Three years ago, the Denver Nuggets were one of the NBA's most invigorating teams, a young, 11-deep crew that came at opponents in waves, pushed the pace and poured in buckets. They had talent at every position, and nearly always proved a fulfilling watch. By midway through last season, though, the Nuggets had become both bad and boring, unable to contend and, even worse, unworthy of League Pass attention. An ignoble failure.
Denver's decisions not to pony up to keep Masai Ujiri and to fire George Karl rather than squabble over his contract sparked a precipitous decline. Brian Shaw proved an awkward fit for the roster he inherited, a group better suited for running and gunning than grinding out triangle-tinged post-ups. (To be fair, Shaw never got to work with perimeter linchpin Andre Iguodala, who left in free agency, and rarely had sweet-shooting forward Danilo Gallinari due to injuries.)
A disappointing 36-46 season gave way to an even worse '14-'15 campaign in which Shaw clashed with his players, openly questioning whether they were giving 100 percent. The energetic Kenneth Faried seemed unplugged. Ty Lawson's shooting and scoring dipped; things got way worse than that for him off the floor.
Ujiri's replacement, GM Tim Connelly, looked toward the future, trading veterans Arron Afflalo and Timofey Mozgov for first-round draft picks. The Nuggets broke a February huddle with a chant of, "1-2-3 ... six weeks," which many believed indicated they'd given up. Nuggets brass fired Shaw; a month later, they sat Lawson, Faried and Gallinari — against their will, evidently — for what seemed like the express purpose of losing, showing the front office had conceded, too.
It was all over but the shoutin', and there wasn't much of that, as Denver whimpered to a 30-52 finish. The goal this year: to find new ways to make noise.
Denver has a new head coach, a new point guard, a (reported) recommitment to running and an (alleged) engagement with defense. It has a roster full of young players eager to make NBA names, several capable veterans on movable contracts, and a passel of picks to package in the right deal. The Nuggets team that finishes the season should look at least somewhat different from the one that opens up on Oct. 28 against the Houston Rockets and old pal Lawson. The question is whether it will once again look like one worth watching, and worth keeping an eye on in the years to come.
2014-15 season in 140 characters or less:
Did the summer help at all?
If nothing else, it marked a needed break from a status quo that had festered and metastasized.
The Nuggets' new day begins with new head coach Michael Malone, recipient of what looked like a raw deal defenestration in Sacramento and hired in June to lead a culturural overhaul. Malone aims to marry the uptempo basketball Nuggets fans love with the defensive accountability that's been his calling card everywhere he's coached. We'll see whether Malone's commitment to the former can get Faried to commit to the latter; so far, both sound happy.
It continues with 2015 lottery pick Emmanuel Mudiay, who will become the second rookie in franchise history to open a season as the Nuggets' starting point guard. (Shouts to Bobby Jackson.) He steps in for Lawson, whom Denver shipped out in exchange for precious little present-day value — three players (Joey Dorsey, Pablo Prigioni, Kostas Papanikolaou) whom the Nuggets waived, plus second-year guard Nick Johnson, who spent most of last year in the D-League — and a lottery-protected 2016 first-round pick.
That's a meager haul for a lightning-fast guard who finished third in the league in assists per game in each of the past two seasons. But then, two DUI arrests in a six-month span — sandwiched around blowing off Denver's first post-All-Star break practice due to "derailed travel plans" — can submarine a player's trade value. Denver didn't believe Lawson could be the stable foundation of a competitive future, and now turns to Mudiay to as its new cornerstone.
The club's not throwing out the baby with the bathwater, though. Connelly used the extra salary cap space created by offloading JaVale McGee in the spring and Lawson this summer to sign Karl-era core forwards Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari to multi-year contract extensions. That will keep them from hitting the free-agent market next summer, when they might have received richer offers from suitors left flush thanks to the league's new $24 billion broadcast rights deal.
Connelly capped his summer by spending short money on young talent — a three-year deal for 24-year-old live wire Will Barton; a four-year deal for 20-year-old Serbian center Nikola Jokic — and solid-citizen veterans like Jameer Nelson, Mike Miller and Darrell Arthur to help the youngsters learn the ropes. The resulting roster leaves lots of questions.
How does Malone divide the minutes in a crowded frontcourt featuring Faried, Arthur, Jokic, rising sophomore Jusuf Nurkic, summer/preseason star Joffrey Lauvergne and veteran J.J. Hickson? With all those bigs, how does Malone play Gallinari at the four, a look that might help unlock an offense that ranked 21st in points scored per possession and 28th in 3-point accuracy last season?
Will two-big lineups push the re-upped Chandler to the bench? Can 2014 first-rounder Gary Harris — too often just a "face in the crowd" as a rook, as RealGM's Jonathan Tjarks put it — take a step forward and win the two-guard job from Barton and Randy Foye? Most importantly, will Mudiay sink or swim after jumping into the NBA's exceptionally deep pool of point guards?
Finding those answers figures to be painful. Not Hanzlik- or Bzdelik-painful, but still, Denver's inexperience might get punished. Sometimes fractured bones must be re-broken to heal correctly, though, and Denver's summer set the stage for a proper reset.
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Go-to offseason acquisition:
Mudiay, anointed the future of the franchise the moment Denver selected him with the No. 7 pick in a move Lawson (correctly) saw as the writing on the wall.
I covered the basics of Mudiay's backstory in May's draft lottery primer — born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, raised in Texas; an elite prep prospect signed to play at SMU before deciding (for one reason or another) to instead turn pro and play in China; sidetracked by injuries, but performed well when healthy for the Guangdong Southern Tigers before returning to the States for the draft.
The 6-foot-5, 200-pound Mudiay might not be quite as explosive as recent top draftees like John Wall, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard. But he's a big, physical triggerman with the poise to control tempo, the athleticism to get into the paint, the frame to finish through contact, and the vision and strength to make some pretty impressive kickout and crosscourt passes. Yes, those GIFs all came from Summer League, and yes, Mudiay has more turnovers (17) than assists (15) through three preseason contests. But as CBSSports.com's Matt Moore notes, the exhibition slate has included some signs that Mudiay's vision and touch will carry over.
The Nuggets' lack of other plus playmakers means Malone will lean heavily on Mudiay to initiate and facilitate. He'll get burn by the boatload — assuming health, it wouldn't be shocking if Mudiay followed in the footsteps of Lillard, Blake Griffin and Andrew Wiggins, all of whom finished in the top five in total minutes as rookies — and the opportunities to shine that come with it.
There'll be bumps along the way. Mudiay's jumper is a work in progress, and rare is the 19-year-old ready to both comfortably orchestrate an offense and credibly defend his position at the NBA level. But if Mudiay shows the flashes the Nuggets think he's capable of providing, he could match Griffin, Lillard and Wiggins in another category.
"You heard it here first," a grinning Barton said last month, according to Christopher Dempsey of the Denver Post. "He's going to be rookie of the year."
Defense. The Nuggets committed more personal fouls and sent opponents to the free-throw line more often than any other NBA team last season. They finished 25th among 30 teams in opponents' field goal percentage and second-chance points allowed, and 26th in points allowed per possession. They seemed to lack both a coherent plan and the personnel to execute it; this is the problem Malone was hired to solve.
It won't be easy, especially with a starting lineup featuring a center either coming off knee surgery (Nurkic) or playing as an ostensible rookie (Lauvergne, Jokic); a power forward (Faried) who has graded out as a clear defensive minus; a small forward (Gallinari) whose quickness might be compromised by leg injuries; and a rookie point guard. In the early going, Malone's preaching fundamental stability more than turnover creation, according to Nate Timmons of BSNDenver.com:
“We’re not a team that’s going to get up and deny in the passing lanes,” said Malone. “We’re more of a shrink the floor team, protect that paint. If we want to protect the paint, well, you can’t get up and deny everything because you’re going to open yourself up to backdoor plays. Our mindset is: let them catch the ball, keep them in front of us, contain the basketball, contest and rebound. Now, if you can get a steal within our defensive rules — I’m all for it. By no means are we saying we want to be a passive defensive team, but we want to be a smart defensive team and take away the paint first. [...]
“The biggest thing is we want to protect the paint, first and foremost. If you’re getting beat in the paint, those high percentage shots around the rim could make for a long night. The 3-point shot that we really want to take away is the corner three. The highest percentage 3-point shot in the league is below the break, easiest shot in the game,” said Malone. “So, we try to make sure that everything we do defensively — in our rules, in our philosophy — [the players] understand that we don’t leave strong side shooters. If the ball is dribbled at you along the baseline, don’t get sucked in, start inching out to take that shot away.”
It's a philosophy Malone has deployed to great effect in the past. As an assistant, he helped build top-10 defenses in Cleveland, New Orleans and Golden State, and he turned the Sacramento Kings from rancid (29th in defensive efficiency in 2012-13) to merely repellent (23rd in 2013-14) to downright respectable (18th before his firing, 15th before DeMarcus Cousins contracted meningitis). Unless multiple young Nuggets take major steps, though, it doesn't look like Malone has the horses to charge up the defensive rankings.
A second concern: shooting. Denver doesn't return a single player who shot 36 percent from 3-point land last season, Mudiay's jumper is far from a finished product, and lineups featuring two of Faried, Nurkic and Hickson suffered from cramped spacing last year. Sharpshooting preseason starts from the more perimeter-oriented Lauvergne and Jokic have earned praise from Malone, which could bear watching if Denver's offense struggles early.
Contributor with something to prove:
Gallinari, who's out to show that — after missing 116 games over the past three seasons following tears to the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee (an injury the Nuggets waited to repair, to everyone's detriment) and the meniscus in his right knee — he can be a star in this league.
Once considered the jewel of the trade that sent Carmelo Anthony to New York, Gallinari missed the entire 2013-14 season recovering from the ACL tear he suffered just before the '13 playoffs. He rarely looked like his long-bombing, playmaking self early last season, shooting just 36 percent from the floor and 31.4 percent from 3 in 18.8 mostly awkward minutes per game through 24 contests. Then came the meniscus tear, another surgery and more rehab that sidelined him for another month and sentenced him to another round of knocking off the rust.
After the All-Star break, though, Gallo got right. Reinserted in Denver's starting lineup, his rhythm and confidence returned, and the shots started falling: Gallinari averaged just under 19 points, five rebounds and two assists in 31 minutes per game after the break, shooting 40.4 percent from 3 on nearly seven deep attempts per contest. He built on that hot finish this summer, averaging nearly 18 points, seven rebounds and three assists in 30 minutes per game on 57/40/88 shooting to lead Italy to EuroBasket's quarterfinals.
When Gallinari's fully operational, he's fun and useful — an accurate 6-foot-10 volume shooter with range and without a conscience, who can post up smaller defenders, beat bigs off the bounce, run pick-and-rolls, make smart passes, help on the glass and create cross-match/mismatch nightmares. That kind of player has value for the rebuilding Nuggets. It might have more value, though, for a contender seeking a ballsy bomber for its postseason run ... provided Gallo proves he can stay on the floor.
Potential breakout stud:
Mudiay, but since we've already discussed him, let's go with the 6-foot-11, 280-pound Nurkic, whose mammoth stature, surprisingly deft passing — only 15 centers last year played 1,000 minutes and dropped dimes on at least 7 percent of their teammates' buckets; Nurkic was one of them — nimbler-than-you'd-expect footwork and litany of trash-talking taunts make him something of a Marc Gasol-as-a-Wrestling Heel Starter Kit. (Unsurprisingly, Nurkic has already beefed with Big Spain.)
Nurkic's offensive game looks more instinctive than polished — he reportedly only started playing organized ball six years ago — but he could be the key to Malone's planned point-prevention overhaul. Opponents shot just 48.5 percent at the rim with Nurkic defending, according to NBA.com's SportVU player tracking data — well below elite rim protectors like Rudy Gobert, Serge Ibaka, Andrew Bogut and Roy Hibbert, but in line with DeAndre Jordan and Anthony Davis. Nylon Calculus' rim protection stats estimate that his presence prevented 1.3 more points per 36 minutes of floor time than the average NBA center, the same full-season mark turned in by Mozgov, Nerlens Noel and Brook Lopez.
At only 20 years of age, Nurkic pulled down rebounds and blocked shots at rates that would've ranked among the NBA's 10 best had he played enough minutes to qualify. Denver allowed 5.2 fewer points per 100 possessions last year with him on the floor — the on/off equivalent of the yawning chasm separating the Washington Wizards' No. 5-ranked defense and the Orlando Magic's No. 25-ranked unit.
The problem: Nurkic couldn't stay on the court, tallying 207 personal fouls in 1,103 total minutes. That's 6.8 personals per 36 minutes, which is a problem, because they only let you commit six at this level. (The only guys who hacked as frequently as Nurkic were bit-parters who played nearly 1,000 fewer minutes than him.)
Nurkic will need to slide his feet more and reach less if he wants to avoid an early hook; that might be tough to start the season, as he's still working his way back from left knee surgery in May. If he can, though, he should build on an All-Rookie Second Team campaign that was a pleasant surprise to Denver fans ... and decidedly unpleasant for everyone he faced.
Gallinari stays upright and productive. Faried gives Malone maximum effort on the defensive end, which Nurkic anchors. Mudiay sparkles en route to Rookie of the Year. Malone leads the Nuggets to league-average marks on both ends, flirting with the No. 8 seed into March before settling at a .500 finish that produces ample excitement about the future ... especially after the Knicks fall apart, allowing Denver to swap its late lottery pick for a top-five choice, the final gift of the Carmelo trade.
If everything falls apart:
Mudiay bricks away and struggles to adjust or, even worse, misses lots of time due to injuries. Gallinari falls apart. The honeymoon ends when Faried realizes Malone's serious about this "defense" thing. A leaky D can't generate enough stops to run, leaving Denver disjointed, punchless and — for the third straight season — losing more games than they have since the year before drafting 'Melo.
Kelly Dwyer's notoriously unreliable crystal ball:
25-57, 13th in the West.
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