Only one year removed from a franchise-record winning season, the Denver Nuggets missed the playoffs for the first time in a decade.
After setting a NBA franchise-record for most wins in a regular season and seeing their coach win Coach of the Year last season, the Nuggets slid down the standings this season and missed the playoffs for the first time in a decade.
After firing George Karl following their first round flameout against the Golden State Warriors, Denver brought in Brian Shaw during the offseason, who guided the team to a 36-46 record – the fifth-worst in the Western conference and the team’s worst finish since before the Carmelo Anthony era.
The team continued to be an offensive powerhouse, playing the third-fastest pace (98.1) and scoring the ninth-most points per game (104.4) in the league – albeit at a lesser rate than last season’s team, which was first in points and fifth in offensive rating.
The Nuggets really could score with the best of them, finishing 11th in field goals and three-point field goals made and eighth in free throws made.
However, they gave up points faster than they could score them, finishing the season 28th in points against per game (106.5) and with the 21st ranked defensive efficiency (108.2), allowing opponents to knock down the seventh best percentage against from downtown.
And while they dominated the boards (second in the league), finished top-15 in assists (12th) and erased shots on the regular (fourth), they also finished dead last in fouls against (also giving up the second-most free throws against) and third-worst in the league in turnovers.
Needless to say, Shaw’s squad could stand to work on their defensive game if they aim to climb the standings next season.
Kenneth Faried continued to blossom as one of the league’s best energy guys, putting up 13.7 points (a career-best) and 8.6 rebounds in just 27.2 minutes per night.
Joining Faried on Denver’s all offence, no defence frontline, JJ Hickson fell just shy of averaging a double-double with 11.8 points and 9.2 rebounds (20th in the league) per game.
Also impressive in the Nuggets frontcourt, Timofey Mozgov had a breakout year, averaging 12.0 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in games in which he played at least 20 minutes – highlighted by a monster 23-point, 29-rebound and three-block destruction of the Warriors.
Offseason addition Randy Foye (13.2 points and 3.5 assists) had his best season since his time with the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2008/09, while midseason acquisition Aaron Brooks (11.9 points and 5.2 assists) eased the pain of losing Nate Robinson (10.4 points) to an ACL tear in late January.
Evan Fournier (8.4 points) showed signs of improvement in his second year, while Wilson Chandler (13.6 points and 4.7 rebounds) filled the void at small forward gallantly once he returned from injury.
Most Valuable Player
The diminutive Ty Lawson continued to press his claim as one of the league’s most underrated point guards (and players in general) as he did his best to lead the Nuggets through a disappointing season.
The North Carolina product had his best professional season to date, averaging 17.6 points, 8.8 assists (third in the league) and 1.6 steals (15th) per game – all career-highs.
Denver will be ruing the fact Lawson was forced to miss 20 games with various injuries, as he was clearly their best player for the season.
His speed has always been amongst the elite in the league, and he truly utilised it this season to get into the paint and draw countless free throws. Despite his small frame, Lawson finished the season ranked 17th in made attempts from the stripe.
His shooting percentages did take a small hit this season, but as much is expected when a player is forced to take on a much larger role in the offence and faces the opposition’s best defender each night – especially one of Lawson’s stature.
However, the most impressive improvement in the former 18th overall pick’s game was his improved floor vision, assisting on 38.2% of all Denver’s buckets – up eight per cent from last season and ahead of the likes of LeBron James, Tony Parker and Kyrie Irving.
Denver has been a “team without a star” since the Carmelo trade, but Lawson has been the closest the Nuggets have come to an All-Star in that period.
Starters Danilo Gallinari and JaVale McGee played a combined five games for the season, with Gallinari missing the entire season thanks to two separate ACL surgeries and McGee managing just 79 total minutes through a quintet of games before being ruled out for the year with a stress fracture in his left leg.
The two setbacks put Denver behind the eight ball before the season had barely begun.
Gallinari’s scoring, size and ability to spread the floor (16.2 points, 37.2% 3FG and 5.2 rebounds per game in 2012-13) would have been a huge upgrade from the inconsistent and at times disengaged Chandler at the three spot.
Meanwhile, McGee for all his mental lapses and Shaqin’ a Fool moments could have provided the interior defensive presence that Denver so desperately missed throughout the season. He butted heads with coach Karl and struggled with the altitude at times, but the potential is clearly there – McGee has averaged 17.9 points, 9.6 rebounds and 3.7 blocks per 36 minutes in his time in the Mile-High City.
Considering the depth of talent in the Western Conference, it might not have meant automatic entry to the postseason, but the addition of The Rooster and Pierre Squilliam M. could have at least kept the Nuggets in touch with the lower seedings.
Denver entered this season’s draft with three picks – 11th, 41st and 56th overall – and was involved in one of the biggest moves of the night, dealing the 11th selection, Doug McDermott, and Anthony Randolph to the Chicago Bulls for Gary Harris, Jusuf Nurkic and a 2015 second-round pick.
Harris, who spent two seasons at Michigan State, should fit perfectly into coach Shaw’s system. He is an excellent scorer and shooter, who averaged 16.7 points per game on 42.9% from the floor and 35.2% from deep in his sophomore season with the Spartans – his 56.1% true shooting percentage was on par with Carmelo’s this season.
Meanwhile, the 19-year-old shooting guard is also a highly-rated defender, which is something Denver desperately needs on the perimeter.
Nurkic could not be more different to Harris if he tried. A 6’10”, 280 pound monster out of Croatia, Nurkic boasts gaudy averages of 33 points, 14 rebounds, 4.1 steals, 1.9 blocks and 11.7 free throw attempts per 40 minutes and lead the Eurocup in Player Efficiency Rating.
However, he is also just 19 years old and the transition to the NBA is likely to be a difficult one as he is still learning the game – Nurkic only picked up a basketball for the first time in 2009.
Regardless, Denver was one of the biggest winners on draft night, addressing two positions for the price of one and even collecting a future pick in the process.
However, there wont be much room for Denver to move with in free agency. With the salary cap expected to increase to roughly $63 million, and the Nuggets committed to $64.7 million – not including the player options of Robinson and Darrell Arthur, a team option for Quincy Miller and up to three new rookie salaries – they are at risk of seeing several players walk.
Denver has their hands tied to the roster they have assembled and unless they can find a trade partner in the offseason, the Nuggets will need to hope their returning players and rookie addition(s) can push them into the postseason.
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