The Denver Nuggets have experienced quite the roller-coaster ride to start the 2013-14 season. One minute they look like a lottery team, the next they appear to have playoff potential.
It's been a difficult task for first-year head coach Brian Shaw.
Since the injury bug has hit several Nuggets players, Coach Shaw is playing a deep rotation and trying to get the roster to develop chemistry within his system.
However, with a four-game win streak—improving to an 8-6 record over that time—perhaps the Nuggets have turned a corner. The next task is Carmelo Anthony and the struggling New York Knicks.
But before Denver plays its Thanksgiving weekend showdown, let's examine the Nuggets' start to the season by grading each key player.
There will be three factors in the grades.
- Non-Statistical Elements
Statistics will include simple numbers such as points, rebounds and assists, but it will also involve things like plus-minus and player efficiency rating (PER). Non-statistical examples are defensive skills, pick-and-roll ability and clutch performances. Improvement will be how much of an increased role the player has or how the player has exceeded general expectations.
Essentially, the best grades will not always go to the top players.
With George Karl and Kosta Koufos gone, JaVale McGee was one guy who was expected to step up and elevate his game.
That hasn't happened.
Averaging just 16 minutes, McGee only made it through five contests. He put up seven points and 3.4 rebounds, but more importantly, he lacked the explosiveness we are used to seeing.
Even though the Nuggets have compiled a 7-2 record since, this is a very disappointing situation considering McGee was one of the main guys Shaw needs to develop. McGee needs more time with his post game, mid-range jumper and fundamentals on defense.
It's a tough break for the big man, but Denver should be in no rush to get him back. His energy and athleticism makes him dangerous and there's still time for him to work on the other components of his game.
After Evan Fournier did a respectable job at the end of last season stepping in for the injured Danilo Gallinari, there was a chance the young Frenchman could earn a spot in the starting five.
Instead, Fournier is only playing 13.4 minutes, scoring 5.4 points and his time on the court continues to decrease. In the last three games combined, he's produced three points in 20 minutes.
With Denver's cluttered backcourt situation, Fournier has found himself near the back of the rotation.
Shaw has been playing more dual point guard lineups and it's working. The Denver head coach is also giving increased minutes to Jordan Hamilton, who has proven to be more than just a three-point shooter.
Fournier's chances as a 20-minute guy this year aren't gone, but they're getting close. At some point Shaw is going to shorten his rotation, and when Gallinari and McGee return, it'll be hard finding a place for Fournier.
To be fair, the sophomore is a solid shooter and he has some versatility in his game. He attacks the basket and can score in multiple ways.
But he doesn't have the experience like Randy Foye and he's a step behind Hamilton when it comes to defense.
With some maturity and development, Fournier certainly has a future as a backup shooting guard. It's just unlikely it'll be this year, but at least the Nuggets have a good option to turn to if needed.
Grade: C -
One of Denver's biggest deficiencies last season was its 34.3 three-point percentage. That's where Randy Foye is supposed to come in.
Foye is shooting 37.1 percent from behind the arc. It's not terrible, but considering he's coming off a season where he shot 41 percent last year and 59.5 percent of his field-goal attempts are from three, it's somewhat disappointing.
But what's more discouraging is his 10.4 PER. That's the lowest on the roster outside of Anthony Randolph, Darrell Arthur and Fournier.
Over 25.9 minutes, Foye's numbers read 9.6 points, 2.1 rebounds and two assists. It's not that Foye should be expected to contribute a lot outside of scoring, but he's been an average defender. He's let opposing guards get by him at times, but he's also let guards post him up—like Monta Ellis earlier in the week.
When Foye's making three-pointers and stretching the defense, he makes an impact on the floor. If he's off and fails to get stops defensively, there isn't much for him to lean on.
Foye is shooting 41.4 percent from three in his last five games, and it looks like he's at least starting to find a little bit more of a rhythm. But we'll see if that continues. He's a streaky shooter.
Among the four Denver newcomers, Darrell Arthur was the least eye-popping name, but he is quickly adding a much-needed element—the mid-range jumper. He's making life difficult on the opposing defenses through the pick-and-pop, and according to NBA.com, he's burying 45.3 percent of his shots from 16-24 feet.
At 17.1 minutes, Arthur has recorded 5.4 points and 2.3 rebounds, which is close to his production with the Memphis Grizzlies last season. But he is Denver's best frontcourt defender in space, which translates well to the pick-and-roll.
Even though the numbers are small, Arthur plays a more significant role than advertised.
He may not get a lot of rebounds or block a ton of shots, but he's a forward who does the little things and that's something Denver has needed. Arthur has been as consistent as anyone on the team.
Despite having a limited ceiling, Arthur's production will continue.
Grade: C +
If someone's points reflect Denver's current four-game winning streak the most, it's Nate Robinson. During this stretch, he's scoring 13.3 points and shooting 50 percent from three.
That's significantly better than how he started the season.
Nevertheless, Robinson is still finding his place in the half-court offense. Most of his points are coming on fast-break three-pointers and at the free-throw line. In fact, Robinson has only scored seven two-point field goals in the last four contests.
Amazingly, Robinson is shooting a career-high 44.2 percent from three, but a career-low 37.2 percent from the field overall.
The good news is that while Robinson is starting to find his stroke from distance and he's converting a career-best 86.4 percent from the line, his turnovers are down. For someone who is playing both guard positions and getting used to new teammates, he's coming along at a healthy pace.
Most importantly though, Denver needs Robinson to continue being that energy guy off the bench who can catch fire at any point.
But if he can start to find his place in the half-court sets and help the bench get some easier buckets, the Nuggets could contend for the No. 1 offense in the NBA for the fourth year in a row. Yes, even with Shaw in charge instead of Karl, it's a possibility.
Grade: B -
J.J. Hickson is putting up his typical numbers—10.3 points and 8.4 rebounds in 25.4 minutes. That's fairly comparable to his career average of 9.8 points and 6.8 rebounds in 23.1 minutes.
He's still got quality explosiveness, can hit the mid-range jumper and runs the floor well. His low-post game is well-balanced.
However, if McGee's going to be out a long time and Hickson is the starting center moving forward, his defense must improve.
Understandably, he makes great effort plays at times, such as his block and transition dunk against the Atlanta Hawks. Plus, at 6'9", he shouldn't be expected to protect the rim like McGee or Timofey Mozgov.
But in terms of guarding in space, playing tighter in the pick-and-roll and keeping players off the low block, he needs to get better. It's okay to be undersized in the starting lineup as long as your frontcourt players are doing their job defensively, but the opponents are having their way by scoring 47.4 points in the paint.
Increasing Hickson's career-low 57.9 free-throw percentage would help too.
Grade: B -
He may be 37 years old, but Andre Miller is still doing his thing—carving up defenses, posting up inside and directing traffic as needed.
He may not keep up with the explosive point guards every time, but when you play him 19 minutes and he contributes in multiple areas, Miller's a valuable asset.
He's posting 6.6 points, 3.1 assists and 2.9 rebounds, which isn't too shabby for his controlled minutes and playing alongside another point guard a majority of the time. What's most impressive is his 4.4 assist-to-turnover ratio, which ranks second in the NBA.
Miller has also been a huge key in the fourth quarter.
Down eight to Atlanta and seeking their first victory, Miller pitched in with five points and three assists in a five-and-a-half minute stretch for the comeback. Most recently against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Miller recorded four points, five boards and two assists in the final period.
The Nuggets have struggled at times getting the ball inside for higher-percentage shots down the stretch, but Miller has helped that situation. Playing three point guards with decent minutes is a difficult task, but it looks like Shaw has found a way to make it work.
It was a delayed debut for Wilson Chandler because of a hamstring injury, but even though he had no preseason games to get used to Shaw's offense he's picked up right where he left off last season.
Chandler's recording 11 points, 3.4 rebounds and 1.38 steals in 26.5 minutes, and he's also turning it over just 0.9 times. Given the amount of time he's on the court and how much of a role he has on offense, that's very respectable.
Chandler is spending a lot more time on the perimeter this season, and it clearly shows that he's more of a small forward or shooting guard. He can play at power forward when needed, but it's not the ideal position for him.
Granted his shot is off some at 33.3 percent from three and 70.6 percent from the line, but again, he's only played eight games with no preseason. The shots will start falling soon.
The one stat that looks particularly good is the 1.3 steals in just 26.5 minutes, which is better than his career average of 0.8 steals in 30.8 minutes. Defense doesn't just come down to steals, but the fact that he's fully healthy and playing more on the perimeter, he's able to disrupt the passing lanes and create more opportunities in transition.
It's not an amazing start for Chandler, but all things considered, it's not too shabby.
Like for many of the Nuggets players, Kenneth Faried had a sluggish start to the season. He was coming off a hamstring injury, but you would still expect better than the 7.6 points and 7.6 rebounds he was averaging through the first five games.
It was only a few days later when trade rumors surfaced from Frank Isola of the New York Daily News about the New York Knicks offering Denver Iman Shumpert for Faried.
Since the Nuggets refused the trade, Faried started playing like the Manimal we are accustomed to seeing. Faried has posted a double-double in six of Denver's last nine matchups.
Faried's pulling down a team-best 9.3 rebounds and scoring 11.1 points. He's consistently productive with his 20.9 PER and has done a great job bringing his high energy with McGee sidelined.
Much like Hickson though, Faried's defense is still far from great and his athleticism only gets him so far.
We're also still looking for more improvement in his half-court game offensively. He's hit a few mid-range jumpers and showing some more aggression in the post, but his only real move is on the left block—taking one dribble in and putting up the right-handed hook shot.
The fact that Faried can continue to be this efficient while lacking a fair amount of skills, tells us that one of Shaw's top priorities in terms of development is Faried.
Jordan Hamilton is the perfect example of taking advantage of a given opportunity.
With Gallinari and Chandler's injuries to start the year, Shaw went with Randolph to start at the 3. After that didn't work out, Shaw gave Hamilton the nod to see what his shooter could do.
Hamilton flourished and even with Chandler back as the starting small forward, he's continued to do damage.
In 18.2 minutes, Hamilton is putting up a respectable 9.2 points, four rebounds and one steal. Along with his 37.8 three-point percentage, Hamilton is forcing turnovers and contributing to the transition game.
A lot of young players who are good shooters rely on their range too much. With Hamilton, Shaw has given him the green light and he's not afraid to attack the basket.
Furthermore, Hamilton's 19.1 PER is third best on the team and he's also a plus-38 in his minutes played, according to basketball-reference.com.
As Shaw moves toward finding a condensed rotation, it'll be interesting when Gallo comes back and how Hamilton fits into the equation. His minutes will likely be reduced, but I don't think Hamilton will be at the end of the bench like last season. He's proving he deserves playing time each night.
The most pleasant surprise to the beginning of Denver's 2013-14 season has been Timofey Mozgov. All of these numbers are career-highs—17.4 minutes, 8.1 points, 54.7 field-goal percentage, 4.9 rebounds and 1.2 blocks.
Mozgov spent much of last season on the bench behind Koufos and McGee.
But as it turns out, Mozgov's skills in the half court are proving to be a legitimate asset in Shaw's offense. He plays bigger than his 250 pounds, posts up under control and is getting to the free-throw line 3.3 times, which is second best on the team.
Defensively, Mozgov doesn't swat shots away like McGee, but he contests every shot and is an excellent rim protector with his 7'1" frame. He also takes up a lot of space in the paint and makes it tough for passes to come through the lane.
With McGee's absence, Mozgov's improvement comes at a crucial time.
Considering that he started 35 games with Denver in 2011-12, if Mozgov continues to improve and play at a high level, he could easily earn that spot back. He's a great compliment to the shorter and more athletic Faried.
Grade: A -
We can talk about the progression of this Denver team all we want, but Lawson is easily most responsible for the success the Nuggets have had so far.
He's not just earning a career-high 20.9 points, 8.4 assists and 3.9 rebounds, he's doing it with a constantly changing rotation in a different scheme with more half-court sets. His pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop play is getting better and the motion sets are more fluid.
While the other Nuggets players are taking some time to get used to the new elements, Lawson is excelling in it. All the offseason concerns about Lawson in a different system have been answered.
Not only that, when the Denver offense gets stagnant and the other players have gone cold Lawson has chosen his moments to carry the team. Denver looked awful against Phoenix and when the blowout looked like it was going to get worse, he primarily erased an 18-point deficit in the third and gave the Nuggets a chance at a win they normally wouldn't have.
Lawson's 23.1 PER says it all. He makes others better around him while improving individually.