Wilson Chandler, in the waning moments of the Nuggets' final game of the season (Getty Images)
With every season that ends, for the playoff teams at least, we felt it right to take a look ahead. TNT already has the rights to "Gone Fishin'," and because we're sure that someone, somewhere, still likes that Wyclef song, we're going with "Gone Till November." And, yes, we know the season starts in October. Today? The Denver Nuggets.
As with all of these season-enders, judging the Denver Nuggets on the basis of the team’s disappointing first round exit seems like a silly exercise. The first round featured a six game sample size against one single team, not the NBA at large, one that the Nuggets took on without one of their best players, and with another pair of crucial Nugget-level stars working through injury.
The swiftness of the exit, though, and the team’s inability to counter what was a pretty consistent and expected Golden State attack leaves the Nuggets prone to criticism. It’s true that a singular game-changing force – in this case Golden State’s ability to get what they wanted on the perimeter – can be sloughed off as a bad matchup not worth obsessing about in the offseason, but this series wasn’t as close as the 4-2 ending suggests. The Warriors handed it to the Nuggets in the postseason, and this should be fresh on everyone’s mind as the team approaches its offseason.
Again, Golden State is one team out of 30. But it also looked like the perfect pairing for Nuggets coach George Karl to unleash his litany of athletes and contributors on. Denver went into 2012-13 giddy at the prospect of a newly acquired all-around contributor in Andre Iguodala both shoring up the team’s defense, rounding out the team’s cadre of playmakers, while providing yet another athletic element to a team that thrives in the open court. And now it’s ending the year looking like a B-level version of the Warriors team that just eliminated them from the playoffs.
Iguodala’s defense was brilliant this season, but it wasn’t enough to vault the Nuggets into a top ten ranking on that end overall. “Freed” from having to initiate the show as he did in Philadelphia, Dre’s numbers fell across the board in 2012-13, though strangely both his usage stats and turnovers percentages shot way up. His three-point shooting dipped below his career averages, and his free throw shooting fell for the third consecutive year to an unacceptable 57 percent. And this wasn’t a case of Andre needing time to fit into the first new system of his nine-year career. These were season-long struggles. At age 29, mostly, his probable prime.
Iguodala can make over $16 million next season if he chooses to opt into the final year of his contract, but many expect him to opt out so as to take a smaller 2013-14 salary as a sacrifice on the way toward a long, max-year contract that would pay him into his 30s. Another year like this in Denver – and this is coming from someone who is more than aware of his defensive attributes – and he’d be facing a stiff market in 2014 at age 30.
That’s just about the end of the free agent intrigue for Denver, but that doesn’t mean the team is up against some serious questions.
Iguodala was masterful in Denver's Game 6 loss (Getty Images)
After that, it’s time to sort out some of the knuckleheads.
JaVale McGee was awful in the Warriors series. He played terrible defense outside of those six blocks in 116 minutes, he fouled like mad, turned the ball over quite a bit, and was a detriment on both sides of the ball. Corey Brewer is getting some mainstream pub for an unfortunate quarter-ending run of play during Thursday’s Game 6, but his woes went far beyond that stretch. Brewer (a free agent this summer) was atrocious defensively in this series, compounding that play by missing 27 of 36 three-pointers. Wilson Chandler is not a knucklehead, but he shot a series of knuckleballs against Golden State – making just 35 percent of his shots overall and 9-29 from behind the arc.
Again, this was supposed to be an offense-first team going against a defensively-challenged crew from Golden State. A small sample size, sure, but also what happens when you cannot get stops and attempt to work a half court offense with a series of players that aren’t effortless shooters, or scorers.
Save for Ty Lawson. Who, after Thursday night, may have to play 48 minutes a game next season.
Lawson’s backup Andre Miller followed up a game-winner in Game 1 and a 6-9 shooting night in the defense-less Game 2 by missing 32 of his last 44 shots. Following the Game 6 loss, Miller snuck in a few digs at both his head coach and teammates in a way that typified what was an atypical and disappointing year from the point guard.
This is the man, the VETERAN, who responded to the team’s significant midseason turnaround with a February trade demand. This is the man, the VETERAN, who responded to George Karl’s much-criticized reliance on him with a grumble of a post-game interview on Thursday night, pointing out that the Nuggets were “outcoached” as well as outplayed, and telling reporters that his young teammates had learned “nothing” as they attempted to give Andre Miller his first second round appearance of his long career.
Dating back to his college days, we’ve long appreciated Miller’s guts and guile. And his ability to expertly toss a lob pass makes him a perfect fit in this offense at times. Every other part of Miller’s game and attitude do not. Karl may have been outcoached, and the Nuggets youngsters may still play like doofuses at times, but remarks like these are beneath a rookie.
Miller is not a free agent this summer. In fact, he has a year left at around the league’s average salary, and a partially-guaranteed deal for 2014-15. He simply cannot play alongside Ty Lawson defensively, though, and it appears as if he doesn’t want any part of playing behind Ty Lawson. Which is a shame.
Which leaves the Nuggets facing an unsteady season next year. This was supposed to be the year, with the team taking in its licks early while dealing with a tough road schedule to start the year, and 82 full games to figure out the synergy and trust needed to turn a team-first roster into something special. Instead, injuries, poor decision-making, and internal grumbling led to a dismissal before playoffs were even two weeks old.
Now the team is faced with trying to bring it all back, with Iguodala getting on in years, Miller as gruff as ever, and Gallinari possibly needing until the spring of 2014 to resume playing as he did this year. For an observer that enjoyed the Nuggets at their 2013-14 peak so much, this is depressing.
This still could be a call to arms, and even more wild transactions. I’m anxious to see what Karl and general manager Masai Ujiri’s take results in.
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