The Denver Nuggets head into the offseason coming off a strange season, one in which the level of talent on the roster doesn't exactly line up with the final record.
For the first time since 2002-03, right before Carmelo Anthony was drafted to the Mile High City, Denver failed to make the playoffs. Fortunately, the 36-46 record allows the team to hold down the No. 11 pick in the 2014 NBA draft.
Denver had a tiny chance to move up into the top three, one that was boosted by the luxury of having access to the New York Knicks' selection, but both teams stayed put, and the New York pick (No. 12) was then transferred to the Orlando Magic.
So No. 11 it is.
The Nuggets are working with one of the deepest rosters in the NBA, but that doesn't prevent them from having needs that could be filled with that lottery selection in a loaded draft class.
Heading into the 2014 offseason, the Nuggets are in an interesting spot.
The organization has a ton of talent, but so much of it is mired in uncertainty after an injury-plagued 2013-14 campaign. Can Denver depend on Danilo Gallinari regaining his old form after multiple surgeries to repair the same ACL? Regardless of his exorbitant contract, will JaVale McGee recover from his own maladies and become a quality rotation player?
And how about the late-season ACL tear of J.J. Hickson, as well as the earlier injury to Nate Robinson's knee?
The injury imp was just mean to Denver last season, and it's created an offseason that will end up being a bit more complicated than usually necessary. Nevertheless, this is the depth chart the Nuggets are working with heading into the draft, looking only at players who remain under contract:
|Denver Depth Chart|
|Point Guard||Shooting Guard||Small Forward||Power Forward||Center|
|Starter||Ty Lawson||Randy Foye||Danilo Gallinari||Kenneth Faried||Timofey Mozgov|
|Primary Backup||Nate Robinson||Evan Fournier||Wilson Chandler||Darrell Arthur*||J.J. Hickson|
|Secondary Backup||Quincy Miller||Anthony Randolph||JaVale McGee|
"Our collective group of talent is impressive," Denver general manager Tim Connelly said, via Christopher Dempsey of The Denver Post. "Now, how do we add one more impactful piece to get us to that next level?"
There are really only two weak spots, at least when discussing weaknesses that are crucial enough to be addressed with the No. 11 pick in such an impressive draft class.
Most glaring is shooting guard.
Though Randy Foye proved to be a quality starter once he escaped from Tyrone Corbin and the Utah Jazz, he's more of a rotation player, or first 2-guard off the bench on a competitive team than he is a legitimate starter. Evan Fournier showcased plenty of potential, but not much of that resulted in expectations of future star power.
Upgrading the 2 should be the first priority. There are a number of players in this draft class who should be capable of pushing Foye to the bench almost immediately, and that would be beneficial for a lineup still looking for that two-way presence.
Ideally, the shooting guard drafted will be capable of sliding up to the 3 as well. That's more of a priority than finding a combo guard, especially as Brian Shaw will almost certainly use some small-ball lineups when his entire roster is healthy. When Robinson and Lawson are both on the court, it's a nice luxury to have a sharp-shooting 2 who's big enough to cover opposing wing players.
The other weakness comes in the frontcourt, which does look pretty loaded at first glance.
Timofey Mozgov was a breakout player once he received enough playing time, especially at the very end of the season. He's thought highly of within the organization, and his hard-working nature won't allow him to be content with just the progress he showed in 2013-14.
J.J. Hickson and Kenneth Faried are quality options as well, and the addition of McGee will only aid the roster's depth.
But there's one thing missing among all those players: Not one of them can space the court.
The Nuggets have to look into adding a power forward who can stretch defenses out, ideally while also providing some ball-handling ability to the frontcourt. That type of versatility would be highly beneficial.
Taking those needs into account, while still remembering that drafting the best available player is often a beneficial strategy, here's how the Nuggets' board should look. It's worth noting that only 11 players will appear, as the names of 10 will be scratched off before Adam Silver has a chance to announce Denver's pick, barring a trade:
|Denver Big Board|
|8||Gary Harris||Michigan State||Sophomore||SG|
|10||Marcus Smart||Oklahoma State||Sophomore||PG/SG|
There are a lot of takeaways from this, so let's run through the big ones.
Order of the Big Three
Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid and Jabari Parker are the three names atop most every big board for good reason. However, the order is almost always different, as the talent level of the three elite players is nearly identical.
For the Nuggets, though, Wiggins makes the most sense. He has the two-way presence Denver is looking for and adding more defense on the wing should be one of the goals of the franchise over the offseason.
In fact, Dempsey even advocates trading the pick for a veteran who could aid Wilson Chandler in his defensive efforts:
Ultimately, this section of the big board is rather irrelevant. There's a snowball's chance in hell that any of these three are available at No. 11, so the top is important more for posterity's sake and to set the tone for the rest of the order.
Dario Saric Moving Up
Now things are getting more realistic.
Dario Saric, a forward out of Croatia has been consistently on the rise for what seems like years now. Players like this aren't typically this high up on draft boards, but he's an ideal fit for these Nuggets. After all, he boasts a massive frame and compares favorably to versatile forwards like Toni Kukoc.
The 20-year-old is most comfortable when he's operating out on the perimeter, as he can either knock down jumpers, or put the ball on the ground. Saric looks both to create for himself and distribute the rock to open teammates. Basically, he has the exact type of versatility that Denver lacks at the moment, which is the reason Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman has him going to the Nuggets at No. 11 in his post-lottery mock draft:
Denver lacks offensive versatility up front, with Kenneth Faried strictly an interior player and Danilo Gallinari, when healthy, more perimeter-oriented.
Saric is like a Swiss Army knife out there—at 6'10", he handles the ball, facilitates, scores and shoots. He also led the Adriatic League in rebounding—the same league of which he was named MVP.
That status as a Swiss Army knife isn't enough to boost Saric into the top five of Denver's board, though. Not with Noah Vonleh available, as he's a prospect who can both protect the rim with his ridiculous physical tools and stretch the court out with a smooth jumper. If it weren't for the Nuggets' needs at shooting guard, Vonleh would even be lifted over Dante Exum.
But the versatility is enough to boost Saric ahead of Aaron Gordon, even if Denver would have to be intrigued by the former Wildcat's defensive ability.
The Glut of Shooting Guards
The remainder of the big board is comprised solely of players capable of lining up at the 2. Marcus Smart does qualify, as he's big enough to play shooting guard even if he's considered a floor general by trade. His inability to connect on perimeter jumpers drops him significantly, but not to the point that he's off the board.
It's also notable that Julius Randle, a presumed top-six pick, doesn't appear at all.
Though the Kentucky product is undoubtedly an elite prospect, he doesn't fit with Denver's plans in the slightest. He'd be locked in at power forward, where the Nuggets would like to extend Kenneth Faried, and he's more of a post-bound player who doesn't provide much in the way of elite defense. Maybe he'd turn out better than Faried, but that skill-set just isn't worth drafting with these other players on the board.
Back to the 2-guards.
Gary Harris is the most intriguing of the bunch, thanks primarily to his ability to turn into a defensive stud.
"What is most encouraging about Harris is that people talk just as much about his tenacity on defense as they do of his offensive game," writes Dei Lynam for CSNPhilly.com. "He is a strong rebounder with long arms and great lateral quickness. And defense is something he takes pride in."
As he should.
Harris profiles as a prototypical shooting guard defender, boasting solid length and physical tools, as well as the right type of mental makeup. That, combined with his shooting, makes him quite intriguing to the Denver cause.
From there, Nik Stauskas is the next pick. He's not much of a defensive standout, especially with his limited foot speed and lateral quickness, but his offensive abilities trump everything. Then Smart fits in, and the big board closes with James Young, whose physical tools give him leeway for his mental lapses on the defensive end.
Could the Nuggets go wrong with any of them? Not really, but some are more right for the team than others.
Ultimately though, Saric stands out as the most likely pick at this early stage of the draft proceedings. He's the highest-rated prospect on that board who actually has a legitimate chance of falling to No. 11. If he's off the board early, that "most likely" status gets transferred to Harris.
So, Nuggets fans, who are you looking at?