With the Denver Nuggets eliminated from playoff contention, it's time to look back on their lost season and the injury-marred 2013-2014 campaign. It's also time to look forward and ask whether this team needs major changes or just to get healthy.
What went right: It took a litle a little bit of time, but new coach Brian Shaw started to really get through to some of the players. For much of the year, there was resistance to the way Shaw wanted to do things, which didn't speak to the strengths of the roster which was largely constructed with George Karl's run-n-gun offense in mind.
Players weren't against the coach, they were just confused half the time. But by season's end, there were some really positive signs, the biggest of which has been Kenneth Faried. Faried was the target of what the media perceived as "negative compliments" for much of the year. When Faried would have a big game, Shaw's comments were often "I thought Kenneth gave us some great energy...but..." and that "but" was always about how he and the other players had to adapt their styles.
But by the end of the year, after the Nuggets' playoffs hopes were ended, Faried exploded. In his last 20 games, he has averaged 19.7 points and 10.3 rebounds per game on 56 percent shooting. He's shown better awareness on the defensive end and both the ablity and awareness to work in the post offensively His post game may not be pretty, but it's effective. This development is huge considering Faried's future as a restricted free agent next summer. Whereas in January, the odds of Faried being traded at the deadline or draft were thought to be certain, his game has evolved to at least make it a coin flip.
Ty Lawson had injury issues but he too made big strides this season. In short, the Nuggets couldn't win without him. And by the end of the year there were small signs that perhaps the kind of leadership and aggressive attitude that has so long been absent with him may be coming around. Teammates spoke of an increased aggressiveness in practice, vocal leadership, and his embrace of his role as the face of the franchise. Lawson will never be the alpha dog No. 1 the team needs, but he's evolving towards more of a seasoned veteran voice in a locker room desperate for it.
Randy Foye and Darrell Arthur both had solid seasons being what they were brough in to be: pro's pros who shot well and defended expertly respectively. Evan Fournier showed flashes of brilliance once again and Quincy Miller gave some signs of life. J.J. Hickson lived up to what the team expected from him on the court as well.
What Went Wrong: Oh. My. God. The injuries.
Look, I've written about the Lakers and Pelicans for this series, and both of them have a legitimate claim to the title for "worst luck with injuries." But with the Nuggets, it wasn't one key player or a few key injuries. It was a never-ending hellrain of sadness, frustration, and pain. Let's take a look, eh?
Danilo Gallinari: Out with an ACL tear he suffered last spring, Gallo was supposed to be back by January. But confusion with his medical advisors lead to a mistreatment of the condition, resulting in another surgery being necessary in January. He was lost for the year.
JaVale McGee: The "Shaqtin-A-Fool" MVP started off the year in the right way. He was working harder in practice and pre-game. Then he suffered a leg fracture that was supposed to keep him out several months. He missed the entire season. For an offense that was supposed to be post-reliant and a defense that needs shotblockers behind its guards, this was devastating.
Nate Robinson: Robinson tore his ACL in January, and lost the rest of the year. That injury combined with the Andre Miller situation and a smaller injury to Ty Lawson, resulted in the Nuggets not having a point guard on roster for several weeks.
J.J. Hickson: Tore his ACL in March. That's right. Three players with ACL tears. The move took away a player who had given terrific effort every night and had been the one to face up to questions about the team's struggles on a nightly basis.
Ty Lawson: Missed time for varios injuries including is foot, hip, and chest. This one was devastating. Despite all the above, the Nuggets remaining largely competitive when Lawson was on the floor. With him out, the team had no chance.
Wilson Chandler: Various injuries including an old hip injury that made a major dent in his time on the floor.
Darrell Arthur: Various injuries which took away the team's best pick and roll defender.
To review, Denver lost four at-least-part-time starters and two franchise cornerstones to season ending injuries.
And that wasn't the end to their problems.
It's a legitimate statement to say that Brian Shaw didn't connect with the players for half the season. Andre Miller dropped out of the rotation, which was to be expected if you've watched Miller the past two years. Honestly, George Karl's relince on him was always mistifying. That isn't to say Miller's not valuable. He is, especially on the Wizards team he's on now. But he became an odd fit the last few years in Denver.
Eventually the game came where Shaw didn't play Miller, ending his streak of consecutive games. That was one thing, but the entire locker room was boiling over with frustration at the coach. The result was an in-game outburst on the bench, a locker room follow-up, a suspension for Miller that was then lifted a day later, and an indefinite paid absence for Miller until he was traded.
After that, the coach met with the players individually in an "airing of grievances." Typically ths would have spelled doom for a coach. You don't come back when you lose the locker room like this. But the Nuggets responded, going on an eight-game winning streak. But the losing eventually returned, culminating in a Bulls loss on national television in which afterwards Shaw put his locker room on blast, following up the next week with complaints about basic professionalism in regards to locker room and bus cleanliness. It seemed bad.
But as I wrote last month, I was surprised to find that he hadn't lost the locker room. The veterans get what he wanted to do and were on board with it. Any disagreements were philosophical in nature, not personal. There remains some lingering tension over the future of the team's pace, and whether Shaw is truly OK with playing fast which utilizes the team's personnel needs, or if they need to slow down for his scheme to work.
To look at the team's year and say "Oh, injuries did it" is to ignore the very real lack of awareness, effort, and togetherness they showed defensively, and to ignore how awkward a fit this team is offensively to any system that isn't George Karl's.
Oh, and the mascot passed out during a drop from the ceiling on opening night. That probably should have been a sign there.
MVP: This is a tough one. Lawson has missed 15 games at the time of publication and may miss the rest of the year. Faried came on strong and as the one guy to still give everything he had on a nightly basis. Foye may not have filled the box score up but he wa the one guy who kept his cool and played like a veteran the entire season.
I'll go with Lawson, who at one point was playing at an MVP level before his first injury. He learned and showed so much more about running a team this season, making not just useful passes, but ones that were ahead of what the defense expected. He spent so much time under George Karl manipulating teams into giving him the easy pass, he really pushed himself this season to make the one that simply exploited team's unpreparedness. He was the savviest version of himself yet, a gifted scorer, and gave good effort on defense despite Shaw's scheme which often asked him to go over screens, a killer task for someone of Lawson's size.
You can ask whether Lawson is a franchise player, but don't ask whether he's good enough to start for a team that can a title. He is.
LVP: Tough call with so many injured. I'll go with Miller. I don't mind his issues with Shaw, there should have been better communication between the front office and Miller about his future with the team. Honestly, he should have been traded sooner. But this is a guy who was looked up to in the locker room by the younger players and to react the way he did set a bad example. Players worship Miller for his work habits, professionalism, and attitude. He has survived in this league on those character values.
But he also does things like blast his coach and team's chances which he did last year even after George Karl said he was a top-five point guard all time (he isn't) and that he was vital to the team's chances (he wasn't). And for him to then bust up so openly with the new coach threw everything into chaos. I don't blame Miller for being frustrated, for wanting out, for not feeling respected. But sometimes you only get to control your own actions and decisions. And he handled that aspect poorly.
Gameplan headed into the offseason: Man, I don't even know.
This team is in such a weird place. They're likely to have two lottery chances at plus-10, giving them about a 4 percent chance to make the top-3. The worse of the two picks goes to Orlando for the Andre Iguodala trade. So if the Knicks pick lands at No.2 and their own pick lands at No.3 in what could only be described as a statistical miracle, the Magic would get the third pick and Denver would keep No.2. That would help them the most. They need Joel Embiid. They need Jabari Parker. They need Andrew Wiggins. They need Julius Randle. They're just unlikely to get it.
From there, they need to be aggressive this summer. To sit back and rely on the injuries is a dangerous prospect. They have two wing players who don't translate to other positions in Shaw's traditional-postionality scheme in Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari making $16 million combined. JaVale McGee has two more years on the books at $10 million per year. Kenneth Faried and J.J. Hickson aren't similar players, but they also should never, ever see the court together. Robinson was brought in as a gem of the offseason, but it's a question as to whether he's more valuable than Aaron Brooks who they traded for at the deadline, but is an expiring contract.
They need a rim protector, that much is clear. Timofe Mozgov had a good year, a great year, as far as his career is concerned. But he needs to be the reserve. Maybe McGee can be that rim protector. But he's going to have to show a level of maturity and awareness he has never, ever exhibited. He fancies himself as a low-post threat, but his movements are still awkward. He fancies himself as a shotblocker, but leaves his man to pursue the block too often, giving up easy points. They need to find that guy.
They need size on the perimeter, skill at power forward, and awareness down low. They have a lot of physical assets but little that seems to pursue the vision the team has of its future.
And the exact definition of that future remains murky.
GM Tim Connelly took on the reins late last season. He spent most of the year just settling in. Now he has time, assets, and resources to try and improve the team and find a genuine direction for it. He's high on Joffrey Lauvergne, the European asset the Nuggets have stashed. Can a lottery pick, Lauvergne, another year under Shaw for the rest of the roster and a strand of even reasonable luck on the injury front put this team back into the playoffs? Maybe. But it doesn't get them closer to a plan to make the title. That blueprint remains imperceptible following the departures of Masai Ujiri and Karl.
Ridiculously premature prediction for 2015: Assuming their slim lottery chances don't hit, you can expect much of the same next year. Will they be better? They almost have to be, the injuries alone will account for another ten wins. That would put them right around 45 for the season. Is that enough to make the playoffs in the Western Conference?
Probably not. That's just the reality of how tough the confernce is. They could win a few more than they should and sneak in, but it's hard to see this team going toe to toe with one of the heavyweights.
Now, they have some options. Connelly can get aggressive, take a bath on McGee's contract, effectively saying "Hey, I didn't sign him" in order to clear cap space. Develop the rookie they get, make a few other value signings and deals that may or may not include Kenneth Faried, and the could push the total up to 50, and make the playoffs, maybe make a second-round run. And at that point you've shown growth and momentum.
Trying to predict what will happen is futile, though. There are too many unknowns, the biggest of which is what exactly Tim Connelly wants to do. He likes the pieces the team has, but wants to get aggresive with the assets he can work with as well. We'll be in a better position to understand the future of this franchise by July 30th. Until then, they'll be one of the more fascinating puzzles to see work out through the offseason.
Prediction: 45-37, ninth in the Western Conference.