For a franchise that has made the playoffs 10-consecutive years, the Denver Nuggets are hoping Brian Shaw is the answer to consistently get them over the first-round hump.
That will be a tough task in 2013-14 with several roster changes and a vastly rising Western Conference. The Houston Rockets added Dwight Howard, the Los Angeles Clippers are now led by Doc Rivers and more painfully, the Golden State Warriors snatched Andre Iguodala from Denver.
But even though expectations aren't sky-high in the Rocky Mountains, if the Nuggets can make it back to the postseason, perhaps Shaw's championship experience as a player and an assistant coach will translate to instant playoff success.
The Nuggets kept a strong core of their team and are coming off a record-setting season, including 57 wins and 38 home victories.
- 57-25 record (.695)
- 2nd in Northwest Division
- 3rd in Western Conference
- Lost in first round to Golden State Warriors (4-2)
Denver was the most explosive team in the NBA last season with its 19.7 fast-break points. Much of the damage came on the attacking speed of Ty Lawson and Andre Iguodala while hitting Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee for the alley-oop slam.
The Nuggets will continue using this strength to their advantage, but they will slow it down more frequently with Shaw on the sideline. This brings a more balanced approach and Denver will be better prepared for the playoffs.
The one area the Nuggets must improve on is their 25th-ranked 34.3 three-point percentage.
This is where Randy Foye and Nate Robinson come in. They shot 41 and 40.5 percent respectively from behind the arc last season. Even though Iguodala and Corey Brewer have left, they struggled from three, shooting only 31.7 and 29.6 percent.
Biggest Storylines Entering Training Camp
The biggest question for the Nuggets in starting their 2013-14 journey isn't based around one player. Can they execute a new offense and scheme?
Denver has been a run-and-gun team under former head coach George Karl, but as Shaw mentioned in his interview with NBA TV above, that only gets you so far. Shaw admits he wants to continue running the floor and take advantage of Denver's altitude, but he's emphasizing scoring in the half court.
Shaw is very familiar with the triangle offense from his days with Phil Jackson and the Los Angeles Lakers, but he's also had experience in other systems. Somehow he is going to incorporate triangle elements while putting Lawson in the pick-and-roll.
It's going to be a unique offense and it'll certainly be something different for the Nuggets.
In regards to specific players, the two that are in the spotlight are Lawson and McGee.
As the returning leader and top scorer from last season, will Lawson take his game to the next level? Can the speedster become the go-to guy in the clutch while making his teammates better in this new system?
With Kosta Koufos gone, will McGee be a dominant force for 30-plus minutes? Is he going to be more than just an energetic force and be able to post people up, or will he just be recognized for his Shaqtin' A Fool appearances?
Lawson's ability to get everyone on the same page and McGee's improvement will significantly impact the direction of Denver's 2013-14 season.
Key Additions & Losses
Key Additions: J.J. Hickson (PF, $16.15 million over three years), Nate Robinson (PG, $4.1 million over two years with second-year player option), Randy Foye (SG, $9.14 million over three years with third year non-guaranteed), Darrell Arthur (PF, $6.69 million over two years with second-year player option).
Key Losses: Andre Iguodala (Golden State Warriors, SG, $48 million over four years), Kosta Koufos (Memphis Grizzlies, C, $6 million over two years with second-year non-guaranteed), Corey Brewer (Minnesota Timberwolves, SF, $14.11 million over three years), Julyan Stone (Toronto Raptors, PG, on training-camp roster after two-year contract was voided when he failed team physical)
Biggest Addition: J.J. Hickson
All of Denver's recently acquired players are noteworthy considering each one should have a spot in the primary rotation, but Hickson is the most important.
Hickson, who averaged 12.7 points and 10.4 rebounds with the Portland Trail Blazers last season, brings a much needed balanced post game. He's more fit to play at the power forward position, but he's also capable of playing the center spot.
While he may come off the bench, his ability to post up, stretch the floor and show off athleticism will support Faried and McGee. Hickson is also used to playing half-court style basketball, which should help under coach Shaw.
Biggest Loss: Andre Iguodala
When your best defender—who also posted 13 points, 5.4 assists and 5.3 rebounds—leaves the franchise, he's undoubtedly your biggest loss.
Iguodala frequently guarded the greatest offensive threat on the perimeter with his 6'6" frame. His combination of length, speed and experience at the 2 was an essential element.
Offensively, he scored off the pass and dribble as well as inside and outside. Combining that with his passing skills, and he's one of the tougher shooting guards to contain in the league.
Denver now turns to Foye and Evan Fournier for help, while Wilson Chandler could slide down when Danilo Gallinari returns from his ACL injury.
* Currently injured
Training Camp Battle to Watch: Kenneth Faried vs. J.J. Hickson
It's hard to imagine Faried not being in the starting lineup after a successful 2012-13 campaign that included 11.5 points and 9.2 rebounds. However, there's reason to believe he could come off the bench.
According to Shaw in Aaron J. Lopez' article at Nuggets.com, Faried has earned the opportunity to start with his energy, but notes Hickson and Arthur are right behind him. All three players should get plenty of minutes and are capable of playing more than just power forward, but each one brings a certain set of skills to the table.
The Manimal has the tremendous motor and will bring the fans at the Pepsi Center to their feet. Hickson has a diverse offensive game and some athleticism as well. Arthur is a solid defender and would help Lawson out in the pick-and-pop.
Despite Arthur's attributes, this should come down to Faried and Hickson.
With McGee moving into the starting five, Shaw may not want his two high-energy players next to each other. Having Faried come off the bench for a one-two punch might be more effective.
At the same time, there will be plenty of offense in the starting five as it is, and Hickson's points will be needed from the bench. Additionally, if you have Faried and McGee flying down the court and crashing the boards together, it will drive opponents crazy.
Faried has the edge and will likely get the start when Denver travels to play the Sacramento Kings on October 30, but it's something to keep an eye on moving forward.
Battling For a Roster Spot: Quincy Miller vs. Damion James vs. Reginald Buckner
According to Hoopsworld.com, there are 14 Denver players with guaranteed contracts for the 2013-14 season. In examining the Nuggets' training camp roster, this leaves Quincy Miller, Damion James and Reginald Buckner.
With Gallinari still out and Brewer gone, it makes sense that Denver brought in some forwards to challenge Miller. Jordan Hamilton is also looking for some playing time, but the competition should help each other improve.
Miller is in his second season with the Nuggets, but he split time between Denver and the Iowa Energy of the Development League his rookie year. Miller was on the court for seven Nuggets games and played a mere 3.7 minutes.
James has seen action in 34 games with the Brooklyn Nets the last three seasons. He also split time between the Nets and the Miami Heat in this year's summer league where he recorded 9.5 points and 5.3 rebounds.
Buckner is a rookie from Ole Miss who went undrafted this past June. He fits at power forward with his great athleticism on both ends of the floor, and he averaged 9.4 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.7 blocks last year.
Since the Nuggets are already deep at power forward, it's going to be tough for Buckner to make the team. As for Miller and James, given Miller's familiarity with the team and the improvement he displayed in the summer league with his outside shot and defense, he should have his $788,872 exercised.
Biggest X-Factor: JaVale McGee
No one has been asked to step up more than McGee.
McGee has spent the last year-and-a-half coming off the bench as the thunderous dunker and acrobatic blocker. His relentless motor and playmaking attitude make him a very dangerous 7-footer.
But now he's going to have to show consistency and prove that he has fundamentals as well. McGee needs to increase his rebounding efficiency, develop a few go-to moves in the post and stop making mindless errors.
Best-Case Scenario: McGee improves on his half-court game while maintaining a high level of energy as a starter.
Furthermore, he begins to hit jumpers from the elbow, which Shaw has him working on, as Matt Moore of CBSSports.com reports. Lastly, along with making defensive stops in the final minutes, McGee makes clutch plays on the offensive end and takes some of the pressure off the Denver perimeter players.
Worst-Case Scenario: McGee looks lost half of the time on offense and is limited to fast-break points and putbacks on the glass. His lack of understanding Shaw's system disrupts Denver's half-court execution and he's forced to come off the bench again.
Expected Role and Statistics: Starting Center, 30.9 minutes, 12.2 points, 8.7 rebounds, 2.6 blocks
Nuggets Best-Case Scenario
The Nuggets won't top their 57-game mark last season, but surpassing 50 and grabbing the No. 4 seed would be quite the accomplishment.
Denver will go through a transition period to start the season off, but it only lasts a short period because of Shaw's ability to develop young players and get them to work together. The Nuggets find a balance of half-court and full-court offense while improving their free-throw and three-point shooting.
Winning the NBA Finals would be a dream come true for Nuggets fans, but the best-case playoff scenario is for Denver to make the Western Conference Semifinals.
Nuggets Worst-Case Scenario
Denver gets off to a slow start and looks sloppy through the first couple months. The offense looks average at best and Gallinari's newly expected return of late November from his ACL injury (per Christopher Dempsey of The Denver Post) is delayed.
The Nuggets struggle to guard on the perimeter without Iguodala and Brewer. They also fail to execute in pick-and-roll defense and they don't have the luxury of out-scoring opponents.
Eventually, the Nuggets start finding some positive things to build on, but it's too little too late, and they miss the playoffs for the first time since 2003.
The Nuggets will take a step back from last season, but they have enough firepower to make it back to the postseason. Lawson will lead the way and continue to receive great support from one of the deepest teams in the NBA.
Despite all the offseason madness, Brian Shaw is an excellent hire as head coach and Denver fans will see the progress over the next few seasons. The defense will be improved and the balance in the offense will come together.
The 2013-14 result will be familiar to Denver fans, but better things are coming. The Nuggets finish behind San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Golden State, Houston, Memphis and the Los Angeles Clippers in the standings and make another first-round exit.
44-38, No. 7 Seed in West, First-Round Loss
Statistics are from Basketball-Reference.com
Summer-league statistics are from RealGM.com
Contract information is from Hoopsworld.com