The Denver Nuggets look almost nothing like the team George Karl coached in 2012-13; the only holdovers from that team, which won 57 games, has been reduced to Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried and Danilo Gallinari as the Nuggets fully establish themselves to rebuilding.
To wit, things haven’t gone well. They’ve somewhat stumbled forward, never thinking ahead more than one move at a time. To their credit, the Nuggets have secured a high-caliber coach in Mike Malone and assembled a decent cadre of young talent, but they’re still a long way off from competing for the postseason in the tough Western Conference.
WHAT HAPPENED LAST YEAR
The 2014-15 season wasn’t kind to the Nuggets, who won just 30 games and finished with the 12th-worst record in the league. That was due to a collection of reasons, including injuries, bad coaching and chemistry.
Rumors circulated through the season that two of the Nuggets’ biggest stars, Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried, wanted to be traded, not wanting to be a part of a rebuilding plan. The third player they had who could even remotely be considered a star, Danilo Gallinari, missed 23 games due to injury and struggled when he first came back.
Brian Shaw’s old-school coaching style didn’t mesh well with the players, and the team composition, built around swing men and versatility, didn’t really work with his traditional offensive philosophy. But Shaw thought if he tried hard enough, he could smash the square peg into the round hole. That didn’t work out and eventually he got fired before the season was over.
Suffice to say, it was a bad year for the Nuggets.
WHAT HAPPENED THIS SUMMER
The Nuggets made several changes this summer, jettisoning the problematic and discontent Lawson to the Houston Rockets for essentially scraps, more concerned about relieving themselves of the player than what they might get in return after his second DUI arrest.
They landed a potential star when they drafted Emmanuel Mudiay with the No. 7 pick, and he’s a legitimate candidate to win Rookie of the Year. With the ball in his hands a lot, he’ll have a chance to produce some big numbers and prove his worth.
The Nuggets also added Malone as their head coach, in a bizarre, windy way, swapping captains with the Sacramento Kings, who added the aforementioned Karl last season before the All-Star break. (There is, however, no word on which coach Karl Malone prefers in the Karl vs. Malone challenge.)
So, while the Nuggets didn’t do anything to make themselves a contender, they did do enough to make themselves a little more interesting. Jameer Nelson will continue to provide underrated contributions and should be a nice mentor to Mudiay.
However, the issue of the team’s defense (26th in Defensive Rating last year) wasn’t addressed. This really isn’t even a coaching issue. In fact, for all his flaws, Shaw was at least of a defensive mind. The reality is that this team just doesn’t have much in the way of stoppers.
It’s so bad, in fact, that a fair argument could be made that the best defender they have is Jusuf Nurkic, who while promising, still has a long way to go after just one season in the league in which he played 1,103 minutes.
KEY PLAYER TO WATCH
Nurkic and Mudiay will receive plenty of media attention, but the player to keep an eye on is Gallinari, who, when he’s been at his best, is star-caliber. However, the reason he’s not a true star right now is that he hasn’t been able to stay on the court enough.
Over the last four seasons, out of 312 possible games, he’s played in just 173. And his averages are a bit misleading over that time because such a large chunk of his minutes are recovering from the injuries.
But a healthy Gallinari at the end of last season was pretty electric after the break, averaging 18.6 points in 31.2 minutes per game on 60.2 percent true shooting. That included a 47-point outing against the Dallas Mavericks on April 10 when he was 15-of-23 from the field and 7-of-12 from deep. He can light it up.
Apart from defense, the biggest weakness the Nuggets have is a proven player who can generate points for them in the clutch. The closest they have is Gallinari, so when the game is on the line, he’s the one you ought to be watching.
It’d be generous to say the Nuggets can even match last year’s 30-win total, and they have a better chance of winning the lottery than they do of getting to the playoffs. They may have gotten rid of their biggest headache in Lawson, but he was also their best player.
And over time, the effective Mudiay-for-Lawson swap may pay off, but it won’t show up this season. The ceiling for the Nuggets is 25 wins and they could come well short of that. With an awful defense and no proven player who can consistently carry the offense, it’s going to be a long season in Denver.