The Denver Nuggets' 2013-14 campaign was nearly a worst-case scenario with all their injuries, but does that mean they're still heading in the right direction?
A 36-46 record is hardly what Denver fans wanted, especially since it was the first losing season and first time they failed to secure a playoff berth since 2002-03. No one wants to experience that regardless of the situation.
But under the circumstances, 2013-14 wasn't nearly as bad as it seemed.
On top of all the injuries, there were several new faces on the roster, coaching staff and in the front office. Plus, the scheme was different, and the Western Conference was as brutal as it could be. It was a recipe for disaster as far as wins and losses go.
So if health be on the Nuggets' side in 2014-15 and head coach Brian Shaw continues to work with his guys to establish a clearer picture as to how he wants this team to look, will that be enough for the Nuggets to be a relevant team in the West?
The answer is yes. However, that won't make Denver a serious NBA Finals contender.
Injuries Were More Devastating than Advertised
Forget excuses, this is just the truth—the Nuggets had no chance at making the playoffs given their misfortune of health. Gregg Popovich or Phil Jackson couldn't have even gotten this team to the postseason.
Let's go back to preseason—when everyone was healthy besides Danilo Gallinari. Gallo was expected to return at some point during the regular season, but after his knee failed to get better through the healing response treatment, he had to undergo traditional surgery to repair his ACL and missed the entire year, per Christopher Dempsey of The Denver Post.
Yes, Gallinari's 16.2 points and 5.2 rebounds from the 2012-13 season were missed, but he's one of those triple-threat scorers in that he can drive to the basket, post up and shoot the three. Add his 6'10" length and quick feet for defense at the 3, he's a versatile player.
Five games into the season, JaVale McGee, who was Shaw's biggest project and the player he needed to improve most, was sidelined for the year with a stress fracture to his left tibia. McGee led the Nuggets with a 20.8 player-efficiency rating in 2012-13 (per ESPN.com), and he's one of the best playmakers and energy guys on the squad.
Nate Robinson, who was the new McGee in terms of being the spark off the bench, tore his ACL in late January just as the Nuggets were putting the pieces together. Then with about four weeks remaining in the season, J.J. Hickson, who replaced McGee as the starting center for a good chunk of the year, tore his ACL.
So right there, the Nuggets don't have five of their main components.
But let's not forget the Andre Miller episode—where he blew up at Shaw on the sideline, which led to him being traded to the Washington Wizards. Then we have to factor in that Ty Lawson (20 games), Wilson Chandler (20 games) and Darrell Arthur (14 games) all missed significant time with various injuries.
Plus, it's not like any of these guys are benchwarmers—all were expected to be a part of the primary rotation.
Timofey Mozgov was the only one who suited up for all 82 contests, and it was debatable how much playing time he would get before the season started. Randy Foye, Kenneth Faried and Evan Fournier took the floor for 81, 80 and 76 matchups respectively.
Exactly How Much Development Was There Last Season?
Pretty much each player on the Nuggets roster made strides last year, but there are three that stand out—Lawson, Faried and Mozgov.
Lawson's 17.6 points, 8.8 assists and 1.6 steals were career highs. While he did play 35.8 minutes, those are still career highs per-36 minutes. Given that he was able to put up those numbers throughout the schematic changes demonstrated his versatility, and given how poorly Denver played without him showed how valuable he really was.
Then there's Faried, who also posted a per-36 minute career high of 18.1 points. His rebounding slightly declined, but that can be credited to the fact that Hickson and Mozgov are better on the glass than Kosta Koufos and McGee.
But Faried really made his improvement with his half-court game on offense. He converted 38.8 percent of his shots from 10-to-16 feet, developed some additional post moves on the low block and ultimately found ways to be effective outside of relying on offensive rebounding or teammates to set him up with easy baskets.
This jump in Faried's offensive game came to life in the final two months of the season when he played at an All-Star-caliber level. He put up 18.8 points, 10.1 rebounds and 1.1 steals in his final 31 games.
As for Mozgov, you saw his progress any time he was on the floor.
|Mozgov's Career Statistics|
(USG%: Usage Percentage, TOV%: Turnover Percentage, ORtg: Offensive Rating, WS: Win Shares, PER: Player Efficiency Rating, per Basketball-Reference.com)
Mozgov simply got better in every facet of the game. He's now easily worthy of a spot in next season's rotation and perhaps being the starting center.
Many of the younger guys, such as Fournier and Quincy Miller, made progress too. Foye also arguably took on more responsibility with this team than he has with any of his previous four franchises.
It didn't turn into consistent success during the season, but there's experience from top to bottom and Shaw's guys are getting better. Once the chemistry is stronger, the more complete product will be a legitimate challenge for the top teams in the West.
How to Address This Offseason
The bottom line is that this Nuggets roster will get back to the playoffs.
We saw the developments of key players combined with great effort from the entire team down the stretch. When that's applied to a healthy roster, it's perfectly plausible that this is a winning squad.
Having said that, the chances of an NBA championship are slim. There is plenty of depth, but not enough elite talent for Denver to go all the way. That's what matters.
General manager Tim Connelly made it clear to Christopher Dempsey of The Denver Post that the Nuggets are expecting an eventful offseason by saying, "This summer, we're going to go all-in and try to take the next step."
But before anything, the Nuggets front office will see what their fate is on May 20—the NBA draft lottery.
|NBA Lottery Odds|
|Position||Team||Odds for No. 1 Pick|
|6||Los Angeles Lakers||6.3%|
|10||New Orleans Pelicans||1.1%|
|11||Denver Nuggets (via New York Knicks)||0.8%|
|12||Orlando Magic (via Denver Nuggets)||0.7%|
Denver has a mere 0.8-percent chance at landing the No. 1 overall pick. This will decide what exactly the Nuggets have on the table heading into the draft and free agency, but they will most likely have the 11th-overall pick.
The Nuggets do need to make a move, but it doesn't necessarily have to be this summer.
What if they could trade their first-round pick, along with McGee and his eight-figure contract through 2015-16, and another noteworthy player, for a star wing player or center? Sure, that sounds appealing. Freeing up some cap space would be significantly helpful, especially with contract negotiations between the Nuggets and Faried on the horizon (via Dempsey).
But let's not forget that we have yet to see this whole team together. Even though we saw which combinations worked well and where the strengths and weaknesses are, those can change with a solidified rotation.
Let's say the starting five is Lawson, Foye, Gallinari, Faried and Mozgov. Then the second unit is Robinson, Fournier, Chandler, Hickson (or Arthur) and McGee.
That's 10 or 11 players worthy of decent minutes, and we haven't even considered the draft pick, Miller or any other guys they may sign in free agency. This is also assuming Robinson and Arthur do opt in for their respective player options.
For a team that will want to shorten its rotation, clearly a trade is necessary.
But if the right offer isn't on the table this summer, there's little harm in waiting until sometime before next season's trade deadline. It's not like Denver has a weak roster and would be out of playoff contention by Christmas.
Perhaps Gallinari or McGee thrive under Shaw's guidance, and they are easier to move, allowing Denver to get that missing piece. Or maybe the Nuggets front office gets to see this improving squad together for a few months, and they can package a blockbuster trade in February.
Rosters never look the same from one season to the next, and the Nuggets will be no exception. Surely, Connelly will be busy this offseason.
The key is not going for the big splash just for the sake of doing it.