That's not really a knock on the speedy point guard, as he's in the midst of a fantastic season now that he's been asked to take on even more of the ball-handling responsibilities. Lawson knew he was going to be under more pressure once Andre Iguodala left for the Golden State Warriors, and it hasn't weighed him down.
But it's not enough.
Even last year's 57-win team flamed out in the playoffs (admittedly without Danilo Gallinari, who tore his ACL during the regular season), leading to some major changes. This year's squad is going to fall well short of that record, as it's currently struggling to stay above .500 and in the Western Conference playoff picture.
The Nuggets haven't had a true superstar since Carmelo Anthony was sent to the New York Knicks, and it's time for them to take some gambles.
After all, they're one of those teams that is actually set up to acquire a superstar.
Currently boasting one of the deepest rosters in the NBA, the Nuggets are brimming over with quality players. But it's tough to play 12 guys at the same time. Most referees will penalize a team from trying to sneak more than five players onto the court at any given time.
Turning the depth into a star is the only route that leads toward a championship.
Depth is usually a good thing, but it's not for the Nuggets.
Brian Shaw spent the beginning of the 2013-14 season milking the end of the bench for everything he could possibly glean, and it resulted in a rotation that's just too deep. Deep enough that Andre Miller received the dreaded DNP-CD and immediately lost his temper. Deep enough that 11 different players have started games just 35 contests into the campaign.
And that's without Danilo Gallinari.
The Italian forward is set to return at some point in the not-so-distant future, as he's started to push around a weighted sled in practice. Once he's back—and you could make a strong case that he was the second-best player on the roster before getting injured in 2012-13—that's just more players to take up the same number of minutes.
This is true with JaVale McGee too.
A stress fracture in his tibia has kept the mercurial 7-footer sidelined since early November, and there's still no telling when he'll return. But he eventually will, and he'll need minutes as soon as he's ready to go.
Again, where are those going to come from?
During Denver's 101-88 thumping of the Oklahoma City Thunder on a nationally-televised Jan. 9 contest, Shaw used 11 players. Wilson Chandler was kept out with a hip injury, Miller received another DNP and the dynamic duo of Gallo and McGee was still absent.
After the game, Randy Foye told the Associated Press via ESPN, "To beat a team like that, without Wilson (Chandler) and having young guys in there and not being that deep on the bench, was huge."
If that's not being deep on the bench...
The Nuggets boast quite the deep collection of NBA-caliber players, and that actually gives them a chance to swing a deal.
Or two. Or three.
There isn't much benefit to having this much talent. Sure, it's nice to keep players fresh and healthy through the season. It's a positive to adjust lineups based on matchups. But it's also devaluing the players on the roster.
This isn't a problem for a team like the Miami Heat, but it is for the Nuggets. After all, they don't have enough star power to emerge as an elite team in the Western Conference.
It's just too tough.
Start Packaging Backups/Lesser Starters and Draft Picks
The first key is identifying the keepers on the roster.
Right now, it's hard to imagine the Nuggets parting ways with Lawson. He's playing like a fringe All-Star candidate, averaging 17.8 points, 3.6 rebounds and 8.6 assists per game. Although Lawson's efficiency from the field has declined, he's getting to the charity stripe with remarkable frequency, and he's still posted a 20.36 PER, according to ESPN.
Other keepers would include Kenneth Faried—who's been playing like, well, a Manimal ever since trade rumors popped up earlier in the season—and Gallinari, assuming he can regain the form he played with prior to his ACL injury.
But beyond that?
Chandler isn't untouchable. Nate Robinson could be an asset to a team able to compete this year but seeking guard depth. J.J. Hickson and Timofey Mozgov could do the same, just in the frontcourt.
But players aren't the only assets that general manager Tim Connelly has at his disposal.
The Nuggets will hold onto the most favorable draft pick between their own and the New York Knicks' in the first round of the 2014 NBA draft, and they'll also gain an additional second-rounder from the Portland Trail Blazers. They'll also pick up an extra second-rounder in 2015 and have the ability to switch picks with the Knicks in 2016 as well.
Basically, the team has plenty of movable assets. Now it's time to start improving them.
I won't suggest any specifics, but the Nuggets are in great shape to package draft picks in the future along with solid players like the aforementioned touchable ones. If they can pick up additional first-round picks in the future or attract a minor star, they'll be in great shape.
Lastly, Make the Big Upgrade
The Nuggets can't be thinking about acquiring a true star yet, at least not through completely blowing up this year's roster. It's a sentiment that Connelly agrees with, based on what he told Grantland's Zach Lowe:
But a full-scale rebuild is not the be-all, end-all. It's a four- to five-year process. And coming off a 57-win season, that's just not something I would have pushed. There are too many good players here. It would be a disservice not to try, and not to try to win big.
That has to be put on hold until the 2014-15 season, as they'll have one new kind of asset at their disposal: expiring contracts.
This year, Denver has only one of those to play around with. Jordan Hamilton's contract comes to an end after the close of this season, but he'll only free up $1.2 million. Andre Miller and Quincy Miller are working with non-guaranteed contracts, but Quincy's is similarly devoid of financial value, and Andre doesn't seem long for the Mile High City.
Next season, that changes.
Chandler can be considered an expiring deal, as his 2015-16 deal is guaranteed for only $2 million of the $7.2 million he's set to make, per ShamSports.com. Mozgov can come off the books as well, assuming Connelly declines to pick up his team option. So too do Darrell Arthur, Nate Robinson, Anthony Randolph and Evan Fournier (similar situation to Mozgov's).
All of a sudden, Denver has the trifecta at its disposal: expiring deals, quality—but expendable—players and plenty of draft picks. Remember, they've already dealt for a few more future picks in this hypothetical scenario.
As Lowe writes, "Not every deal has to be The Deal. Houston is the most recent team to show that piling up assets, bit by bit, can improve a team's (long) odds of striking The Deal down the line."
But at this point in the process, the Nuggets can go ahead and make The Deal. So long as the available star player—and there will be one, as long as a team is willing to pay the asking price—isn't a point guard due to conflicting interest with Lawson, Denver will have enough to snap him up.
This is a long process. It's a complicated one, and it requires plenty of patience from the involved players, the Denver front office and—perhaps most importantly—fans who like putting on a Nuggets uniform and showing up to the Pepsi Center.
It's also worth it.
As the Nuggets have surely realized over the last few years, it's tough to win in the playoffs without a reliable star.
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