Are There Any Bright Spots in the Denver Nuggets' Injury-Plagued Season?

Joe Flynn@@ChinaJoeFlynnContributor IMarch 22, 2014

DENVER, CO - MARCH 19: J.J. Hickson #7 of the Denver Nuggets goes up for the dunk against the Detroit Pistons on March 19, 2014 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)
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In what has seemingly become a weekly tradition, the Denver Nuggets lost another player to a major knee injury. This time, the victim of the Nuggets knee curse was big man J.J. Hickson, per the Denver Post's Chris Dempsey.

Indeed, Hickson leads all Nuggets in total rebounds (632) and rebounds per game (9.2). He started 52 of 69 games for Denver, though he was replaced in the starting lineup in late February.

Hickson joins shooting guard Nate Robinson, who tore a ligament in his knee in late January, as Nuggets who suffered season-ending knee injuries during the year. And that doesn't even include small forward Danilo Gallinari, who ruptured the ACL in his knee last spring, rehabbed during the first few months of this season, only to undergo a second ACL surgery in January when an MRI revealed the ligament had never healed properly.

On the non-knee front, center JaVale McGee has missed all but five games of this season with a tibia fracture that, like Gallinari's knee, never quite healed properly. The Nuggets might just lead the league in stubborn lower-body maladies.

With the Nuggets virtually eliminated from the 2013-14 postseason race, the focus naturally shifts to next year. The roster will look pretty much the same as it did on opening night, with the (hopeful) additions of Gallinari and McGee. According to Dempsey, Gallinari sounded hopeful that he could return by the start of next season:

I have the whole summer in front of me. We have a lot of time. The positive thing about doing it right away is I have a lot of time to work with the staff and to stay with the team. And I think I'll be ready for training camp.

When he does return, he will see a whole bunch of familiar faces. According to ShamSports, nearly every player on the Nuggets is under contract for next season. The two notable exceptions—Robinson and small forward Darrell Arthur—both have player options. Given his season-ending injury, Robinson isn't likely to opt out, as teams will be reluctant to sign him for more money and years.

Is this roster continuity a cause for hope in the Mile High City? This is, after all, a Nuggets franchise that enjoyed an uninterrupted stretch of quality before this injury-ravaged campaign. Despite playing in the tougher Western Conference, Denver made the playoffs in 10 consecutive seasons. They negotiated the waters of the Carmelo Anthony drama with masterful tact.

Their best player held the team hostage with trade demands, and they turned that impossible situation into a package that included Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Timofey Mozgov and the New York Knicks' 2014 first-round pick. According to Basketball-Reference, New York's pick has a 93.7 percent chance of winding up in the lottery.

If McGee and Gallinari return, Denver will have most of the same roster that won 57 games in 2012-13, the most wins of any Nuggets team since the franchise joined the NBA. The Nuggets aren't an old team; certainly they still have that kind of upside, right?

Probably not.


The Denver Way

This season has been a sobering reminder of the delicacy of the formula employed by former head coach George Karl. After Anthony left, Karl produced amazing results (at least in the regular season) by making up for a lack of a clear-cut star by making use of Denver's superior depth.

The Nuggets had a host of players hovering anywhere between "above average" and "elite." Point guard Ty Lawson is a borderline All-Star, and Kenneth Faried makes perfect use of the Nuggets' high-octane pace to produce points and rebounds. Before his injury, Gallinari had developed into a quality starter. And if one player struggled, the Nuggets went two- (and sometimes three-) deep at nearly every position.

But the system was always precarious. There's a reason most NBA teams look to add elite players, and those teams fortunate enough to have elite players seldom stray from their rigid rotations. It's nearly impossible to maintain such a large rotation over the years, especially in the free agency era. Players gripe over minutes and stats.

Last season's team was fortunate enough to not only have a coach with Karl's dynamic personality and Hall of Fame resume, but a player in Andre Iguodala with that rare ability to change the tenor of any game without needing to dominate the ball. Without Iguodala and Karl to keep things together, both on and off the court, the cracks in Denver's clubhouse began to show immediately under first-year coach Brian Shaw. 

Veteran point guard Andre Miller feuded with the coach early in the season, which led to him being suspended and ultimately traded. And Shaw tore into his players in a breathtaking postgame rant in January, questioning their commitment and expressing a desire to cut their pay, per B/R's Sim Risso.

As Risso notes, the coach had little to do except cut minutes:

The ultimate solution, which Shaw finally alluded to, is to take away playing time from those who don't put forth effort. As much as he'd probably like to dock the players' pay, it's not within his power to do so. The one currency he does have, however, is minutes...

But that strategy can eventually lead to even more resentment. These are not end-of-the-bench scrubs, just happy to be hanging on in the NBA. These players expect to play. There is nothing more toxic in the modern NBA than a bunch of players who believe they aren't getting their proper minutes.

The Nuggets already have more decent players than they know what to do with. Consider the case of promising 23-year-old small forward Jordan Hamilton. He was traded from the dead-in-the-water Nuggets to a Houston Rockets team competing for home-court advantage in the playoffs. And Houston is actually playing him more minutes per game (18.4) than he got in Denver (17.2).

What will happen next season if the team adds more players and continues to struggle? They will be getting a first-round pick—either theirs or New York's—next season: How do they work him into to an already overcrowded rotation? Shooting guard Evan Fournier has shown some promise; how will he get minutes once Robinson and Gallinari come back?

Now that the Denver Nuggets have seemingly peaked, they run a real risk of becoming a rich-man, Western Conference version of the Milwaukee Bucks.

Like Denver, the Bucks rode a series of good-but-not-great rosters to decent regular-season results and first-round exits. But they continued to pile on mediocre veterans until suffering an abject collapse this season. Yes, the Nuggets' roster is much more talented than those old Bucks' rosters; then again, the West is much more talented than the East.

If all of their injured players return to form, the Nuggets might compete for a playoff spot next year; but they won't last long. They are merely treading water...and in the NBA, that is a very dangerous place to be.


*Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.