As the dust settles on one of the most turbulent off-seasons in recent memory, Denver basketball fans are left wondering whether or not the Nuggets have done enough to stay relevant in the Western Conference.
Although the Nuggets set a franchise record for wins last season (their 57-25 record left them just one game behind the eventual Western Conference champion Spurs), the season ended with a first round exit that had become characteristic of now ex-head coach George Karl’s career with the team.
Third-seeded Denver was outmatched and outplayed by the electric Stephen Curry and the sixth seeded Golden State Warriors. The 4-2 series loss not only brought an abrupt end to the promising season, but exposed what has been the main criticism of Karl and GM Masai Ujiri’s year and a half long experiment in wake of the Carmelo Anthony departure, the lack of a super-star.
The Nuggets played a high-octane, fast paced game all season, and kept opposing teams on their heels with their diversity of talent and deep bench. At 106.1 points per game, Denver had the highest scoring offense in the league.
However, when it came down to crunch time and the Nuggets needed someone to takeover a game, the young Denver squad looked lost. Aside from the budding star Ty Lawson, none of the Nuggets looked as though they had what it takes to win in a playoff environment.
Andre Iguodala and Wilson Chandler were next to non-existent in the series, and Golden State’s trio of David Lee, Andrew Bogut, and Carl Landry overshadowed big men Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee. The Nuggets were knocked out of the first round for the fourth straight year.
Some might say that the loss of small forward Danilo Gallinari played a big factor in the Nuggets playoff woes, but the point of Karl’s post-Melo strategy was that the team would have the depth overcome an injury to one of its’ players.
So even though Ujiri was named NBA Executive of the Year and Karl was named NBA Coach of the year, the disappointing end to a great season threw a wrench in duo’s future with a young Nuggets squad.
Ujiri bolted back to the Toronto Raptors, where he previously worked as the Assistant GM before being hired by the Nuggets. Karl allowed his name to get wrapped up in the LA Clippers head coach talks, and perhaps got an inflated sense of self, leading to his firing by Owner Josh Kroenke.
This turmoil has left the Nuggets in a strange spot. While they were one of the best regular season teams last year, the playoffs proved that they are still a long ways off from challenging the likes of the Heat, Spurs, Thunder, and other top contenders in the league.
Kroenke’s rebuild began with the hiring of New Orleans’ assistant GM, the 36-year-old Tim Connelly, to replace Ujiri.
Connelly has spent time in the front offices of two of the basement dwellers of the league, New Orleans and Washington, but this has given him the opportunity to scout some of the top young talent that has come into the league for the past 10 years.
Next, Kroenke and Connelly courted the most sought after name on this year’s coaching carousel, Indiana Pacers assistant and disciple of NBA guru Phil Jackson, Brian Shaw.
After working as an assistant with the Lakers from 2005-2011 and the Pacers from 2011-2013, this will be the first time that Shaw has been at the helm of his own NBA squad.
If one thing is clear about the Nuggets’ new management, it’s that they have a lot to prove. Their first chance to do so came in the free agency scramble that included one of the Nuggets’ centerpieces from last season, restricted free agent Andre Iguodala.
Connelly claimed that bringing back the 29 year-old shooting guard was his number one priority in the offseason. However, Iguodala had a different vision for his future, and decided that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, rejecting the Nuggets and taking a pay cut to join the Golden State Warriors.
As other top free agents, such as big men Dwight Howard, Josh Smith, and Al Jefferson, and shooting guards J.J. Reddick and Jarrett Jack found new homes, the Nuggets appeared to be sitting on the sidelines, watching potential suitors to fill the team’s needs get snatched up by other teams.
Denver waited nearly a week into free agency to make their first move, which was to bring in Portland’s J.J. Hickson, a 24 year-old, 6’9” power forward.
Although the Nuggets will be the fourth team in the NC State graduate’s young career, he has quietly been carving out his place in the NBA and is one of the more undervalued talents in the league.
Last year, with the Trail Blazers, Hickson averaged 12.7 points and 10.4 rebounds, and had 40 double-doubles, the third most among power forwards in the league. Hickson is a tenacious player that brings toughness and experience to a Nuggets frontcourt that was embarrassed by Golden State in the first round.
Hickson, along with the sparkplug Kenneth Faried and the raw, but talented, JaVale McGee, could make the Nuggets frontcourt one of the most intriguing of the 2013-2014 season. And if the Nuggets can stay in the hunt until Gallinari returns from his knee injury in December, it is unlikely that any Western Conference team will look forward to playing Denver in the second half of the season.
The second move by Connelly was to make something out of Iguodala’s decision to leave the Nuggets behind, orchestrating a three team sign and trade deal to bring Utah SG Randy Foye to the Mile High City.
Foye, the seven year veteran out of Villanova, had a .410 three point shooting percentage with the Jazz last year and brings some much needed range to the Nugget’s backcourt. The 6’4” guard will play opposite of Ty Lawson, and hopefully bring more offense to the table than Iguodala was able to.
The new management of the Nuggets has showed some savvy, even though they were not able to keep Iguodala around, and passed on some of the bigger names in the free agency market. It appears as though they will continue to subscribe to the “no superstars” philosophy that Karl cultivated after the Melo trade, at least for the time being.
Shaw seems to be a good candidate to do just that, as he is coming from the Pacers, who drew many comparisons to the Nuggets last year, and challenged that Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The additions of Hickson and Foye address some of the shortcomings of last year’s team, and after eight seasons with George Karl, Shaw will undoubtedly bring a new atmosphere into the Nuggets locker room.
Denver is a very young team with a ton of energy and depth, a great amount of raw talent, and an emerging superstar in point guard Ty Lawson. However, the question remains whether or not their offseason moves will be enough to overcome their first round woes, and allow them to challenge the top teams in a superstar driven league.