Playoff Result: Lost in First Round
Key Additions: Nate Robinson (free agent), J.J. Hickson (free agent), Randy Foye (free agent), Brian Shaw (coach), Tim Connelly (general manager)
Key Losses: Andre Iguodala (trade), Corey Brewer (free agent), Kosta Koufos (trade), George Karl (coach), Masai Ujiri (general manger)
Projected 2013-14 Record: 36-46 (9th in West)*
What to Expect: “So much of coaching is you cheat your family,” George Karl muttered solemnly to a room full of reporters. He paused, fighting back tears, “This is not about me. This is about a lot of people.” Karl, the 62-year-old head basketball coach of the Nuggets, was accepting his 2013 Coach of the Year award. Less than a month later, he was fired by the organization that he had just led to a franchise record 57 wins. His firing is a cold reminder that the NBA is a business. And when winning regular season games doesn’t equate to playoff victories – Karl was 21-38 in the playoffs with the Nuggets, only escaping the first round once in nine seasons – the nature of business, that only the strong survive, takes over.
The loss of Karl was enough to expect a minor setback for the Nuggets in the 2013-14 campaign, but it was just one in a number of major holes that the team will have to fill. The loss of Masai Ujiri – who skipped town to take over as general manager in Toronto, the team who gave him his NBA start – might leave the biggest shoes to fill but isn’t a loss that will hit so heavily this season as much as it will in the years to come. It’s the loss of Andre Iguodala – the defensive-minded, Olympic gold medalist wing brought in as part of The Dwight Howard Trade – that will be most impactful this season.
Denver was 17th in the NBA in defensive efficiency in 2011-12 – the season before Iguodala – and 10th in 2012-13. The team was 4.5 points better defensively when Iguodala was on the court, per NBA.com stats. Offensively, Iguodala served as a secondary ball handler for Ty Lawson and was the most consistent player in the 2013 playoff loss to the Golden State Warriors. Losing Kosta Koufos and Corey Brewer are minor setbacks, but setbacks nonetheless. Brewer was a mad man in transition and created chaos in Denver’s half court defense. Koufos, while not the fastest or strongest big man, played, for the most part, sound defense and was a solid rebounder on both ends of the floor.
There are real questions for how the team will play defensively. JaVale McGee, as precious as he is, isn’t a 30+ minute a night defender and Kenneth Faried, entering his third season, has struggled thus far with defensive positioning and rotations. That J.J. Hickson was signed this summer shouldn’t help the team’s interior defense.
But while it sounds like the world is collapsing and meatballs are falling out of the sky in Denver, that’s not necessarily the case. Signing Nate Robinson was one of the sneaky-good offseason acquisitions. Robinson brings solid 3-point shooting – the Achilles heel that came back to really hurt the Nuggets in last season’s playoff exit – and can help spell Lawson of the team’s complete ball handling responsibilities. The Robinson signing also means a cutback in Professor Andre Miller’s minutes. And any time you can cut the minutes that Dr. Miller (Ph. D) plays is a good thing.
The Nuggets could expect to make the playoffs this year and they really aren’t wrong for it. Unless a) the Timberwolves and Trailblazers can stay healthy for a full season, b) the New Orleans Pelicans are ready to make major strides and/or c) the Mavericks and Lakers can fight weird roster construction to fight for a bottom playoff spot, Denver’s chances to take a seven or eight seed are pretty good. Danilo Gallinari will return in 2014 and if the other guys can keep the Nuggets afloat through the first third of the season, they should be able to make a push when The Rooster returns.
Matchup with the Hawks: The Hawks will see the Nuggets twice: the first meeting is at the Pepsi Center in Denver on Nov. 7, the second is in Atlanta on March 15. Neither will probably be thaaaaaaaaat meaningful in the big scheme of things, but they are worth looking at anyways.
No one player in Denver’s stable of big men – JaVale McGee, Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur, J.J Hickson, Timofey Mozgov – is as good as either Al Horford or Paul Millsap. Horford, in particular, should have a field day against Denver’s defensively unstable front court. Where McGee and Faried have the athletic advantage, Horford and Millsap’s upper hand lies in having the basic understanding of offensive front court spacing and passing. Horford scored 25 points and pulled down 12 rebounds in the Hawks’ first matchup against Denver last year. His 18 and 13 line in the second game is nothing to turn your nose up at either.
Gallinari is better than any wing on the Hawks and Wilson Chandler brings roster fluidity that the Hawks can’t match. But Gallo won’t be available for the team’s first matchup and after Chandler the Denver roster is a little murky. Evan Fournier stalled out in the playoffs and it’s still relatively unknown whether Jordan Hamilton or Quincy Miller is ready for stable rotational minutes.
The point guard matchup is an interesting one: Jeff Teague and Ty Lawson are often categorized in the same tiers. Lawson is the better player, but it’s a lot closer than a lot of people might think. A sneaky-fun matchup here is the Dennis Schröder versus Nate Robinson duel that will happen in secondary lineups. They both possess an inherent peskiness that makes them lovable and just frustrating enough for good theater. I want to imagine a one-on-one game where only Robinson plays offense and he has to score 20 points against Schröder before the game ends. If we can get this to happen this year, all of my NBA cravings will be satisfied.
*predicted record based on Bo’s ESPN Forecast projections for every team