Along with massive changeover in the front office and on the sidelines, the Denver Nuggets had to deal with a rash of injuries last season that never really allowed us to see them at their full potential, or even get a sense of what their potential actually is. Even though health is going to be an issue again once training camp starts, but what could this team be if they’re at full strength from midseason on?
Basketball Insiders takes a look at the 2014-15 Denver Nuggets.
Five Guys Think
It’s kind of hard to believe that just two years ago, the Nuggets were one of the league’s most exciting upstart teams, but last season was the first without Masai Ujiri or George Karl, and it should have been obvious that life after losing one of the best execs and one of the best coaches in the NBA would be a little difficult. This year, things should be marginally better, with Nate Robinson, Danilo Gallinari and JaVale McGee both coming back healthy and Arron Afflalo (who was practically stolen from Orlando around the draft) back in powder blue. Rookie Gary Harris (and to a lesser extent Jusuf Nurkic) add depth to the rotation, making this an all-around better team than it was last year. They maybe aren’t as exciting as they were two seasons ago, but it won’t be anywhere near as painful to watch as it was in 2013-2014. Expect improvement out of the Nuggets this season.
3rd Place – Northwest Division
Five players who were expected to play a significant role for the Denver Nuggets missed 20 or more games due to injury last season. So it didn’t surprise many that Denver’s streak of 10 consecutive playoff appearances came to an abrupt halt last season. If healthy, Denver has the talent on the roster needed to get back into the playoff mix but it won’t be an easy road in the competitive Western Conference by any stretch of the imagination.
3rd Place – Northwest Division
– Lang Greene
Last season was a rough one for the Nuggets from an injury standpoint, with JaVale McGee, Ty Lawson, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari and Nate Robinson among others all missing significant time. Don’t be surprised if they turn some heads this year since they’re back at full strength. This was a strong offseason for Denver, acquiring Arron Afflalo in exchange for Evan Fournier and a second-round pick (which seems like an absolute steal) and landing quality prospects Gary Harris and Jusuf Nurkic in the draft. The Western Conference is insanely competitive, but the Nuggets have the potential to sneak into the playoffs this year as long as they can stay healthy.
3rd Place – Northwest Division
– Alex Kennedy
After trading Evan Fournier for Arron Afflalo, Afflalo joins Tyson Chandler of the Dallas Mavericks as a player who left their respective team only to be re-acquired by the team via trade a few years later. That is not something you see everyday in the NBA, and you certainly do not see it as often as you see a torn ACL. Thankfully, for Danilo Gallinari and the Nuggets, he is on the record as saying he “feels great” and is ready to return. JaVale McGee is expected to be fully healthy, as well, and with Kenneth Faried and Ty Lawson picking up from where they left off, the Nuggets have a core five that has a chance to be very good. With Wilson Chandler, J.J. Hickson, Timofey Mozgov and Randy Foye presumably coming off of the bench, the Nuggets have scores of talent, even if they still lack a superstar. They will now add Jusuf Nurkic and Gary Harris to their stable of talent and, more than likely, continue to hover around the .500 mark for the balance of the season. If Lawson and Faried emerge as the two alpha-males and primary playmakers on this team, it may bode positively for the team, but if identity issues and what, at times, appeared to be uncertainty amongst the players as to who should have the ball and who should take big shots continues, the Nuggets’s identity issues will persist. With moving pieces and players returning form injury, that will be second-year head coach Brian Shaw’s biggest challenge. That, well, and avoiding the same 36-win fate that me this team last season. As much talent as there is in Denver, that will be a tall task.
3rd Place – Northwest Division
– Moke Hamilton
The Nuggets are one of the bigger mysteries in the Western Conference going into this season. They were plagued by injuries last year, a couple of which that were so severe they’re going to linger into this season as well. While this is going to be Brian Shaw’s second year as a head coach, he’s not going to have the luxury of truly being able to pick up where he left off last year due to all the new pieces that he’s going to have to integrate into his system. However, he did learn over the course of last year how to best utilize Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried, who look poised to lead the way for him this year and continue their ascents. The addition of Arron Afflalo, a borderline All-Star last year, at their weakest position without giving up any significant assets was one of the better deals of the summer. If healthy, the Nuggets certainly have the potential to make the playoffs in the West, but that’s a risky assumption considering that they won’t even be going into training camp healthy.
3rd place – Northwest Division
– Yannis Koutroupis
Top Of The List
Top Offensive Player: After last season’s All-Star-caliber season with the Orlando Magic, Arron Afflalo will be picking up where he left off, but this time back in Denver. Afflalo is playing the best basketball of his career so it shouldn’t be a surprise that Nuggets fans are thinking about a return to the playoffs. Afflalo averaged a career-high 18.2 points per game last season with the Magic and shot 43 percent from three-point range. The seven-year veteran will benefit by having a better cast of players around him which will allow him to play more off of the ball. Having guys like Kenneth Faried, Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari on the team will take the pressure off of Afflalo after being the team’s go-to player like he was in Orlando.
Top Defensive Player: On a team that ranked 28th in points allowed last season, it may be hard to pinpoint one standout defensive player, but center Timofey Mozgov is underrated and defense oriented. As a backup for the majority of the season, Mozgov has proven to be a very good rim protector off of the bench. Playing in just 21 minutes per game last season, Mozgov averaged 1.22 blocks a game, or 2.71 per 48 minutes. As pointed out by Denver Stiffs, Mozgov was 10th-best in limiting opponents’ field goal percentage at the rim at 45.2 percent through the first-half of last season, which puts him in the same company as Roy Hibbert, Serge Ibaka and Joakim Noah, among others. Perhaps one of the biggest indicators of Mozgov’s defense are the splits when he is on the court versus off of the court. When Mozgov is playing, opponents’ field goal percentage within three feet of the rim is 55 percent versus 65 percent when he is off of the court. Looking at these stats, it may not be a surprise to hear that the Cavaliers are reportedly looking to trade for Mozgov. He provides any unit on the floor a great rim protector that can help a team lock teams down.
Top Playmaker: The hands down answer here is Ty Lawson. The 5’11, 195-pound Lawson has the perfect frame to make plays and get the Nuggets’ offense rolling. Lawson’s ability to drive through the lane really sets the tone for the offense and keeps it moving. Lawson was tied for the third-most assists in the league at 8.8 per game, behind only Chris Paul, Kendall Marshall and John Wall. The 8.8 assists per game really speaks volumes to his ability to drive in the lane and kick the ball out to the open shooter, especially in a year where some of his best passing options were hurt.
Top Clutch Player: By season’s end, the Nuggets’ top clutch player could very well be Afflalo, but at this time their clutch player is Lawson. Lawson’s quickness and ability to drive through the lane makes him perhaps their most dangerous player and one that is heavily guarded during crunch time of games, making it easy to find the open man for the shot. After a career year, coach Shaw has the trust in him to put the ball in his hands and make the right play when it matters most.
Most Unheralded Player: Even though Lawson remains one of the league’s most underrated point guards, the Nuggets’ most unheralded player is Mozgov. The underrated defender proved at the end of last season that he is a capable starter. With the Cavaliers reportedly showing interest in the 7’1 big man, the Nuggets may be able to cash in on his value and bring in assets to help the team in the future.
Best New Addition: If being named the team’s best offensive player wasn’t enough of an indication, Afflalo is the team’s best addition. At the cost of Evan Fournier and a second-round draft pick, the addition of Afflalo may be one of the best moves of the offseason. The Nuggets were more than 10 games out of the playoff race in the Western Conference when it was all said and done, but Afflalo will give the Nuggets a legitimate chance of closing that gap. Afflalo has proven to be a capable scoring threat, but also is an underrated defender. He was often assigned to guard opposing teams’ top wing players and did a good job when he was engaged. Though Afflalo admitted during the season that he wasn’t used to losing as much as the Magic were and his performances were affected, the hope of playing for the playoffs is back in Denver and so will his perimeter defense.
– Cody Taylor
Who We Like
Kenneth Faried: After lighting it up with Team USA in Spain, Faried will be coming back to the Nuggets a changed player. Over the course of just a couple of months with Team USA, Faried has gone from a player expected to provide some energy off of the bench backing up Kevin Durant to one of the team’s biggest contributors. Faried is averaging 13 points per game with Team USA on a blistering 71 percent shooting from the floor and a team-high 8.1 rebounds. There’s nothing suggesting that Faried won’t continue his tremendous play this season with the Nuggets. It seems Faried really started to grasp the Nuggets’ new offense under head coach Brian Shawn in the second half of the season as Faried increased his points per game from 10.4 per game before the All-Star break to 18.8 after the All-Star Break. In addition, Faried’s rebounding per game improved from 7.6 to 10.1. Faried’s tremendous improvement this year is another reason why the Nuggets could make some noise in the playoffs.
Danilo Gallinari: After undergoing two knee surgeries in the past 18 months, Gallinari is said to be ready to return and feeling great. The Nuggets desperately missed his versatility last season as he can play both forward positions. At 6’10, Gallinari can play the three-spot on the floor with the best of them and at 225 pounds, he is big enough to compete with most power forwards in the league. Two seasons ago Gallinari shot 37 percent from three-point range and adding him back onto the floor will provide another weapon for Lawson to utilize. Gallinari also possesses the necessary ball-handling skills needed to run in the Nuggets’ up-tempo offense.
Gary Harris: The former Michigan State guard will be competing with Randy Foye and Arron Afflalo for minutes, but Harris will provide the Nuggets with solid minutes off of the bench and could even challenge Foye for his role as the primary backup at the two. Harris averaged 18.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, 2.6 steals and two assists per game in the Las Vegas Summer League and provided a glimpse of what he can turn into. During the Summer League, Harris looked like a very confident player coming out of college and that showed as he was able to score by shooting and driving to the rim against improved competition. Harris can also help the Nuggets improve their defense. Harris was a great defender in college and there’s no reason to think he won’t be solid in the NBA as well. He displayed his athleticism and quick hands during the Summer League with 2.6 steals per game. His fellow rookies seem to think he’ll do well as they voted him as the third-best defender of this class.
The Nuggets’ Second Unit: With so many players returning healthy this season, the Nuggets will most certainly have one of the deepest benches in the league. The Nuggets’ starting five this season could consist of Lawson, Afflalo, Gallinari, Faried and McGee, which means the first team off of the bench could include Nate Robinson, Foye, Wilson Chandler and Mozgov. Four out of the five players – Foye, Wilson, Hickson and Mozgov — that could come off of the bench all started a significant amount of games last season. Given that those players started out of necessity given all of the injuries, the Nuggets’ second unit will be more experienced and talented than most benches in the league.
– Cody Taylor
It’s that second unit off of the bench that is easily the Nuggets’ biggest strength heading into the season. The Nuggets have 10 players on the team that could easily play each night and unfortunately for head coach Shaw, finding minutes for each of those players may not be simple. Shaw will have his work cut out to figure out the proper rotations and when to bring certain players into the game, but he and the Nuggets will be in a much better position than last season when they were shorthanded more nights than not.
– Cody Taylor
The team’s defense will be an ongoing issue for the team throughout the season. The Nuggets were the third-worst team in the league last season with their opponents scoring an average of 106.5 points per game. Should the Nuggets be able to fix their defensive woes, they may very well find themselves in the thick of the playoff race in the ever-challenging Western Conference. While their projected starting five seems to be rock solid on the offensive end, that isn’t going to help get it done on the other end and the Nuggets could be in trouble. While players like Mozgov and Faried are proving themselves each night on the defensive end, other players will need to step up for the Nuggets to have a chance.
– Cody Taylor
The Salary Cap
The Nuggets have held onto most of their Mid-Level Exception, saving $4.8 million after giving rookie Erick Green a three-year minimum deal. The team is also invested in 13 guaranteed players, with a 14th (Quincy Miller) locked in for $150k. Kenneth Faried, who has been a vital part of Team USA’s quest for the World Cup, is eligible for a contract extension – but needs to lock in a deal before the October 31 deadline. Denver is over the cap but under the luxury tax. The team also had four traded player exceptions ranging from $1.2-$1.7 million. The Nuggets do not have the $2.1 million Bi-Annual Exception available after using it last season on Nate Robinson.
– Eric Pincus
It is difficult to believe that a mere season ago the Nuggets were coming off a 57-win season under Coach George Karl. The Nuggets fired Karl after that season, reportedly because they did not want to give him a contract extension with only one year remaining on his deal. Then, team architect Masai Ujiri left for Toronto, replaced by Tim Connelly from New Orleans. The Nuggets hired Brian Shaw to replace Karl, but both struggled a bit in their first year. Connelly acquired defensively-challenged players like J.J. Hickson and Randy Foye, and that end of the floor unsurprisingly suffered after losing Andre Iguodala to Golden State. Season-long injuries to Danilo Gallinari and JaVale McGee worsened the situation, as did Shaw’s insistence on starting Hickson over Timofey Mozgov in the frontcourt. The result was a desultory 36-46 finish.
Connelly has bounced back quite nicely though, reacquiring Arron Afflalo from Orlando to upgrade the gaping hole at shooting guard. He also got great value in the draft by trading down to select Jusuf Nurkic (scouting report) and Gary Harris, both of whom were projected to go quite a bit higher. Gallinari should be back, and Shaw will hopefully give Mozgov more run, giving this squad a chance to really upgrade the defense.
Better health and defense leads Denver’s fight for the eighth seed. Ty Lawson has a career year, Afflalo avoids a dropoff from his last year in Orlando, Gallinari looks like his old self by midseason, and Mozgov’s three-pointer that he flashed at the end of last season becomes a semi-passable weapon. (This is a best-case scenario after all.) Kenneth Faried builds on his excellent World Cup on both ends. McGee and Nate Robinson return to anchor a solid bench along with Wilson Chandler and Harris (Nurkic is unlikely to play much). Shaw improves in his second year on the bench.
The players returning from injury are shells of themselves. Afflalo reverts back to his career norms, Mozgov rides the pine behind Hickson, and the squad basically duplicates last year’s campaign. As the squad descends again into irrelevance, Nurkic’s father demands a starting position for his son and nobody has the guts to tell him he’s not ready yet. Another lost year leaves Denver in limbo going forward with this core.
– Nate Duncan
The Burning Question
With the Nuggets finally healthy, will that be enough to compete for a playoff spot in the West?
Last season the Dallas Mavericks as the eighth-seed needed 49 wins to lock in a playoff berth and the Suns were right behind them with 48 wins. The Nuggets will need to see an improvement of about 14 games to get to 50 this season and have a chance at making the playoffs. Out in the West, there could be as many as 12 teams legitimately competing for the playoffs and the Nuggets’ chances will surely be determined by how their players coming back from injury perform. With those players returning and playing like they have in the past, the Nuggets should be competitive for the season and their deep bench could prove huge come March and April if it remains as is. Barring an injury to Afflalo, Faried or Lawson, the Nuggets should be a playoff team next season.
– Cody Taylor
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