A young and budding team has sat outside the playoff picture in a competitive west since the 2013 departure of Andre Iguodala and then coach of the year George Karl. The system seemed to shamble in the year after Karl’s departure, as the team dropped from 57-25 in ’13 to a disappointing 36-46 under new coach Brian Shaw in ‘14. Luckily, things are looking up. The Nuggets have brought in new meat in the front office and coaching staff, as well as high potential youth in the form of draft picks and recruits. In the official developmental growth stage, Denver’s five-year plan looks more likely to put them in standing for success.
As the season approaches, evaluating a nearly complete offseason becomes easier. Since his mesmerizing outbreak in the FIBA basketball word cup last year, Kenneth Faried has become the centerpiece and ground layer for the construction of a new Nugget organization. Since Karl’s departure several athletes have followed, but Denver has made their best attempts to replace voided slots with younger talent to compliment The Manimal. Faried went through his usual early season struggles despite his performances in FIBA in 2014. Fortunately he fell into his groove once the Nuggets removed Brian Shaw from the picture.
Timofey Mozgov was moved to Cleveland in January of 2015 for two first round picks. The stockpiling of picks is the smartest way for young teams to continue to bring in young assets and have the necessary wiggle room to move up in drafts, attract free agents, and persuade other organizations to partake in deals. Denver quickly slid in Bosnian rookie Josef Nurkic into Mozgov’s role. The rookie complimented Faried well, averaging 8.3 points and 8 boards in his new starting role as well as impressive defensive statistics. At just 20 years old, the 6-11 280 pound Bosnian could be a force to reckon with and make for an intimidating frontcourt duo in Denver.
In the start of a busy offseason, the Nuggets made smart changes with the introduction of new head coach Mike Malone in June. Malone had up and down experiences with his former Kings’ team, (The Kings were bad, and star DeMarcus Cousins brings a large coaching challenge) but has promising coaching techniques to match what Denver’s strengths are. Shaw failed as a Denver coach because of his slow offense mentality to work deep into offensive sets and plays and not focus on the athleticism and IQ of his players in quick situations. Malone will bring in experience and knowledge of how to successfully work a fast paced offense and aggressive defensive game style.
Draft day came with expectations of getting an interesting swing recruit such as Mario Hezonja or Justice Winslow. Surprisingly, incredibly hyped PG Emmanuel Mudiay dropped into the Nuggets’ lap at their 7th pick. The guard is raw, but is surrounded by the capability to grow into a star. His athleticism and ability to pass and handle the ball could spark an exciting Denver offense. He attacks the basket with young naivety, but not the kind that makes you cringe. He will be able to contribute immediately to a athletic and scoring offense, but troubled star PG Ty Lawson stood in his way.
Denver managed to solve this issue, dumping Lawson to Houston in a too-little-too-late scenario. The Nuggets missed on the opportunity to capitalize on Lawson’s value earlier in the summer. In the Houston deal, they brought in another first round pick, the athletic Nick Johnson, no name Kostas Papanewguineaikolauo, the arthritic Pablo Prigioni, and energy hype-man Joey Dorsey. Not much substance in return for a potential all star guard that makes Houston an immediate threat for a finals berth in the West. If only they had moved Lawson when the guard had begun to show signs of turning bad apple. Specifically, a draft day trade would have been ideal. The Sacramento Kings looked like Elmer Fudd hunting for Buggs the way they pursued a high caliber guard this offseason. It only would have made sense, especially since Lawson agreed with Karl’s (the now Kings head coach) play style. They could have shipped Lawson to the Kings for their 6th pick in the draft, and stolen away a contributory bench player as well. Or they could have moved Lawson to the Knicks who still are desperate for a real PG for their 4th pick. With the 4th or 6th pick they could have selected high risk high reward player such as Mario Hezonja from Spain or a defensive prospect that could pan out as an all around player such as Justice Winslow or Cauley Stein. Instead they sit on Nick Johnson, who enters a cloudy guard depth chart beneath second year player Gary Harris, washed up veteran Jameer Nelson, and the inexperienced Will Barton.
Regardless, the offseason moves bring in fresh talent with Mudiay, and Malone’s fast paced system should give Faried free range to develop into the star we predicted him to become.
Entering the 2015-’16 season, the Nuggets don’t have high hopes to perform. The year should be taken with a grain of salt and dissected by the growth of their youth rather than their likely lackluster record. The depth chart predicts Jameer Nelson to start at the 1, with Randy Foye at SG, Danilo Gallinari at SF, Faried at the 4, and Nurkic holding down the paint at center. I prefer their offensive and defensive play styles when they start Wilson Chandler with Danilo rather than Foye. Foye is a smart 6th man to come off the bench and provide dependable scoring and shooting. Don’t expect Nelson to start many games before they hand over the reigns to Mudiay either. The young guard needs minutes to develop, and the coaching staff recognizes that. He could have a rocky statistical first year, but it is important that they build on lineups that work for his success. With the league wide trend of playing small ball seeming primed to take over the NBA next season, there will be multiple games where the Nuggets start Faried at center with Chandler and Gallinari at the 3 and 4, and Mudiay and Foye at the 1 and 2.
Under Malone’s new system which runs fast paced “Jungle” style formats, the PG works the offense through the bigs and allows for a series of plays off the elbow. This will allow Mudiay, Faried, and Nurkic to really develop into their own.
Upon release of the 2015-’16 NBA schedule, the Nuggets are commonly believed to have the short end of the stick. Although their longest home and away streaks are favoring (five straight away games and eight straight home games) and they have just 17 back-to-back games, the Nuggets have zero televised games. It may not sound crucial but TV games cause motivation for higher level performance among players –especially young competitors. A more relaxed game stretch leads into the All Star break with games against the Knicks, Pistons, Nets, Jazz, and Bulls which should allow for fresh legs to come out after the All Star break. Over all, their strength of schedule is on the harder more demanding side, and will test all aspects of a young core.
Expect to see them on highlight reels with many Mudiay-to-Faried alley oops, and a big win against a strong team here and there. A .500 record should be the Nuggets’ goal, and with the correct institution of plays and offensive sets to compliment the teams strengths that isn’t out of reach. Unfortunately in the west you need to be much better than .500 for a playoff berth. Another lottery offseason is to follow. Look forward to playoff contention three years down the road. Hopefully Faried can perform at All Star level this season, and draw a better two way 3 in free agency. Mudiay has rookie of the year potential, but Nuggets fans should not get discouraged if he underperforms.
The Denver Nuggets are young team with promise to continue and grow. Fans can happily watch the development grow from a lottery team to a hopeful competitor in the playoffs.