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2015-16 Denver Nuggets Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the Denver Nuggets’ 2015-16 season.

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The Denver Nuggets were a dysfunctional mess a season ago. A coaching change, some roster moves and a strong draft have positioned the Nuggets for a much brighter future. The question is, can they make this season brighter than expectations?

Basketball Insiders previews the 2015-16 Denver Nuggets.

Five Thoughts

The Emmanuel Mudiay era is underway in Denver. I think Mudiay has star potential and will eventually emerge as one of the best rookies in this class. He’s a perfect fit for Denver’s up-tempo style of play and I think he’ll thrive from day one under new head coach Mike Malone. Denver has done a good job stockpiling young talent (Mudiay, Kenneth Faried, Jusuf Nurkic, Nikola Jokic, Will Barton, Gary Harris, etc.) and draft picks. They also have some strong veteran leaders on the team – such as Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Jameer Nelson – who will help the young players adjust to the NBA and maximize their full potential. I don’t think Denver will be a playoff team in the insanely competitive Western Conference, but I do think they’re heading in the right direction with the team they’ve assembled.

4th Place – Northwest Division

Alex Kennedy

It’s easy to get down on the Nuggets, who were not good a year ago and didn’t do much in the offseason to improve their situation much for 2015-16, but Emmanuel Mudiay is a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate and second-year big man Jusuf Nurkic could very well be a double-double machine for Denver this year. Kenneth Faried, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Jameer Nelson all prove that this team is still far away from a full-on rebuild, but that doesn’t mean this season is going to be pretty. The West is a scary place to live and Denver just doesn’t have the horses for a serious playoff run. Mudiay and Nurkic are the future, but the present just isn’t all that rosy.

5th Place – Northwest Division

– Joel Brigham

Things will undoubtedly get worse in Denver before they get any better. The Nuggets traded their best player and floor general Ty Lawson to Houston this past summer for a collection of role players. Now factor in that Denver’s top three players heading into training camp are arguably Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried and Wilson Chandler. While each of these guys have had success in the league, how far can they realistically take the Nuggets in a stacked Western Conference? The good news in Denver is Emmanuel Mudiay and Jusuf Nurkic are oozing with potential. Mudiay should be in the Rookie of the Year discussion at season’s end; he’s a terrific building block for the future. Every successful rebuilding project must begin with a strong foundation.

5th Place – Northwest Division

– Lang Greene

I’ll admit, I haven’t seen much of Emmanuel Mudiay, but for some almost inexplicable reason, I have believed in him and his potential from the time I first heard about him and his amazing story. Kenneth Faried is a beast, but I have no idea what the Nuggets were thinking in re-signing both Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari to rich extensions this past summer. Chandler got four years for a total of $46.5 million while Gallinari got two years tacked onto his contract for a total of $34 million. I’m not sure what either has done since arriving in Denver back in 2011 to warrant that type of payday and for those that want to point out the NBA’s rising cap (which I’m aware of), I’d say that the Nuggets would have been better off going down the route of the Philadelphia 76ers. They could have used their salary cap space to absorb bad contracts from other teams and gotten some draft picks in return for saving some of their opponents some hard-earned dollars. By this point, you’ve probably figured out that I’m not very high on the Nuggets, though I will say that a good point guard can change a team’s fortunes overnight. If Mudiay is the real deal, he, Faried, Gallinari and Chandler will at least give the team some semblance of a nucleus, but with Ty Lawson’s departure, one could easily make the argument that the Nuggets are worse now than they were when we last saw them, and in this instance, I’ll take the easy way out.

5th Place — Northwest Division

— Moke Hamilton

The Nuggets may have gotten the steal of the 2015 Draft by landing Emmanuel Mudiay at the seventh spot. The guard proved to be NBA-ready at Summer League and can make an immediate impact on the roster. The trade of Ty Lawson gives the Nuggets a fresh start in the backcourt, where they re-signed veteran Jameer Nelson. The team is looking to start off on the right foot after a rocky season that resulted in the firing of Brian Shaw. Danilo Gallinari and Kenneth Faried pose two question marks for the Nuggets. Can Gallinari stay healthy? If so, how much more effective can he be? Will Faried live up to his potential this season? Production from both of them will be key to the team.

5th Place – Northwest Division

– Jessica Camerato

Top of the List

Top Offensive Player: Danilo Gallinari

Fresh off an extension from the Nuggets utilizing a rarely-used CBA provision this offseason, Gallinari has continued a strong run of games from the final couple months of the 2014-15 season into summer international play. He’s been fantastic for Italy in the FIBA Eurobasket tournament, a walking mismatch who even the top teams in Europe have had no answer for.

If he can finally stay healthy for a full NBA season (a big question mark until he proves it), Gallo should be Denver’s offensive centerpiece. He can toggle back and forth between the three and four spots, but should likely be utilized more as a small-ball power forward given the numerous advantages he’ll have over nearly any defender there. A smart Nuggets scheme would involve him both on and off the ball; his gravity from beyond the arc could open up a number of options for sets involving him with multiple off-ball screens, and he’s got the handling chops to make things happen with the ball in his hands as well.

The big question mark, beyond his health, will be if Gallinari can improve a bit as a playmaker should Denver rightly choose to focus much of their halfcourt offense around his skill set. He’s gotten better over the years but has never been quite the incisive passer his physical profile suggests is possible, and with few other options on the roster who can create their own shot in a pinch, things could tighten up in a hurry if Gallinari isn’t able to find the open man when defenses collapse to him.

Top Defensive Player: Jusuf Nurkic

Defense is a potentially huge issue for the Nuggets. Nurkic is legitimately one of the few guys on the roster who has proven for even a full year that he’s capable of defending at an above-average level in the NBA. The Nuggets went from a borderline top-10 defense in the league when Nurkic played last season to a bottom-five unit when he sat, per NBA.com, and Nurkic actually finished ninth overall for Defensive Real Plus-Minus on ESPN.com. He’s a positive defending the rim and he’s completely unafraid of challenging anyone in the league. His lateral mobility is reasonable for his size, and he even played bits of four in the right matchups last season. If anything happens with Kenneth Faried in the frontcourt, be it a trade or injury, Nurkic will be a prime candidate to start alongside Gallinari.

Top Playmaker: Emmanuel Mudiay

The Nuggets sacrificed 9.6 assists per game when they moved Ty Lawson, and not a single member of last season’s roster averaged over four a night. As noted above, one hopes Gallinari will expand his playmaking role as more of an offensive centerpiece, but in the end this title likely comes down to rookie point guard Mudiay. He’s already an impressive passer at 19 years old, and all signs point to him being thrust directly into the starting role as the franchise’s heir apparent. He won’t be the primary offensive focal point for a year or two, but expect him to have the ball in his hands often and likely initiate plenty of sets. And if Mudiay isn’t confident or talented enough to grab hold of this role? It could be a long, iso-heavy season in Denver.

Top Clutch Player: Danilo Gallinari

It has to be Gallo here. He’s played this role for Italy in Eurobasket with great success this summer, including an overtime win over Germany where he hit several huge shots down the stretch to propel Italy to a massive victory. Unless Mudiay is even more impressive than expected right out of the gate, there just aren’t any other guys on the roster truly capable of generating their own good looks in the clutch. Given Gallinari’s size, though, this could become a small area of concern for the Nuggets if teams start overloading him in low shot clock situations.

The Unheralded Player: Joffrey Lauvergne

This title could likely go to each of Denver’s three high-ceiling Euro transplants: Lauvergne, Nurkic or incoming rookie Nikola Jokic. Nurkic is a fiery player and a great defender, and could grow into a strong two-way role with the right development. Jokic may not see a ton of minutes in a crowded frontcourt, but he’s a fascinating 20-year-old prospect, a big who shot threes in the Adriatic league and has a gigantic 7’3 wingspan.

But Lauvergne gets the nod, again in part due to a strong summer of play. Both at NBA Summer League and in Eurobasket, Lauvergne has showcased himself splendidly, playing his tail off on both ends of the floor and flashing significant upside. France has begun letting him space all the way to the three-point line over the last couple weeks, and he appears easily capable of knocking these shots down at the NBA level when left open. Like countryman Rudy Gobert, he’s a supremely intense player on the floor who’s out to prove himself, and without a ton of wildly noticeable flaws in his game, he could be in line for a major minutes upgrade.

Best New Addition: Mike Malone

Mudiay is obviously the best roster addition, but the hiring of Malone is arguably just as important. Denver’s coaching under Brian Shaw was among the worst in the league, and it only improved marginally under interim man Melvin Hunt. The staff was very clearly undermined by players who found it too easy to take advantage of them, and this plus a lack of talent or much ingenuity doomed the Nuggets from the start. Malone should step in and re-institute the order of things. He’s a strong disciplinarian who emphasizes structure (something Denver has badly lacked) as well as defensive integrity (another element they’ve been woefully devoid of). He may not be enough to turn a group limited in talent into a playoff squad, but the culture in the Denver locker room should do a 180 with Malone on board.

– Ben Dowsett

Who/What We Like

1. Wilson Chandler – Chandler also went Gallinari’s route with a renegotiate-and-extend deal this summer, erasing speculation over the last couple seasons as to whether he was really a part of Denver’s core moving forward. He’s 27 years old and his new deal will carry him through the remainder of his physical prime. Chandler may not be a game-breaker, but he’s a mostly consistent presence who does several things well and has very few big holes. Denver will rely on him to help steady the ship in trying times.

2. Darrell Arthur – He only played around 1,000 minutes last season, but Arthur showcased himself as a much more useful player than his slightly undersized stature might indicate. No Denver player saw the team defend as well while they played, with the Nuggets posting a stout 98.7 points allowed per-100-possessions while he was on the floor – a figure that rose all the way to an ugly 107.8 when he sat down, per NBA.com. He’s yet another jigsaw piece in a potentially intriguing frontcourt.

3. Nikola Jokic – It may be some time before Denver’s newest European transplant makes a real impact on the NBA court. He’s got a ton of upside in the modern NBA, though, and it will be very interesting to see how quickly he can adapt to the speed and intensity. He already appears salivating prospect if he can put things together on the margins.

4. Flexibility – Denver isn’t in a fantastic spot for this upcoming season by any means, but they have a few more reasonable paths to salvation than many of the NBA’s other moribund franchises. They own all their own picks minus a couple second-rounders, plus have a couple extra (protected) firsts likely coming in the 2016 draft. They also have a number of tradeable contracts given the right circumstances. Kenneth Faried is the obvious big domino who may need to fall before the rest of the landscape is made clear. They have plenty of options and potentially a lot of cap space available alongside their multiple picks next summer, though, and a few heady moves could have them right back on the upswing in short order.

– Ben Dowsett

Strengths

Malone has indicated he wants to run an up-tempo offense in Denver, which is never a bad call given the altitude and the advantage it tends to give Nuggets players who are more used to it. And so long as Faried remains on the roster and drawing big minutes, one of his chief strengths is his play on the break. Mudiay also projects to be a strong asset here, possibly immediately, and if Denver uses Gallinari primarily at the four and leaves a lot of speed on the floor, the Nuggets will look to run often.

They’ve also got more shooting than one might instinctively assume. Gallinari, Chandler, Jameer Nelson and Randy Foye are all guys defenses have to account for beyond the arc – if someone like Lauvergne really has three-point range, the Nuggets could even go to some crazy five-out units where every guy on the floor is a spacing threat. Expect shooting to be a major point of emphasis for Malone, who knows spacing the floor will be of paramount importance with a limited number of guys capable of creating.

And finally, this team has sneakily solid depth in the frontcourt. Faried and Gallinari are high-minute guys, and in addition to the three Euros they also have J.J. Hickson and Darrell Arthur in their big stockpile. That’s seven guys, and with a couple potentially worthy of starter-level minutes, Faried is absolutely on the hot seat. He’s been the subject of trade whispers since the middle of last year, and people close to the team have indicated Faried had a larger hand in Shaw’s team sabotage and eventual firing than the public may have been aware of. If he’s anything but excellent early on (or even if he’s great), Denver’s solid depth at the position could allow them the leeway to deal Faried for more positive assets.

– Ben Dowsett

Weaknesses

The defensive side of the ball could be a huge issue for the Nuggets right out of the gate. They were a bottom-five unit last year and didn’t really add a whole lot on this end – more minutes for Nurkic might be their only big offseason positive. Chandler is fine and Gallinari is passable on this end in the right matchups, but guys like Faried, Foye and Nelson are all significant minuses defensively. Mudiay has a high ceiling as a defender, but rookie players frequently take time to develop on this side of the ball. Without a few leaps from younger guys, the Nuggets are prime candidates to once again have one of the worst defenses in the league if Malone can’t work some serious magic.

On the other end, as we’ve discussed, the Nuggets are short on guys who can initiate offense and draw rotations. Gallinari and Mudiay (or Nelson) will handle the bulk of the duties here, but they could be limited to some degree and the drop-off after them is fairly steep. If either gets hurt, particularly Gallinari, it’s a problem.

This is a microcosm for the team as a whole – they have interesting pieces and a potentially bright future, but they probably don’t have the overall talent to compete in a stacked West. Malone should tighten things up some from last year and Mudiay will be fascinating to watch, but barring a miracle this feels like a group expecting another high lottery pick.

– Ben Dowsett

The Burning Question

Will Kenneth Faried be on the roster by the end of the season?

For a team highly unlikely to make any real noise this season, this is the looming question. Will the Nuggets look to salvage Faried within their organization and hold onto him for the four years remaining on his deal, or will they jettison him and move forward with their emerging youth and Gallinari?

Many around the league expect Faried to be moved. Not only has he been an issue in the locker room, he’s just not that useful of a modern NBA player – he can’t shoot, he can’t defend on a high level and he can’t create his own offense in the vast majority of matchups. Guys like Nurkic, Lauvergne and Jokic are ready to fill his minutes, and the Nuggets have more high draft picks on the horizon if they feel they need even more talent in the frontcourt.

Offloading Faried early, even if it’s for 80 cents on the dollar, could be their best move. If the other youngsters can impress and give Denver a real up-and-comer feel with a defined identity, their chances at luring a positive asset in the summer of 2016’s free agency period would appear to increase. It would give the guys left on the roster a clearer idea of the franchise’s direction, and would rid them of a negative influence on their culture. The front office may be best served to get the deal done sooner rather than later if an acceptable package is available.

– Ben Dowsett

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