Last season: Be warned, you could get injured just reading this paragraph. Coming off a 57-win season hopes were high but Danilo Gallinari never played a game, instead needing a second knee surgery to clean up the first one. JaVale McGee played in just five games after a stress fracture to his tibia. Wilson Chandler, Ty Lawson and Nate Robinson each missed at least 20 games due to injury. Those injuries meant fluctuating rotations, which on top of a new coach and new system under Brian Shaw created issues, particularly defensively. The result is a 36 win team that misses the playoffs.
Signature highlight from last season: In some ways this sums up the Nuggets halfcourt offense last season: Down two to the Clippers with time for one last shot the Nuggets don’t really have a go-to guy so they run a play — which more teams should do, but this play lacks urgency and execution, and so it falls to Randy Foye to take a deep three over Blake Griffin. Of course, in this case he drains it.
Key player changes: Frankly, the biggest change will just be getting Gallinari and McGee back in the lineup. Denver made one really nice free agent addition this summer, trading for Arron Afflalo who had an All-Star level year in Orlando (and giving up on the potential of Evan Fournier in the deal). Also added to the roster is a rookie showing a lot of potential in Gary Harris, plus Alonzo Gee, Erick Green, and another rookie in Jusuf Nurkic.
Gone from the roster besides Fournier are Aaron Brooks, Anthony Randolph, and Jan Vesely.
Keys to the Nuggets’ season:
The defense must get better. Last season, despite all the injuries, the Nuggets had a solid offense (middle of the NBA pack) but their bottom-10 defense was the big issue. With the return of Gallinari and the addition of Afflalo the Nuggets offense should be better than average, more than that it should be good. Maybe very good. But all of that doesn’t matter if they can’t get stops. The return of JaVale McGee to protect the paint is potentially a big step forward. However it’s going to take more than that — the Nuggets pick-and-roll defense last season was a weakness and it’s got to improve. It’s going to take Shaw putting in a consistent system, getting full buy in from the players, someone stepping up to be a good perimeter stopper, and guys like Kenneth Faried improving on the defensive end in a way he hasn’t before. The Nuggets fancy themselves a playoff team in the West, but if it’s going to happen it has to happen on this end of the floor.
Improvement in the halfcourt offense. What the Nuggets are built to do is run — Lawson is a fantastic scorer and creator in transition, Afflalo and Gallinari can space the floor and knock down shots, while bigs like Faried, McGee and J.J. Hickson are amazing rim runners. When the tempo is up the Nuggets are hard to beat. When the tempo slows… not so much. If the Nuggets want to make the playoffs they are going to need to score in the halfcourt more consistently. Again, Afflalo and Gallinari should help here, but Shaw has to put in a system and guys need to execute it, because good teams are going to try to slow the ball down vs. Denver. And the West is loaded with good teams.
A breakout season for Kenneth Faried. We saw the best of what Faried can do during the World Cup — energy is a skill (to quote David Thorpe, among others) and Faried brings that more than any other player in the league. That energy and effort can be a glue. Faried brings a ferociousness on the boards, and when the team gets out and runs he can bring points in transition. Faried was a glue for a Team USA roster that was already loaded with scorers and didn’t need his points (so defenses almost ignored him at first, allowing him to get points). The Nuggets have plenty of guys who can score but Faried is not going to be ignored in the same way, yet he needs to bring a new bounce to his step from that Spanish experience this summer and push this team to another level. Faried is not your first (or second) offensive option in a halfcourt set, he’s not a lockdown defender, but what he brings can lift the rest of the Nuggets up to a new level. He has to bring that every night for them to make the playoffs.
Why you should watch the Nuggets: They played at the third fastest pace in the NBA last season and Brian Shaw wants his team to run more — and when they run there are few teams more fun to watch. Ty Lawson is underrated both as a point guard and on the entertainment scale. Plus, they will have one of the best bench units in the league.
Prediction: 44-38, which will be about the 10 seed in the West and just outside the playoffs. This is going to be a bounce back year for the Nuggets in a lot of ways, they are going to be much better than last season just by being healthy again. Whether or not they make the playoffs really comes down to how well they defend, they will be better than the bad defensive team they were a year ago but I’m not sold it will change enough to make the playoffs in the loaded West. That said, if some of those good teams in the West suffer injuries or slip up more than expected, the Nuggets will be there ready to pounce and grab one of those playoff spots. It’s possible (especially with their depth and second unit) and should be their goal, I just can’t see them getting all the way there this year.