Going into the latter part of last season the Denver Nuggets looked like a team that could do some damage in the Western Conference playoffs. The up-tempo pace that coach George Karl utilized with point guards Ty Lawson and Andre Miller was quite effective, leading them to a 57-25 record and the most points per game in the league. That all changed when arguably their best offensive player, Danilo Gallinari, went down with an ACL injury, causing him to miss the rest of the season, including their playoff series against the Golden State Warriors which they lost 4 games to 2. After that disappointing showing, the organization as a whole underwent a complete restructuring. General Manager Masai Ujiri moved onto the Toronto Raptors, Karl was fired, and Brian Shaw was brought in to replace him. They traded Andre Iguodala to the Golden State Warriors and Kosta Koufos to the Memphis Grizzlies, and signed two solid players in J.J. Hickson and Nate Robinson. All of this upheaval may be too much for the Nuggets to return to the post season this year however and there could be some growing pains to overcome without a major piece like Gallinari.
The Nuggets have two great point guards, as mentioned earlier, to replace some of the production they will lose without Gallinari. Ty Lawson is quite possibly the fastest player in the league with the ball in his hands. He is a blur getting up and down the floor and despite his small stature, is a very good finisher around the rim. While he may not be an elite scorer yet, he has improved each year of his career, and that trend should continue this season. His percentages are solid, at 49% from the field and 38% from three over his career, but he could stand to be a better free throw shooter due to his previously mentioned ability to get to the rim with his speed, at just 77% percent for his career. While there is still some room to improve as a distributor, he had a solid season last year in that area of the game as well averaging nearly 7 dimes per game. At just 5’11’’ there were questions for him coming into the league, mainly whether or not he could get his shot up over some of the bigger guards. He has answered those questions and proved that he is an elite offensive guard in the NBA today. His defensive game is still improving but his strength and bulk for his height are great assets to go along with the aforementioned speed. Lawson may not be a defensive stopper right now but he is also not a total liability on that end. As the Nuggets’ best player, Lawson will be counted on to step up in the absence of Gallinari and become the All-Star many expect him to be.
The Nuggets also have what may be the best back-up point guard in the league in Andre Miller. Miller is one of the most reliable players not only in the game today, but in the history of the league, playing over eleven hundred games during his 14 year career, and missing just 22 games. His offensive game may be jerky and awkward at times, but he has found a way to make it effective. He is one of the best post-up guards in the game today and utilizes a variety of moves to take advantage of smaller defenders and score effectively, at nearly 46% from the field for his career. He has struggled mightily from three point range, at an astoundingly low 21% over his career, but during the playoffs last season he shot relatively well even with limited attempts. If Miller can improve in the smallest way this season from beyond the arc, it will be welcomed for the Nuggets’ offense. Miller is one of the best distributors in league history as well, ranking 24th overall in assists; although he also ranks 24th in turnovers. With the athletes the Nuggets have on their roster, Miller is able to utilize his ability as one of the best lob passers in basketball, to just throw the ball up and let his teammates go up and get it. Defensively he is able to use his basketball IQ and quick hands to be one of the best “thieves” in the game today. He is a very good rebounder for his position as well, averaging 4 per game for his career. Having these two guards control the ball as much as they do will give new coach Brian Shaw players to trust as generals on the floor to get them into the best set and translate what he wants done to the rest of the team.
Another guard the on the roster that was brought in this off-season is two time slam dunk champion Nate Robinson. While his size, at just 5’9’’, may make you think that Robinson is a point guard, he is not a pass first player, or a very reliable distributor either. Averaging just 3 assists for his career and 4.4 last season is not what one would expect from a lead guard and the player controlling the basketball. Even though he is undersized and forced to play out of position because of that, he is a very good scorer and another good finisher for the Nuggets. He had some great games for the Chicago Bulls last season and really stepped up for them with Derrick Rose out. However, this is a luxury signing for the Nuggets. He will help score the ball as mentioned but they could have used the money given to him to find a player on the wing with Iguodala’s departure.
Filling Andre Iguodala’s spot on this roster may be a tough proposition for the Nuggets this year. While he did not say much publicly, few observers expected him to return to Denver this season and he was eventually moved to Golden State in a sign and trade for Randy Foye. Foye is a solid player overall, with career averages of 11.5 points, 2 assists and 4 rebounds, but he is not the all star talent that Iguodala is. Jordan Hamilton will most likely see more playing time this season due to this move, and although he has very good athletic ability, he has proven very little during his short professional career. The Nuggets have to get the full potential out of these two if they hope to come close to replacing Iguodala’s production from last season.
The most likely player to step in and fill the void left by Iguodala, is Wilson Chandler. Chandler averaged 13.0 points and 5.1 rebounds per game last season, and is a very capable scorer. His defensive ability isn’t quite what Iguodala’s was, but he will be a very big piece of what the Nuggets are going to do this season.
J.J. Hickson is an under the radar signing that could pay dividends for the Nuggets this season. After four relatively underwhelming seasons in the league, Hickson played fairly well for the Trail Blazers in 2012-13. Averaging 10.4 rebounds to go along with 12.7 points per game, Hickson had his best overall season and should make a great pair in the post with Kenneth Faried. The trade of Koufos and re-signing Timofey Mozgov mean that he will have to step up this year and turn around his lackluster career in Denver.
The toughest loss may not be a player but their head coach George Karl. While the exit from the postseason may have been a surprise, there is no possible way to blame Karl for it. With Gallinari hurt, they just could not match the offensive output the Warriors had and wound up getting bounced in the first round. This is not a knock on new coach Brian Shaw whatsoever. His experience in the league as a player and assistant coach for Phil Jackson and Frank Vogel lead many to believe that he will be an excellent leader down the road. However, this is just not a good fit for the team that has been assembled. Shaw is known as a defensive minded and hard-nosed coach. Karl could be just the same at times, but he wanted to force the tempo on offense even if that meant neglecting the defensive end of the floor. Shaw will not accept that, though he will likely keep the fast paced offense in-tact potentially putting more pressure on the players. Some may think it was time to get a new voice in town but Karl is a well respected coach and deserved better than the way he was fired after last season.
The 2013-14 season in Denver is one of transition, in more ways than just the offense. A first time head coach and some relatively unproven players to go around their stars don’t look like it will make for a return to the form seen before Gallinari’s unfortunate injury. A lot needs to go right for this team to compete for a playoff spot and stay out of the lottery. It would be surprising if this team crept above the 40 win plateau but stranger things have happened in sports. If Lawson turns into the all-around elite point guard that he can be, and Foye or Hamilton out-play their past production, there could be a playoff series in Denver yet again, just don’t bet the house on that.