5 Players Who Must Step Up for Denver Nuggets' Remaining Games

Nick Juskewycz@@NickJuskewyczContributor IIIFebruary 28, 2014

5 Players Who Must Step Up for Denver Nuggets' Remaining Games

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    Even though the Denver Nuggets' 2013-14 campaign is bursting into flames, a few specific players need to improve their performances to finish the regular season.

    The 25-32 Nuggets have lost nine of their last 10, suffered an embarrassing 112-89 home defeat to the Brooklyn Nets Thursday night and are eight games behind the eighth spot in the Western Conference. The streak of making the playoffs for 10 consecutive years is likely coming to an end.

    With injuries, chemistry issues on the court and a lack of effort at times, the Nuggets are not a good team.

    Even if you don't believe in tanking and want to take a chance with the New York Knicks' 2014 first-round draft pick, Denver doesn't even have the ammo to put together many wins against a brutal finishing schedule. Remember, the Nuggets will trade the less favorable first-round pick between the Knicks and their own to the Orlando Magic, per Real GM

    But as Brian Shaw pointed out after the loss to the Chicago Bulls, according to Christopher Dempsey of The Denver Posthe is going to play the guys who bring the energy. Essentially, he needs to figure out which young players he likes moving forward.

    These five players can play important roles in making the Nuggets more competitive and make a statement for their future in Denver. 

    All contract information is via Basketball Insiders.

Kenneth Faried

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    To be fair, Kenneth Faried has been giving as much effort as anyone on the Nuggets through this rough stretch. 

    The "Manimal" is posting 10.9 points on 54.2 percent shooting to go with 7.5 rebounds in 25.2 minutes on the season. In February, he's putting up 13.7 points on 54 percent shooting with 6.5 rebounds in 28.1 minutes.

    But with Ty Lawson still sidelined with a rib injury, this has been a great opportunity to see what Faried can do when he's not running in transition and flying above the rim.

    There is still a good amount to be done offensively, but he's made some minor developments in his post game and has even started to use his left hand occasionally on his baby hook shot. He's also making 50.8 percent of his shots from eight to 16 feet this season compared to 35.4 percent in 2012-13, according to NBA.com.

    But defensively, there's still a huge gap in his game. Without the size to stop the bigger and more dominant power forwards, he has trouble guarding away from the rim and in the pick-and-roll.

    The Manimal was popular in trade discussions throughout the year, especially with the Knicks, who pursued a Faried for Iman Shumpert swap, according to Frank Isola of The NY Daily News. Faried is Denver's best asset since he is making just over $2.2 million next season and has a qualifying offer of just over $3.2 million in 2015-16.

    The rest of this season is important for him for three reasons—he can lead by example with his relentless motor, he can gain experience in improving his half-court game, and his trade value can increase as a result.

    One way or another, Faried's evolution is good news for Denver.

Timofey Mozgov

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    One switch that Shaw made for Tuesday's game against the Portland Trail Blazers (which I was advocating for in early January) was to put Timofey Mozgov into the starting lineup.

    While the Nuggets have lost the two games that he has started, they held Portland and Brooklyn to 26 and 30 points in the paint, respectively. That's much better than the 44.3 they are giving up on the season, per TeamRankings.com.

    Granted, LaMarcus Aldridge and Brook Lopez weren't part of the equation, but Mozgov's size at 7'1" and 250 pounds is recognized. He's always blocking or at least altering shots and can make opponents work for their points down low.

    Like Faried, Mozgov also has a chance to work on his offensive post game. Given his size, ability to slam it home or use touch at the rim and being underrated as a trailer in transition, he has the potential to be a legitimate threat in Shaw's system going forward.

    What the coach needs to do is start giving Mozgov around 30 minutes per game.

    With JaVale McGee out for the season and Darrell Arthur battling a hip strain, Shaw shouldn't be giving Jan Vesely double-digit minutes. He's a much bigger work in progress than the other big men, and he's making bizarre errors like jab-stepping a defender who didn't exist.

    Putting Mozzy into the starting five is a positive thing, but playing him nearly the same amount as he was coming off the bench won't do much. Shaw should push his limits and see what he can do for a full game against guys like Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol and Tim Duncan. 

    Keep an eye on Mozgov's minutes and how much of an effect he has on the defensive end. It won't be the ultimate cure, but it will limit the ridiculous runs that the Nuggets are allowing.

Aaron Brooks

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    The Nuggets finally have a true point guard until Lawson returns, although Aaron Brooks will still likely come off the bench when he does.

    All things considered, he isn't doing too shabby since putting on the Nuggets jersey. He's scoring 13.3 points, dishing out five assists and turning it over 2.7 times in three games, which is solid considering how discombobulated Denver has been.

    But for Brooks, the upcoming games are particularly monumental for him personally. He becomes an unrestricted free agent in the offseason, and this is the most playing time he's gotten since starting for the Houston Rockets in the 2009-10 season.

    When Lawson comes back, Brooks' minutes will be reduced, so he needs to play every contest like it's his last. 

    The other interesting point, though, is that not only is he free to walk at the end of the year, Nate Robinson has a player option of just over $2.1 million next year. So, Robinson could opt out in the offseason, and he's already played for six different franchises in his nine-year career.

    If Brooks can prove to Shaw and the Denver front office that he can be a legitimate backup to Lawson, he could have a future on the team. While he's doesn't have Lawson's game, he does possess a similar skill set that could fit right in.

Evan Fournier

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    Evan Fournier is getting thrown into the fire. He's playing 26.1 minutes per game in February—the most in a month for his careerbut he's now logged 32.7 in his last seven games.

    Furthermore, he's being asked to do a lot, sometimes too much. Even with Brooks now in the lineup, Denver is still running some sets with Fournier at point, which isn't his strong area and can result in some bad turnovers.

    He usually excels in transition, whether it's launching it from three on the wing or attacking the basket. Even though he's had experience playing overseas at point, he looks a lot more comfortable at the 2.

    While Denver is finding out what it has in its 20th overall pick in 2012, Shaw is rewarding Fournier for his hustle and contributions. He's having some off games, but his consistency will come once the team is healthy and the system is more established. 

    With Jordan Hamilton now on the Rockets, Fournier is locked in as at least the backup 2-guard for now. He should get meaningful minutes for the rest of the season.

    But when this backcourt gets healthy and Danilo Gallinari returns next year, how much playing time will Fournier actually get? Can he pass Randy Foye as the starting shooting guard?

    The next seven weeks will have a lot to do with that.

    Fournier must continue to get better in all areas, but the most important are his defense, half-court offense and shooting percentages when playing bigger minutes.

Quincy Miller

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    At some point soon, Quincy Miller will need to make strides. His playing time continues to increase, but his numbers are staying the same or getting worse. 

    In January when he started getting meaningful playing time, he scored 4.9 points and pulled down 3.1 rebounds in 12.8 minutes. He shot 38.5 percent from the floor, 31.8 percent from three and a perfect 11-of-11 from the free-throw line.

    But in February, he's recorded 5.2 points and 3.1 boards in 18 minutes. His shooting has also declined to 29.8 percent from the floor, 21.1 percent from behind the arc and 63.6 percent from the line.

    At 6'9" with solid athleticism, ball-handling skills and a jump shot, Miller provides a variety of assets. He's also shown flashes of defense when it comes to swatting shots away at the rim or disrupting the passing lanes.

    But outside of his double-double against the Magic when he tallied 36 minutes, we've haven't seen a lot of noteworthy nights from him. He has also provided a lot of learning moments and mistakes.

    With Wilson Chandler, who has battled several different injuries the last three seasons, missing Thursday's game with a hyperextended knee, this is the time to bump Miller's playing time. Aaron J. Lopez of Nuggets.com pointed out on Oct. 2 at the beginning of training camp that Shaw saw potential in Miller.

    As of right now, he's not close to earning a spot over Gallinari or Chandler. The Nuggets already know what they are getting from them, and Miller needs more experience since this is the first time he's consistently getting legitimate action in his NBA career.

    At this point, or until Lawson is healthy, I'd start Brooks, Fournier, Miller, Faried and Mozgov.

    Sure, this isn't a likely lineup for the future, but it allows Denver to see what its young players can do and how they perform against the better competition for an extended period of time. Ultimately, it helps the front office with whatever offseason decisions are forthcoming, and it helps Shaw put the pieces together.