Does JaVale McGee Have a Denver Nuggets' Future Despite Season-Ending Injury?

D.J. Foster@@fosterdjContributor IFebruary 5, 2014

Nov 7, 2013; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets center JaVale McGee (34) reacts during the first half against the Atlanta Hawks at Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

JaVale McGee's future value to the Denver Nuggets is as hard to decipher now as it ever was before.

Out for most of this season already, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, McGee could be done for the remainder of the year as well.

Denver Nuggets center JaVale McGee could miss the rest of the season because of a stress fracture in his left leg, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

McGee, 26, has been seeking further medical consultation on the injury, which hasn't been able to heal properly this season, league sources said.

When McGee was re-signed in the 2012 offseason to a four-year deal worth $44 million, the Nuggets were in a very different place.

George Karl roamed the sidelines, imploring the Nuggets to play a fast-paced style that was death for opposing teams in the mile-high air.

Andre Iguodala and Corey Brewer solidified the perimeter defense and created havoc in passing lanes. Danilo Gallinari added sweet shooting and the ability to score off the bounce. Andre Miller brought his old man game to the second unit.

As for McGee? He was only playing 18 minutes a night, but general manager Masai Ujiri had built the deepest roster in the league. Nearly everyone sacrificed minutes, and McGee was no exception.

The strategy worked. Playing without a superstar in the traditional sense, the Nuggets used their fresh legs to run to a 57-25 record, the fourth-best record in the league.

But then the playoffs came around, and all the positive momentum came to a screeching halt. The Nuggets suffered a first-round upset at the hands of the Golden State Warriors, and after that, everything changed.

Karl, the Coach of the Year, was fired and replaced by Brian Shaw. Ujiri left his job in the front office to fix the Toronto Raptors. Iguodala took a "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" approach and went to Golden State. Brewer left to join the Minnesota Timberwolves. Gallinari, who was hurt for the playoffs, had further surgery complications and will be out for the season. Miller was suspended and hasn't returned to the floor since.

As one might expect, the Nuggets barely resemble what they were last season. McGee has only a few familiar faces left next to him. Sure, Denver still plays fast, and Ty Lawson still runs the show, but the Nuggets are now a middling .500 team instead of one of the league's elite.

LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 19:  JaVale McGee #34 of the Denver Nuggets is guarded by DeAndre Jordan #6 of the Los Angeles Clippers during their preseason game at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on October 19, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Los Angeles won 118-111
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

How McGee can change that remains to be seen. Like so many of his teammates from that 2012-13 season, McGee has been missing in action this year. The 26-year-old center played in Denver's first five games, where he averaged just under 16 minutes a night before suffering a stress fracture in his left tibia. McGee has been sidelined ever since.

McGee has always been a bit of an enigma, and it's hard to imagine that anyone in Denver's organization knows what they have in the athletic young center. Based on Karl's comments to longtime Denver sportswriter Dave Krieger, he might not have, either.

He came here as a player that played 30 minutes [in Washington] without earning that responsibility, was given that responsibility because they were a bad team. My year with him last year, I was trying to figure out what he was. I thought at the end of last year he earned the right to get more minutes this year but I don’t think he earned the right to be given 30 minutes.

At times, McGee is dominant and plays the game at a level very few players can touch. But then for long stretches, he's aloof and makes mistakes the mind can barely comprehend.

Can McGee be great? Yes. We've seen enough flashes of potential over the years to know that the ability is there, and his career averages of 15.3 points, 10 rebounds and 3.3 blocks per 36 minutes would indicate he's capable of playing at a high level, even if the stats are often misleading with McGee.

Will he be great? That's the question Denver has to answer, but it's awfully hard to do that before choosing a direction for the organization.

The Nuggets are not realistically competing, or rebuilding, or tanking, or acquiring assets. For all intents and purposes, the Nuggets are in basketball purgatory, with no signs of getting out soon. Denver has $61 million in guaranteed salary next year on the books, and just one first-round pick (the better of its own and New York's). 

DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 5:  Tim Duncan #21 of the San Antonio Spurs and JaVale McGee #34 of the Denver Nuggets during the game on November 5, 2013 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloa
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McGee, Lawson, Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and J.J. Hickson are all on contract through 2015-16, with Kenneth Faried's status still up in the air. For the most part, though, this core is pretty much locked in, despite all the shuffling done this offseason.

And if the Nuggets want to ride out those deals and add smaller pieces wherever possible, there's a strong argument for keeping McGee. Without the luxury of a top-five pick, cap space or any prospects currently on the roster who look like they could develop into superstars, McGee is the lone wild card who could drastically alter the trajectory of the team. He may be more likely to bust, but McGee at least gives Denver a chance to be something other than mediocre or moderately good.

McGee can be part of Denver's future, but that's not to say he's capable of being a building block. There's a difference.

If Denver decides to start over and rebuild, getting rid of McGee's big salary should be a priority once a few other pieces fall. The Nuggets can currently afford to take on the risk if they're punting on financial flexibility by retaining the likes of Gallinari and Hickson, but if the slate is being wiped clean elsewhere, McGee should be dealt.

The problem, of course, is that Denver is going to find it awfully difficult to rebuild. Gallinari is almost untouchable considering his ACL surgeries and lengthy contract, and McGee's injury and mental question marks will make him a tough sell as well. Those two account for over $22 million in salary next year alone. That's about a third of the cap.

For the time being, Denver appears to be stuck in the mud. Even if offers came in, trading Gallinari and McGee would be selling at the lowest possible value. You'd have to think their stock will rise once they get back on the court and the length of their contracts becomes less of a lengthy commitment.

With that in mind, McGee, like most of Denver's roster, is part of the future by default.  Hope may not be much of a strategy, but considering the lack of other viable options for Denver to take, it might have to do for the time being.