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Strange Days for the Denver Nuggets

When the Denver Nuggets fired Brian Shaw on March 3, the team was 20-39, and Shaw’s dismissal was mostly viewed as a mercy-firing. The former head coach had difficulty relating to the team’s young players, who weren’t enamored with Shaw’s slowed-down, defense-first approach to the game. Whether the blame belongs with Shaw or his shirking players has been the subject of debate, but one element most everyone can agree on is how poor of a fit Shaw was for this particular team.

Case in point: the team’s sudden success under interim head coach Melvin Hunt, who has led the Nuggets to a 6-3 record since he took over for Shaw. For sake of comparison, it took Shaw more than a month to win his last six games with this club.

While Hunt’s first three wins against so-so competition––Bucks, Timberwolves, and Knicks––the quality of Hunt’s next three wins has been impressive, with victories at home over the Warriors and Hawks to go along with a road win in New Orleans. To no one’s surprise, this Denver team is clearly happy to be rid of Shaw; the distance between their energy level from a month ago to now is a chasm.

Hunt deserves credit for helping this team sustain that energy, though, as the jubilation in the wake of firing a disliked coach usually only carries a team for so long. He’s been able to accomplish that in part thanks to his long-time connection with many of these players. Hunt served as an assistant under George Karl and was a part of the 2012-13 Nuggets team that won 57 games playing a fast-paced game behind the likes of Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, and Kenneth Faried, all of whom remain crucial players for Denver.

The team has enjoyed a bit of a return to that style under Hunt, “enjoyed” being the keyword there, what with all the happiness and the winning. Since Hunt took over 9 games ago, according NBA Stats, the Nuggets have a 104.7 offensive rating against a 99.3 rating on defense, good for a 5.4 net rating overall. They hung 111 on the surging Spurs in San Antonio despite taking a loss, then put up 115 and 114 points in wins against the Hawks and Warriors, respectively.

This group was very fond of the free-flowing, fast-paced style of offense that brought them so much success with Karl at the helm, and Hunt has encouraged a return to that kind of play. Denver is gassing opponents at home especially, where the Nuggets have played at a blistering pace of 101.1 possessions per 48 during their last 5 games there, per NBA Stats again. They’re 4-1 in those contests with a net rating of 10.8.

NBA: MAR 13 Warriors at Nuggets

Kenneth Faried and the Nuggets have been rejuvenated since Brian Shaw’s firing

 

On Monday night, the Nuggets lost to the Grizzlies on the road in a game where Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried, and Danilo Gallinari were all inactive for rest purpose, kind of a strange decision given Denver’s revitalized play recently. Sure, each of the players had played more than 40 minutes during their win against the Pelicans during the previous night, but with the exception of Gallinari, who is coming back from his second serious knee injury in two years, sitting two healthy young players with only 15 games to play when you’re going to miss the playoffs doesn’t make a lot of sense.

That is, unless you’re tanking. Which begs the question, have the Nuggets been working a low-key tank job this entire season? Is that why they kept Brian Shaw drive this clown car all the way into the lake before finally yanking him from the driver’s seat?

It’s certainly a more cynical way to view Shaw’s time with the team, but given how unmotivated the team looked during virtually his entire tenure, it almost feels like a more logical way to understand how he stayed coaching this year’s team for almost 60 games. Perhaps the front office finally thought the team had sunk low enough to ensure a decent pick, or perhaps they thought Shaw’s tactics were finally becoming detrimental to the younger player’s progress, then decided to let Hunt pump them back up before next season.

Depending how you interpret this tweet from the Denver Post’s Chris Dempsey last night, the front office does appear to have a hand in the current goings-on:

That could also imply the training staff has something to do with it, but either way, some power higher than the coach has something to do with authorizing who plays and who doesn’t play. For a team with nothing to lose (aside from higher-draft-choice potential) to be sitting guys who want to play, someone with influence must be playing at something greater than a mid-March regular-season game.

It’s an interesting situation for Denver, whose recent run of wins put them past the Kings, Magic, and Pistons in the lottery chase, from the fifth-best odds at no. 1 to ninth, which is a problem if you want a top-five draft choice, which is generally considered the range necessary to snag a superstar player, which is generally considered the best way to win a championship. As Andrew Feinstein at Denver Stiffs points out, only five teams since 1980 have even made the Finals without a top-five choice on the roster––the Jazz with Malone and Stockton, the Trail Blazers with Drexler and Porter, and the 76ers with Irving and Malone.

This Nuggets team is nowhere near the playoffs right now, let alone a championship, so letting these guys rest would seem to serve no other purpose aside from preventing Denver from playing themselves out of the lottery. Whether you wholly believe that or not, all of this is unmistakably odd.

Whatever is going on in Denver––and it’s hard to tell, just ask Wilson Chandler (via Dempsey, again)––the team’s future certainly looks brighter now under Hunt, who has this group playing extremely well again. Maybe even too well, depending how the front office sees it, but Hunt’s just trying to keep his job by fixing what Bryan Shaw broke.

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