Could Denver Nuggets Be Western Conference's Biggest Surprise Yet Again?

D.J. Foster@@fosterdjContributor ISeptember 11, 2014

Apr 6, 2014; Houston, TX, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried (35) reacts to a play during the second quarter against the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Richardson-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

It feels like it happened a decade ago, but the Denver Nuggets aren't that far removed from being a powerful Western Conference team with one of the league's very best home-court advantages.

Of course, a lot has changed in the last two years. The Nuggets have a different general manager, head coach and roster. The Western Conference around them is better as well, so the goal of making the playoffs is tougher than ever.

But the Nuggets, to their credit, surprised us once. And in the best-case scenario, perhaps the Nuggets can do it again. 

Here's Kurt Helin at ProBasketballTalk:

Two seasons ago the Denver Nuggets won 57 games with a powerful offense and a good enough defense, and were the team nobody wanted to face in the playoffs… until Danilo Gallinari went down. Then they became vulnerable and were ousted in the first round by the Warriors.

Then they inexplicably changed coaches to Brian Shaw. Next the Nuggets were just ravaged by injuries — Gallinari missed every single game,JaVale McGee only played in five, Ty Lawson and Wilson Chandler each missed 20 games, J.J. Hickson missed significant time… it was a mess. The Nuggets won only 37 games.

They are ripe to bounce back.

This is a team that adds Gallinari, McGee and Arron Afflalo to the roster and should get an improved (and contract year) Kenneth Faried — if healthy they are legitimately in the crowded and deep playoff mix in the West.

Last season was about as bad it gets. In addition to all the injuries, the Nuggets were tasked with learning a new system under Brian Shaw while constantly shuffling in new players into the rotation. No continuity was built.

DENVER, CO - MARCH 23: Ty Lawson #3 and head coach Brian Shaw of the Denver Nuggets talk during a game against the Washington Wizards on March 23, 2014 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by
Bart Young/Getty Images

All was not completely lost, though. Even though the Nuggets limped to a 36-46 record, some important developments took place.

Here's what Lawson told Jeff Caplan of NBA.com:

People are probably going to sleep on us this year because of what happened last year.

(...)

We found ourselves, especially Kenneth. He found out he can score in the post, run the floor and also his decision-making after getting the rebound and taking it downcourt and able to make the right pass, the right decision. I think it was a positive on both ends and I think it’s going to help for this year coming up.

The continued development of Kenneth Faried has been one of the biggest stories this offseason, as he's arguably been Team USA's MVP in the FIBA Basketball World Cup. Denver has always lacked star power, but with Faried coming into his own, the Nuggets have reason to be confident.

Internal improvement will be crucial for the Nuggets, even though other moves were made this offseason.

The acquisition of Arron Afflalo, who will be on his second tour with Denver, was a big one. Afflalo is a capable defender and great three-point shooter, and he showed during his time in Orlando that he can reasonably be a top scoring option.

DENVER, CO - JUNE 30: (L/R) President Josh Kroenke, Arron Afflalo #10 and General Manager Tim Connelly of the Denver Nuggets pose for a photo during a press conference on June 30, 2014 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

Afflalo should help the Nuggets improve defensively, which is the biggest area of need.

Here's what Lawson told Caplan at NBA.com:

This year it’s going to be more of a defensive mindset. I already know we can score, everybody knows we can score with the best of them. But my mindset going into training camp is everybody buying into the defensive end. We’ve got to make stops. I feel like if we can do that, and score in the half court, we’ll be one of the top teams out there.

Denver ranked just 21st last year in defensive efficiency, according to basketball-reference.com, compared to 11th the year before. That's a big drop, and another year under Shaw and better continuity and health should help in that regard.

There's certainly reason to believe the Nuggets will be better this season, even if they have a large hill to climb. Teams that also didn't make the playoffs last year, like the New Orleans Pelicans and Phoenix Suns, should be competing for a playoff spot as well, so it wouldn't be a surprise if it took over 50 wins just to enter the postseason. 

Again, though, the Nuggets might be due for some good luck. Losing multiple starters would tank just about any team's season, and we've seen what the individual parts of this roster are capable of when healthy. 

DENVER, CO - APRIL 16: Quincy Miller #30, Randy Foye #4, and Kenneth Faried #35 of the Denver Nuggets stand on the court during a game against the Golden State Warriors on April 16, 2014 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressl
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

And if Faried continues to make the leap? The Nuggets have a perfectly suited roster to run teams off the floor and once again establish a dominant home-court advantage. That fast-paced style led to some surprise regular-season success once before, and it certainly could again.

Here's Bleacher Report's Nick Juskewycz:

With McGee, Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari, J.J. Hickson and Nate Robinson all getting healthy to go with the return of Arron Afflalo to Denver, that's a huge improvement to how the roster looked at the end of last year. That's going to give Faried plenty of freedom to be great and get the franchise back to playoff contention.

By the end of the 2014-15 NBA season, Faried will no longer be noticed as someone on the rise. "The Manimal" will be recognized as an elite power forward.

The Nuggets are one of the deepest teams in the whole league, so there's a lot to like here. It may be easy to write them off after last year, but that's a mistake. They should be in the thick of things in the Western Conference next season.

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