Figuring Out a Direction for the Disappointing Denver Nuggets
As playoff dreams go by the wayside and the losses continue piling up, the Denver Nuggets have to be thinking about one question—what happens next?
2013-14 has been a year to forget for Denver.
Even though the offseason was filled with big departures, this team still expected to remain highly competitive in the chase for one of the Western Conference's eight playoff spots.
ESPN's preseason forecast had them finishing with the No. 7 seed and a 43-39 record. I completely concurred with both projections, but there was one caveat provided in my record projections heading into opening week:
In all likelihood, Denver will get off to a relatively slow start and fight its way back into the playoff picture once JaVale McGee improves under Brian Shaw and Danilo Gallinari returns from his torn ACL. If Gallo misses too much time, though, there isn't enough scoring on the roster for them to remain in one of the top eight spots.
The West is just too tough, and despite what some fans are trying to convince themselves of, the losses of George Karl, Iguodala, Corey Brewer and Kosta Koufos do matter.
Yes, I have a crystal ball.
Danilo Gallinari has indeed missed too much time (the whole season, in fact), but so much more than that has gone wrong heading into the final quarter of the campaign. Denver currently sits well below .500 with a 27-34 record, leaving them at No. 11 in the Western Conference and nearly 10 games outside the playoff picture.
All of a sudden, the team is at a crossroads. Does it continue along the same course, hoping for internal development and a miracle, or is it best to consider blowing things up?
A Contrast in Styles
Compared to last season, Denver's 2013-14 campaign has been marked by an unrelenting contrast in style.
Under George Karl, the Nuggets were permitted to play offensively in a free-flowing manner that involved taking advantage of the Pepsi Center's altitude and running the opponent to death. It was a run-'n-gun strategy predicated on ball movement, constant fast-break assaults and quick trigger fingers.
This season, the head coach has been preaching something different.
Brian Shaw wants the Nuggets to settle down into a half-court identity while placing more of an emphasis on the defensive end of the court.
According to Basketball-Reference, Denver still has the No. 4 pace in the Association, one year removed from trailing only the James Harden-led Houston Rockets. However, there's been a stylistic tug-of-war throughout the season, resulting in a lack of identity and a bit of internal conflict among the opposing factions.
Shaw is obviously on one side, and he's spent the 2013-14 campaign attempting to create an authoritative feel. It's rubbed some players the wrong way—Andre Miller, most notably—but some of the veterans on the roster have nothing but support to show for the rookie coach.
"(Shaw) is setting the tone. He said at the beginning of the season that he’s not taking any (nonsense)," Darrell Arthur revealed to MileHighSports.com's Eric Goodman during the All-Star break. "That’s what you look for in a coach; you don’t want him to go back on his word. You want him to make a statement and stick to it."
However, not all of the players who disagree with Shaw's mentality have found their way out of the Mile High City. Some, like Kenneth Faried, have subtly rebelled, refusing to change their style of play.
Faried poses an interesting—and I hesitate to use this word—problem for the Nuggets, namely because he's a high-upside power forward who has emerged as a huge fan favorite in Denver. He draws the biggest cheers at the Pepsi Center, and it's his dunks that are followed up by a sound meant to represent a Manimal.
However, eventually something has to give.
Either Faried needs to realize that he can only be successful in this system by exerting more energy on defense, or Shaw is going to cave and adjust his philosophy to better mesh with the roster he was dealt. And the dreadlocked Morehead State product is only one player who fits into this mold.
These Nuggets can be a good team without a compromise, but they can't be a great one.
Why Is This Season so Disappointing?
Yes, the struggles of the Nuggets can be summed up in just a single word.
That picture up above is obviously from the 2012-13 season, because JaVale McGee played in only five games at the beginning of the year and Danilo Gallinari hasn't suited up even a single time during the current campaign. The former was never able to return from a stress fracture in his left tibia, and the latter's experimental surgery to fix his ACL backfired, leading to him going under the knife once more.
Don't discount those losses.
Gallo was supposed to provide a midseason scoring spark for the Nuggets, and McGee was the man tasked with turning the Denver frontcourt from an undersized bunch into one with a legitimate high-potential 7-footer.
Oh, and that's not it.
Nate Robinson tore his ACL halfway through the season, and Ty Lawson has dealt with a number of injuries, most recently a rib issue that kept him out for a handful of games. At one point, the injuries to the aforementioned point guards and the fact that Andre Miller was in Shaw's doghouse led to a team without a single point guard on the roster.
Denver was never going to be a championship-contending team. Not after losing Karl and Andre Iguodala from last year's sensational regular-season squad.
But this would've been a playoff team had it stayed healthy and received the in media res additions of Gallinari and McGee.
For that reason, the disappointing nature of this season is a bit overblown. But only a bit.
Upcoming Free-Agent Decisions
Fortunately, the Nuggets appear to have one more player committing to the 2014-15 season.
Nate Robinson has a player option for the second year of his deal with Denver, and he appears likely to pick it up, as reported by The Denver Post's Christopher Dempsey:
But he'll be back. He promises.
Robinson plans to be around at the start of next season. The business end of that means he'll exercise his player option to do so. Robinson signed a two-year deal with the Nuggets last summer, and that second year will pay him $2.1 million in 2014-15.
That's one down.
Only one other decision is completely outside the management's control. According to Spotrac.com, Darrell Arthur has a player option for $3.5 million, and either choice he makes could be spun in a positive manner.
On one hand, that's a lot of money for a bench player who doesn't contribute much, and the roster spot could be best used filling a bigger need. On the other hand, Denver needs Arthur's veteran leadership, as he's been a quality voice in the sometimes-divided locker room throughout Shaw's first season in charge.
Now it's on to the decisions Denver must actually make. And there are three of them.
First, is it worth picking up Jan Vesely's $4.2 million team option?
The uber-athletic power forward was acquired during the deadline deal that sent Andre Miller to the Washington Wizards, and he's failed to make much noise in the Mile High City, with the notable exception of a few dunks. Vesely has averaged 3.2 points and 2.7 rebounds per game while shooting 33.3 percent from the field and 30 percent (27.5 percent overall) at the charity stripe.
According to Basketball-Reference, his player efficiency rating has been a putrid 10.7—worse even than the mark he posted with the Wizards during the first half of this season—and he's quickly running out of the leeway he's been granted because of his potential.
At some point, it's best to pull the plug on the experiment. Painful as it would be to see him develop elsewhere, that point happens to be this offseason when considering Vesely's exorbitant price tag.
The next decision revolves around another deadline acquisition—Aaron Brooks.
I find it hard to believe Brooks was brought aboard for any other reason than the fact that he's an expiring contract. He was a fill-in while the point guards were all injured, and he hasn't played nearly well enough to stick around once a healthy Robinson returns.
Quincy Miller should be let go of as well.
He's working with a non-guaranteed contract next season, but he's fallen out of the rotation and doesn't appear likely to work his way back into it. The Baylor product has never developed a consistent jumper, and he still hasn't figured out how to make use of his immense athletic tools after two seasons in the Association.
If the Nuggets let go of all three players while both Arthur and Robinson pick up their options, 13 players will already be under contract for the 2014-15 campaign. Add in the inevitably high first-round draft pick from the New York Knicks, and you're looking at your core, barring any trades.
There's only one.
You could make valid arguments that Evan Fournier and Danilo Gallinari should be considered untouchable, but both should be dealt if the right trade offer comes ringing into general manager Tim Connelly's office.
This slide is just all about Ty Lawson.
Though he didn't make the All-Star team in the ridiculously deep Western Conference, he's still been playing at an All-Star level throughout the 2013-14 campaign. Lawson is averaging 18.6 points, 3.6 rebounds and 9.0 assists per game while shooting 44.4 percent from the field, 36.8 percent beyond the arc and 80.3 percent at the free-throw line.
It's good enough for him to earn a career-best 20.6 PER, according to Basketball-Reference.
But let's not look at what Lawson has done. Instead, let's turn to what the Nuggets have done without the point guard running the show. The UNC product has made so many strides as a leader of the offense, and everything goes downhill when he's on the bench, either in a jersey or street clothes.
Denver has gone 3-10 when he's not dressed to play and 24-24 when he's in the lineup.
That's already a big difference, and, when Lawson's in uniform, the on-court/off-court disparity is similarly striking. When Lawson plays, the Nuggets score an additional 9.6 points per 100 possessions, which makes up for the fact that the defense gets slightly worse.
That's been readily apparent throughout the second half of the season, as the Nuggets offense completely stagnated without him and then dropped a cool 134 points against the Los Angeles Lakers almost as soon as he returned.
He's completely crucial to team's future plans, as a point guard this comfortable and capable as the No. 1 player isn't exactly easy to find. Not even in today's point guard-heavy NBA.
What's the Plan?
Let's say the Nuggets proceed like there's absolutely no problem.
They rely on getting Gallinari, McGee and Robinson back next season, and they have the luxury of adding a promising rookie thanks to the New York Knicks' seemingly inevitable lottery pick that's owed to them. At that point, the team improves rather significantly.
But what does "rather significantly" mean?
Nuggets fans would be rooting for a strong playoff team, a squad capable of finishing in the middle of the postseason pack and then winning a round before losing to one of the elite teams in the Western Conference. That's it. There wouldn't be any championship potential, seeing as Lawson, Gallo and Faried would be the core trio.
Is that really the goal? Upper-level mediocrity to lower-level competitiveness?
Absolutely not, which is why a roster overhaul is needed.
Connelly should be working the phones in non-stop fashion, looking to swing deals quite frequently. Whether teams are looking for quality players like Faried and McGee or access to the team's No. 1 draft pick, it has to be about acquiring a bona fide star.
Maybe it's through a series of minor upgrades then a big deal. Maybe it's a blockbuster trade right off the bat.
Regardless of the method, the Nuggets need to do everything in their power to acquire a star player who complements Lawson. That's the only way to break past the run of mediocrity that has become all too familiar in the Mile High City.