Last season must have been a confusing one for Denver Nuggets fans. When they went to the ballots to vote on Colorado Amendment 64 (which legalized the possession, cultivation and sale of marijuana), the team was 0-3 and coming off their third-straight first-round playoff exit. During an evening of celebrations (for those who chose to indulge) after the amendment passed, the Nuggets managed their first W, kicking off a four-game win streak. Spirits remained high throughout the regular season as Denver came into its own as one of the league’s most entertaining and potent scoring units, winning a franchise-record 57 games and ultimately nabbing a third-place playoff berth. It was all so perfect. And then, two weeks later, it was over.
Denver lost in the first round to the playoff-darling Golden State Warriors, and the masterminds behind the team’s success left town. Acclaimed GM Masai Ujiri was named the league’s executive of the year and then left for Toronto, and George Karl won coach of the year before the organization fired him. Shortly afterward, Andre Iguodala — the Nuggets’ big prize from the previous offseason — took off in free agency for the same Warriors team that’d bounced Denver from the playoffs.
All the upheaval has created a lot of questions in Colorado, a situation that was only exacerbated by rookie head coach Brian Shaw’s comments before Sunday’s pre-season game against the Lakers. Shaw said that he planned to dismantle the fast-break machine that Karl built, which put up a league-high 106.1 points per game last season—a decision that will change the character of the team more than any personnel move ever could. Still, it’d be foolish to write off the Nuggets that remain. Denver is still a tough, young team with the potential to be measured among the best in the West.
Additions: Nate Robinson, Randy Foye, Darrell Arthur, J.J. Hickson
Departures: Andre Iguodala, Corey Brewer, Kosta Koufos, Julyan Stone
Hickson is a welcome addition to the Nuggets’ frontcourt, where he’ll share minutes with Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee, and the additions of Robinson and Foye should help make up for the loss of Iguodala in Denver’s offence. But on the defensive side of the ball, said loss could be catastrophic. Iggy’s presence on the perimeter last season was the driving force behind Denver’s climb to 11th in the league in defensive rating — up from 19th the year before. And when Iguodala and Brewer (also gone) shared the court last season, the Nuggets allowed just 97 points per 100 possessions — down from an overall mark of 102. Denver was also excellent at forcing turnovers, the kind of defensive plays that most directly translate into fast breaks and help to generate easy buckets.
- The run-and-gun may be gone, but there is plenty of cause for optimism regarding Shaw’s coaching ability. He won three NBA titles playing with the Lakers and earned two more as an assistant coach with the team, learning from everyone’s favourite basketball guru, Phil Jackson. Shaw was an assistant with the Indiana Pacers for the past two seasons, and every indication suggests that he’s a capable coach who will work well with a relatively young, athletic squad. But still, it can’t be easy to take over a team from the reigning coach of the year.
- The departures of Iguodala and Brewer spell an increase in minutes for sweet-shooting second-year shooting guard Evan Fournier. While he lacks the name recognition and defensive reputation of his departed counterparts, the 20th-overall pick in the 2012 draft showed positive signs last season, posting a .566 effective field goal percentage (third-best among two guards). Coupled with Danilo Galinari (once the Italian fully recovers from an ACL injury), the dynamic-shooting wing duo should stretch defences enough to create space for Nuggets working down low in the half-court.
- Can Ty Lawson fully come into his own as the team’s marquee player? Lawson led the Nuggets with 16.7 points and 6.9 assists per game last year, but the egalitarian nature of the team’s attack prevented him from shining as a true No. 1. The direction of a former point man in Shaw may help him take a step up in his development and even emerge as a borderline all-star.
JaVale McGee. The Nuggets will be hoping for a big year from the man whose remarkable athleticism is too often negated by his terrible judgment. McGee has the opportunity to become a regular starter, and eventually a premier centre in the NBA. Unfortunately, he’s equally capable of looking like a complete bust. Which McGee shows up this season—and with what kind of consistency — will be an important factor in how the Nuggets’ season turns out. Another year older, hopefully another year wiser and another year closer to becoming the kind of player many people believe he can be.
Half-decent. The most exciting addition to the Nuggets in the off-season was sparkplug mini-man Robinson. Here’s the thing — any time Robinson has the ball in his hands, the game is exciting. So, even if the Nuggets completely abandon Karl’s speedy style, at least Nasty Nate should help compensate for the dip in watchability that follows—and hey, they could still be a fringe playoff team.
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