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NBA AM: Big Summer Ahead for the Nuggets

The Denver Nuggets have a talented young core, plenty of cap space and three first-rounders in this draft.



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Big Summer Ahead for Denver Nuggets

The Denver Nuggets finished the 2015-16 season with a 33-49 record, which ranked 11th in the Western Conference. Denver had the NBA’s 20th-ranked offense (scoring 102.7 points per 100 possessions) and the 24th-ranked defense (allowing 106.4 points per 100 possessions).

While the Nuggets have plenty of room for improvement, the team finished just eight games out of the West playoff picture and their young core showed glimpses of brilliance throughout this season. It seems that they have some solid building blocks in Nikola Jokic, Emmanuel Mudiay, Jusuf Nurkic, Will Barton and Gary Harris. Not to mention, head coach Michael Malone also did very well in his first season with the team and he’s working hard to establish a winning culture in Denver.

In an exit interview with Chris Dempsey of The Denver Post, Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly seemed thrilled about the young core’s growth, the job that Malone has done and all of the assets the franchise has moving forward. With that said, he was also honest about the team’s lack of a star.

It’s clear that Connelly believed this squad could compete for a playoff berth since they had a mix of young players and veterans like Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, Jameer Nelson, Mike Miller and Darrell Arthur. However, even though Denver came up short of the postseason, Connelly believes there are a lot of positives to take away from this campaign.

“Given our record, a successful season is a postseason appearance. But I think relative to our expectation level with so many young guys, it’s been a huge success for our coaching staff instilling a culture and the kind of approach we can build upon,” Connelly told Dempsey. “I think we’ve seen young players grow immensely. It doesn’t feel good that we’re doing this interview at the end of our [regular] season, but when we reflect on it we see more good than bad. All of the kudos go to [Coach Malone] and the staff. We had to find out about a bunch of young players this year and that’s not easy in this league. We found out about them by trial and error, their ability to play through mistakes. So, as we reflect back upon it, it’s a year of immense growth and growth that will serve us well going into this offseason.

“I think we regained firm footing. We were a tough out every night. We lost a bunch of close games, which was not unexpected when you’re relying on young players. I think there’s so much we can build upon and I’m unbelievably excited about the young core, and some of our guys entering their prime like Wilson and Gallo and Kenneth. The freedom we have with two or three first-round picks, a ton of cap room and our roster [that] is already full, I think collectively we’re in a pretty good spot. We look forward to being aggressive this offseason, trying to improve upon where we ended up this year. But certainly we’re sick of not being in the playoffs. We’re done with that.”

Connelly seems confident that Denver can break their three-year postseason drought in the 2016-17 season. However, he did make it clear that the team is still lacking a star. The hope is that one of the young players such as Mudiay or Jokic can develop into the Nuggets’ face of the franchise, but Connelly also said that he will continue to search the market for a star since Denver has many attractive assets including their young players and treasure trove of first-round picks.

“No, at this point, you can’t say we have anyone on the team that is a star,” Connelly told Dempsey. “We have guys who are trending that way. I think Gallinari, with more team success, would have been an All-Star this year. I’m so proud of how he bounced back from a major injury. He’s fully back – back [and] better than ever. You’d be hard-pressed to find 10 tougher offensive matchups in the NBA. So I think internal improvement is always the first and most preferable course of action. Certainly we’re always looking for ways to better our roster. If during the course of conversations we can get a guy we deem a superstar, a top 15-20 player, we’ll be aggressive in doing so.

“I think we are in a really good place. We have really good players, we have a ton of cap space, we have a lot of picks. So those are things that we’re all looking for league-wide. I think it allows us to be aggressive, it allows us to be very flexible.”

Two young players who really stood out for Denver this season were 21-year-old Jokic (who averaged 10 points, seven rebounds, 2.4 assists and one steal in 21.7 minutes) and 20-year-old Mudiay (who averaged 12.8 points, 5.5 assists, 3.4 rebounds and one steal in 30.4 minutes). They seem like they could be the Nuggets’ long-term solution at center and point guard, and Connelly was very happy with their play and development.

“Emmanuel has been fantastic,” Connelly said. “We went into this thing with eyes wide open; we knew there would be a lot of ups, maybe more downs. He’s playing the position that, to me, is the most talent-rich position in basketball. The point guards you face on a night-to-night basis are so impressive. I like his resiliency; I think he’s grown immensely. I look at his post All-Star break numbers and it’s a guy who is getting better. So he’s been fantastic. Like any young player he has a ton he has to improve upon, but he will because he has the right mentality, he has the right work ethic. He wants it too, he’s not scared of the moment. He’s been great. [I’m] very happy with his play this year.

“Nikola has been a fantastic breath of fresh air, not just in terms of his play but in terms of his personality. Nikola is that consistent smiling face, that consistent sense of humor. And his play on the court has been nothing short of a revelation. We were very high on him, but how quickly he has acclimated to the NBA game has been shocking. It’s been enjoyable to watch and it couldn’t happen to a nicer kid.”

While the Nuggets will try to address some of the holes on their roster this offseason, Connelly did say that he hopes to bring back many of the same faces next season.

“I think continuity is one of the most underrated aspects of the NBA,” Connelly told Dempsey. “We’ve had guys that [had] never played big minutes all prove capable of doing such. I think our coaching staff is the best in the league. I don’t think major upheaval is necessary, but I also don’t want to be myopic and ignore some of the deficiencies we have. You can’t fall in love with guys. You always have to be responsible in identifying areas that you need improvement in. I think everyone on our roster is a good NBA player. Certainly it’s unlikely that we’ll come back with the same 15 — that’s not the case in the NBA.”

As Connelly mentioned, he believes Malone and his assistants are the best coaching staff in the NBA. Later in the interview, he offered more praise of Malone, who just finished his first season in Denver.

“Fantastic. I don’t have enough superlatives to say about [Malone] and his staff,” Connelly told Dempsey. “He’s everything that I knew he was — I had the good fortune of working with him previously. He’s just an absolute [NBA] junkie. He works his butt off. [His] preparation is as good as any in our league. It’s not easy to give a coach a rookie point guard, a two-guard who played limited minutes and, it turned out, a rookie center as well. He did a masterful job of allowing those guys to grow and develop while still making sure the team was competitive and in games, and winning enough games that our games mattered. So, again, he’s been fantastic.”

This will be a huge summer for the Nuggets. Not only does Denver have a ton of cap space with just $55,593,587 in guaranteed contracts on the books for next season, they will have three first-round picks in the 2016 NBA Draft. In addition to their own pick (which they can swap with the New York Knicks if it’s higher), they will also have the Houston Rockets’ 15th overall pick as well as the Portland Trail Blazers’ 19th overall pick.

Connelly has done a great job with the rebuilding Nuggets, keeping the team competitive while also accumulating young players and draft picks that position the team for a bright future. Denver already has one of the better young cores in the West, and they should only continue to improve with internal development and Connelly continuing to search for a star and adding pieces to the roster.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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