5 Biggest Mistakes the Denver Nuggets Made This Season
After Wednesday's loss, which dropped them to a 32-40 record, the Denver Nuggets are officially eliminated from the playoffs for the first time since the 2002-03 season.
Clearly the Nuggets would be having a much better season had they not suffered injury after injury. It was also expected to be somewhat of a transition with first-year head coach Brian Shaw and general manager Tim Connelly now in charge.
Because of this, saying this was an up-and-down season is an understatement. The Nuggets put together a seven-game winning streak early on and also won six of seven in January, but they also lost eight in a row at the end of December and dropped 11 of 12 surrounding the trade deadline.
Nevertheless, there were several mistakes made over the course of the season—on and off the court. Perhaps had these not been made, Denver would have a realistic shot at grabbing one of the final playoff spots.
5. Not Moving Timofey Mozgov into the Starting Lineup Earlier
Timofey Mozgov may not be the most talented center, have the best upside or possess the greatest athleticism.
But his specific assets were needed in the starting lineup months ago. His presence inside, whether it's rim protection or being physical with his 7'1", 250-pound frame, brings balance next to Kenneth Faried.
While J.J. Hickson is the better scorer and rebounder at 11.8 points and 9.2 boards, with the other four starters scoring over 12 points per game, Denver didn't need another offensive player. It needed someone who can prevent the opponent from getting easy baskets.
To be fair, Hickson at 6'9" does make some great blocks, started at center for the Portland Trail Blazers last season and brings high effort most nights. But when you talk about consistently contesting shots in the paint and making it tougher for opponents to finish, Mozgov is who you want in the game.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, Mozgov is plus-6.3 when it comes to net plus-minus points per 100 possessions.
Now that Hickson is done for the year with an ACL injury, we are seeing an increased workload for Mozgov, who logged 32 minutes against the Oklahoma City Thunder and 30 minutes on the road against the San Antonio Spurs. He put up 12 points and nine rebounds, then followed that up with a double-double of 14 points and 11 boards, respectively.
Once JaVale McGee went down at the beginning of the season, Mozgov should've been inserted into the starting lineup. That way Hickson could have been the energy and scoring boost off the bench alongside Nate Robinson.
Mozgov should get around 30 minutes the rest of the season, and eight of the final 10 games are against current Western Conference playoff teams. This stretch will help Shaw evaluate where Mozgov is exactly, and how he could fit into next season's rotation.
4. Slowing Down the Tempo in December
A lot of the focus coming into this season was improving the half-court execution, defense and not relying as heavily on the transition game.
According to teamrankings.com, Denver ran the fifth-most possessions per game at 101.2 through November. The Nuggets were still running the floor and using their depth to their advantage.
Then Denver slowed it down and tried to play more of an inside-out game. By the end of December, they ran the 12th-most possessions per game at 98.8.
This resulted in an eight-game losing streak, a 12-point defeat to the Philadelphia 76ers at the Pepsi Center and Andre Miller blowing up at Shaw during the game. After the horrendous loss, the Denver head coach called for team and individual meetings to air out the frustration, per Christopher Dempsey of The Denver Post.
The one thing that changed after those meetings was that the Nuggets went back playing at a faster pace and attacking earlier in the shot clock. They won six of their next seven and knocked off the Thunder, Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors.
By the end of January, Denver was back up to 100.3 possessions on the season and is currently at a third-highest 101.6. Obviously the Nuggets have had their fair share of losing in the last couple months as well, but that can be credited more to the injuries, particularly Lawson's.
With struggles grasping the defensive scheme and a lack of a consistent rotation, according to Dempsey, Shaw has been compromising at a few points to avoid too many weaknesses being exposed. A good coach knows that he needs to make adjustments given what his roster looks like.
Shaw just shouldn't have made such a drastic change in December.
3. Taking Too Long to Give Evan Fournier More Minutes
When the season started, it made sense for Shaw to give everyone a chance to see what they could do. In a year when there were noteworthy roster changes, shuffling a few things around was needed to put the pieces together.
But limiting Evan Fournier to just 11.5 minutes through December and not even playing him six games may not have been the greatest decision. This is a guy who posted 12.3 points in only 22.8 minutes as a rookie in the final nine games of last year's regular season.
Fournier does lack experience and needs improvement in some areas, particularly on defense. His player-efficiency rating is only 9.9 this season.
But putting him that far down the pecking order was too much. Give him a night off here and there for some of the other guys, but don't consistently restrict him.
While some of this is once again due to the injury situation, since Jan. 1, Fournier is putting up 9.9 points in 22.9 minutes, while shooting 43.4 percent from the floor, 39.6 percent from three and 76.9 percent from the free-throw line. That's a lot better than his 3.8 points on 35.8-percent shooting, 33.3 percent from behind the arc and 57.9 percent from the line in the 2013 portion of the regular season.
Perhaps Fournier's youth and adaptation to Shaw's system came into play early on, but it's more that he was never given the chance to find his groove.
Nate Timmons of Denver Stiffs was a fan of Fournier being a starter before the season began. While some may think that's premature, Fournier should have been playing closer to starter-type minutes rather than being held back the first two months.
2. Waiting Until the Trade Deadline to Deal Andre Miller
Now we move into the front-office decisions.
When the whole fiasco went down with Miller, Adrian Wojnarowski and Marc J. Spears of Yahoo Sports reported that Miller was on the trading block and that the both the Warriors and Sacramento Kings were interested in him.
Six days later Ken Berger of CBSSports.com reported the Kings had made three separate offers for Miller. One of those included the Nuggets landing Marcus Thornton and a second-round pick, while another was Jimmer Fredette and a future second rounder.
But nothing happened, and Denver held onto its veteran point guard even though he wasn't near the team and seemed to have little chance of playing.
It took until just before the trade deadline, but eventually Miller was dealt to the Washington Wizards. It took the 76ers getting involved too, but in the end, the Nuggets traded him and a second-round pick for Jan Vesely.
There's only one benefit to this: cap space. According to Basketball Insiders, Vesely's contract of just under $3.4 million expires at the end of this season, while Miller was guaranteed at least $2 million next season, per Wojnarowski.
Why would Denver want to bring in another big man who needs more development than McGee and Faried? Let's also not forget about its 2013 second-round pick Joffrey Lauvergne.
It simply doesn't make sense to re-sign another raw player.
So, the Nuggets potentially could have acquired a second-round pick and a guard who would have helped substantially when Nate Robinson and Ty Lawson got hurt. Instead, they created a little cap space, lost a draft pick and fell out of the postseason discussion.
1. Not Bringing in Another Point Guard Right After Robinson and Lawson Went Down
Once Denver elected to hold onto Miller in the beginning of January, it made sense he wasn't dealt until the trade deadline. Connelly wanted to pursue other options.
But when Robinson suffered his ACL injury on Jan. 29 during the loss to the Charlotte Bobcats, the Nuggets needed to find someone immediately. They had just knocked off the Kings and Indiana Pacers, but the Charlotte loss dropped them to 22-22.
Instead, they stayed put and lost to the Toronto Raptors, lucked out with a ridiculous buzzer-beating win against the Los Angeles Clippers and defeated the struggling Milwaukee Bucks. Denver was getting by at first.
But then the losses started, and Lawson suffered his rib injury that sidelined him for a month. You can't predict injuries, but just relying on one true point guard while moving Randy Foye back-and-forth between the 1 and 2 is a lot to ask of a new head coach with a team trying to build chemistry.
With Lawson out, this was code red if Denver wanted to keep any slim postseason chances alive. However, the Nuggets waited another 12 days for the trade deadline and eventually got Aaron Brooks for Jordan Hamilton.
This is not a knock on the trade itself. Brooks has provided a solid boost in Robinson's absence and has been thriving in the last week.
But it's more that the Nuggets didn't bring someone in right away to handle the temporary crisis. They weren't competitive in most of their 11 losses over that 12-game stretch, and by the time Brooks started adjusting to Denver's system, the postseason hopes were all but gone.
Sure, the chances of making the playoffs were going to be small, regardless. Even if the Nuggets did make it, it's highly unlikely they could beat a team like the Spurs in a seven-game series.
But since Denver showed it could beat some of the great teams on occasion and could be trading its 2014 first-round pick anyways (the Nuggets have their own and the New York Knicks' first-round pick, but trade the less-favorable one to the Orlando Magic, via RealGM), some better proactivity would have helped for a playoff push under the circumstances.