5 Areas Denver Nuggets Must Upgrade This Offseason
With the Denver Nuggets posting a 36-46 record and their first losing season since 2002-03, some changes are certainly needed.
Given that injuries played a major factor in the inconsistent year, most of these areas can be improved internally. A lot of the younger players made strides through experience and coaching, and the upcoming season will be about putting the pieces together.
Defense is the most glaring issue, but there are problems on both sides of the ball. Some of these also come down to fundamentals and basics.
Team president Josh Kroenke and general manager Tim Connelly won't have a ton of money to play with at just over $59 million already guaranteed next season, according to Basketball Insiders. But there's a little room to make something happen.
The Nuggets also have the 11th-best chance at landing the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft at 0.8 percent (you can play Chad Ford's NBA Lottery Mock Draft at ESPN here). Odds are they will have the 11th overall pick, but that's still decent position to land someone who can help this team immediately.
With this in mind, here's what needs to be addressed in the offseason.
(All individual statistics are from Basketball-Reference.com unless noted otherwise and accurate as of April 24, 2014.)
(All team statistics are from TeamRankings.com and accurate as of April 24, 2014.)
(All salary information is from Basketball Insiders.)
While the Nuggets increased their possessions from 99.8 in 2012-13 to 102 this season, they went from allowing 101.5 points to 106.5, respectively. This dropped their defensive efficiency ranking from 11th to 21st in the NBA.
As Christopher Dempsey of The Denver Post pointed out back on March 5, the Nuggets were having trouble adjusting to a lot of the different defensive tactics from head coach Brian Shaw. This came after Denver's 11th loss in 12 games, and Shaw wanted to simplify it for his guys.
This used to be a team under George Karl that gambled on steals for its transition game and used a lot of switching and rotating. Now the scheme is different, and the fundamentals are more important under Shaw.
While the injuries played a role, whether it's not having Danilo Gallinari's 6'10" length at the 3 or Wilson Chandler being in and out of the lineup throughout the year, this should be the primary focus. It's one thing to not have a shutdown defender, but it's another when breakdowns are constantly happening, and the opponent consistently gets easy buckets.
This is a necessary step if the Nuggets not only want to get back to the playoffs, but be able to compete on both ends of the floor when the game slows down in the postseason.
Let's not pretend the problem is only on the outside though. While some of this is from guard penetration, the Nuggets allowed a 25th-ranked 45.3 points in the paint.
There were two people that helped this toward the end of the year—Timofey Mozgov and Jan Vesely. Mozgov earned the starting center spot at the end of February, and Vesely was acquired just before the trade deadline.
Mozzy was the only big body that was tough to attack given his 7'1", 250-pound physical frame. Either he rejected your shot, altered it or you took a decent hit when drawing contact.
Vesely made his presence known with his ability to force turnovers by the means of 3.2 steals and 1.9 blocks per 36 minutes. He finished with a defensive rating of 100, and no one else had a mark better than 106 on the team.
Without JaVale McGee's rim protection and athleticism, J.J. Hickson, standing at 6'9", played primarily at center. Kenneth Faried made a lot of fantastic blocks, always hustled and took strides offensively, but he's still undersized and has progress to make on the little things defensively.
This is why Mozgov needs to be the starting center, at least until McGee becomes more than just an energy-type guy. Faried needs to keep getting better, while Hickson should be at the 4 with McGee back.
Vesely is an unrestricted free agent this offseason, and there's certainly no guarantee he'll be back given Denver's crowded frontcourt. Darrell Arthur did a nice job defending the stretch power forwards, but he can get picked on by the stronger big men on the low block.
I'd look for Faried and Mozgov to start together, then have Hickson and McGee come off the bench. This will ultimately provide balance with both lineups, and each big man will play the position that fits him best.
In an interview with NBA TV during last year's summer league, Shaw mentioned how he wanted to improve the half-court execution and be able to slow the pace down when necessary.
The Nuggets tried doing that in December, but it eventually resulted in an eight-game losing streak. After the Jan. 1 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, Shaw called for player and team meetings, according to Dempsey.
While the guys were able to express their frustrations, the one thing that changed on the court was the tempo. The Nuggets won their next five scoring 119.6 points, and they continued playing at a fast pace the rest of the season.
Denver had the green light to attack early, especially Ty Lawson who typically gets into the lane with ease. The Nuggets started getting used to some of the half-court sets toward the end of the year, but it was inconsistent, and their transition game was still their best friend.
Now that Shaw will be able to more clearly define the roles for each player before next season, this team should begin to mature. Remember, Shaw was constantly changing his rotation for the first couple months, but when Lawson and Nate Robinson went down, the structure and flow of the offense disallowed a lot of the chemistry building.
Another way this could get better is if the Nuggets score in the draft.
Even if they don't land a top pick such as Jabari Parker or Andrew Wiggins, they could get a small forward who can shoot and do multiple things offensively. Rodney Hood and Doug McDermott could be possibilities at the No. 11 spot.
If Shaw wanted to switch things up and start Lawson, Chandler, Gallinari, Faried and Mozgov, his second unit could be Robinson, Randy Foye (or Evan Fournier), the draft pick, Hickson and McGee. This way both units would have tremendous firepower, and Denver could run a variety of plays in its half-court offense.
Along with the injuries, the Andre Miller situation didn't help. Miller had a team-best 3.0 assist-to-turnover ratio (per ESPN.com), but he didn't play another game for Denver after he showed his frustration at Shaw in the Jan. 1 loss to the 76ers.
This was particularly a struggle when Lawson and Robinson were sidelined in February. In the Nuggets' 11 losses over their horrific 12-game stretch, they gave the ball up 17.1 times.
But even when the normal point guards were in, the forwards had to do a better job with the basketball. This includes in isolation, being stronger with it and not making simple mistakes.
Since the Nuggets run a lot of possessions, they are naturally going to commit more turnovers than the average team. But assuming they are a more balanced club next year, Denver should at least be more in the middle of the pack.
When Iguodala, Kosta Koufos and Corey Brewer all left Denver after the 2012-13 season, you'd think the Nuggets' 70.1 free-throw percentage would significantly increase. They converted 57.4, 55.8 and 69 percent, respectively.
The team average moved up to 72.6 percent. While it's a slight improvement, it's not nearly good enough.
To be fair, we can't forget that Gallinari made 82.2 percent while shooting a team-high 4.9 attempts in 2012-13. But that still doesn't come close to explaining why the Nuggets were as bad as 27th in the league at the line.
Here's a breakdown of Denver's top free-throw shooters this season by attempts and the percentages to go with it.
With the exception of Vesely and Quincy Miller, everyone else shot above the 72.6 team average.
Lawson's conversion rate is fine. Mozgov's is also acceptable for a center.
Faried got off to a rough start, but as he exploded down the stretch, the free throws came with it. He shot 69.7 percent at the line for his last 36 games.
The 72.4 mark for Chandler was iffy at best. It was his worst percentage since his rookie year, and he hadn't shot below 79.3 percent in a season following his first year.
Hickson is by far the biggest concern. He's 63.7 percent from the line in his career, and his previous worst season was 64.2. To drop all the way to 51.7 is simply unacceptable.
Why did it happen? It could be the altitude adjustment.
However, it could be that he wasn't taking any mid-range jumpers in the offense. He had no attempts outside of 10 feet the entire year with the exception of eight three-pointers, and those came when the shot clock was about to expire.
That's unusual for someone who usually stretches the floor. With a year of experience in Denver and if he moves back to the 4, perhaps Hickson will at least get back to around 65 percent.
Then throw in McGee, who is 58.4 percent from the line in his career. He's going to have to do better if he receives 25-plus minutes.
One way or another, free-throw shooting is a priority for Denver in the offseason, especially for the big men outside of Mozgov and Arthur. Too many free points were left off the scoreboard.