While Hochman reported that Gallinari could return as early as December since his ACL was only partially torn, that's still at least a month's worth of games that he will miss. It may not sound like a lot, but with all the changes, connecting the dots early on is a priority.
Complicating the matter further is that Shaw will likely have to move Wilson Chandler into the starting five and Brewer isn't there to back him up at small forward. Granted, it will possibly give Jordan Hamilton and Quincy Miller chances to have an impact early on and see if they have a future with the Nuggets, but Gallo's diversity is crucial in providing structure to the rest of the team.
With his ability to shoot the three, attack off the dribble and post up, the 6'10 Gallinari presents a unique problem for the opposition. Without his presence, the high-powered Denver offense is easier to slow down.
There isn't a better example of that than Denver's showing in the first round of the playoffs last season against the Golden State Warriors.
The Nuggets' starting five was able hold its own by moving Chandler up, but the bench was stagnant on offense without its sixth man there for support. In Game 6, the bench scored a mere 16 points on 6-of-25 shooting and the poor offense led to several transition baskets for Stephen Curry.
So, while the Nuggets will be without one of their top scorers to start the season, they are also losing essential time for the team to jel.
With Iguodala and Brewer gone, Denver will be missing 25.1 points, but its defense may suffer even more in their absence.
While Iguodala led the Nuggets with an average of 1.74 steals, Brewer was the most efficient in takeaways with an average of 1.44 steals per 24.4 minutes. Even though steals only tell a small part of the story, Iguodala often defended the best scorer at the 2 and the 3 while Brewer took over when Iggy needed a rest.
But with them out of the picture and Robinson and Foye as the new outside players, who will fill that part?
Robinson is a fierce competitor, but he's only 5'9" and is limited to defending point guards. Foye is an above-average defender, but he's only 6'4" and won't be taking on the Kevin Durants of the league.
Newcomer Darrell Arthur could take the physical small forwards down low, but he won't have a chance over a lengthy period of time on the perimeter. Hamilton and Miller don't have the experience in guarding All-Star caliber players while Evan Fournier has only played a handful of games in the primary rotation.
That leaves Gallinari and Chandler. Both will have to step up if Denver is going back to the playoffs. Gallo has a little more length while Chandler has the edge in mobility.
Chandler is the one to keep an eye on. If he can make strides defensively and prove that he isn't just a scorer, Chandler could move over to the 2 when Gallinari is ready to return.
It might take too much scoring and size out of the bench, but the backcourt firepower of Lawson at the point, a 6'8" shooting guard in Chandler and a 6'10" small forward in Gallinari have the potential to be incredibly dominant.
There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle that Shaw must solve. He's done a great job improving teams in the past, but we'll see if he can do it when he's calling all the shots.