It’s hard to find an NBA team that can match Denver’s offseason for pure, unfettered chaos. After surging to a third-place finish in the Western Conference last year, the Nuggets pulled off the rare and impressive trifecta of dropping their head coach (George Karl), general manager (Masai Ujiri), and arguably their best player (Andre Iguodala). To add insult to injury, Karl and Ujiri were the newly dubbed Coach of the Year and Executive of the Year, respectively. Conventional wisdom suggests that the departure of Karl and Ujiri were integral in Iguodala’s decision to bolt to Golden State. The Nuggets also swapped last year’s primary starting center, Kosta Koufos, to the Grizzlies for Darrell Arthur and a late second-round pick, French prospect Joffrey Lauvergne.
So under a new leadership team and with two new starters, what can we expect out of Denver’s squad this year? The simple, honest answer is that no one can really say until we see the new team in action. But we can make some educated guesses.
The new-look Nuggets will be led by first-time head coach Brian Shaw, who is ascending to the top job after serving as a key assistant under Frank Vogel in Indiana. Shaw is expected to slow the frenetic pace at which Denver operated under the offensively-minded Karl, which may lessen the impact of Denver’s high-altitude homecourt advantage. Shaw’s quotes in the media indicate his belief that slow-down teams are more likely to succeed in the playoffs, and that he is willing to sacrifice the occasional regular season win in the service of maximizing his team’s chance at a deep playoff run.
Shaw will be tasked with mixing and matching a team stacked with solid role players, but devoid of stars (barring an unexpected breakout, but that’s true of any team). Jet-quick point Ty Lawson will lead the attack, and Danilo Gallinari will return to the wing as he returns from an ACL tear His primary backup (and Denver’s putative stopper) is Wilson Chandler, although it was not uncommon to see Gallinari and Chandler play in tandem in Karl’s smallball configurations.
The other backcourt starting spot and rotation minutes are up for grabs, with a cast of other guards including Andre Miller, Evan Fournier, Randy Foye, and the diminutive Nate Robinson, who is the only one of the four unlikely to see much time at the shooting guard position. Denver fans should be rooting for a big breakout from second-year player Fournier, who was impressively fearless and effective during Denver’s first-round loss to Golden State in last year’s playoffs.
The x-factor for Denver may be the endlessly mercurial Javale McGee. An undeniably talented athlete, JaVale occasionally shows flashes of dominant play on the defensive end of the court, with offensive output that is more than adequate. However, throughout his career he has struggled to maintain the level of focus required to excel consistently. Youtube is stocked with a veritable pile of McGee’s follies.
If McGee is unable to take advantage of the extended burn he seems destined to receive, the starting job will likely fall to either J.J. Hickson or Timofey Mozgov, who it appears will return to Denver after spending much of free agency as a very, very available commodity. Hickson currently seems more likely to backup (or possibly even supplant) rebounding madman Kenneth Faried. While all of these players are passable offensive threats, not one of them rates out as an above-average defender, which could lead to many a long night in Denver.
The integration of new players, a new coach, and a new system make it unlikely that Denver will match, much less exceed, last year’s 57-win total. Many observers believe that the upheaval could drop Denver all the way into the lottery considering the brutal nature of the Western Conference. I suspect there is too much talent for a free fall of that magnitude, but I could see Denver being among the handful of teams scrapping for the seventh and eighth seeds as the season winds down. It is a bit shocking and sobering to see how quickly a team filled with quality young players can go from ascendant to seemingly rudderless in a single offseason.