Nuggets News: Winning without a Superstar?

Free agency is right around the corner, and with it comes somewhat of a watershed moment for the Denver Nuggets franchise. Two of their best starters are among the most desired free agents and the Nuggets want to keep both while being extremely careful with their salary cap. Masai Ujiri can try all he wants to accomplish all three of these goals, but the most likely solution means compromising on one or two of them. Most importantly, each and every one of these choices must fall in line with a plan that makes progress towards the ultimate goal of a championship. Do we know what that plan is yet?

This question takes me back to the debates we had immediately after the Melo trade last season. Under the circumstances Masai orchestrated one of the best deals imaginable, but ultimately trading Melo didn’t return another franchise player nor the means to acquire one. Much was made about the grab-bag of solid young talent the Nuggets amassed and the lack of a true star to tie it together. Many doubted the Nuggets ability to be successful with such a group.

In the following weeks the team proved every one of those doubters wrong. Not only were the Nuggets winning, they were fundamentally better in every way after the trade. Analytics ranked them higher than many of the powerhouse teams in the league. The deep rotation was hitting on all cylinders. It was overwhelming and unpredictable, with a different player stepping up big every game.

Those that followed our site last Spring knew how special the mood became, particularly for me. After months of analyzing lots of meaningless games in the face of the Melodrama, I had never been more excited to be writing about the Nuggets. It just felt like a special team, moreso than any other since the magical 2009 run to the cusp of the Finals. It’s really a shame we weren’t able to get more time with that squad.

Something so short and so sweet often can’t last. The Nuggets can definitely succeed with the no-superstar team we saw last year. Can they develop that model long-term and win a championship though? The salary cap and the cold hard facts of NBA business say no. What happened last year with the Nuggets’ plethora of cheap young talent wasn’t meant to last. You have to keep everyone happy, and that means eventually paying them and guaranteeing them the right roles to reach their potential in.

Ty Lawson and Raymond Felton actually worked in the Nuggets favor, at least when they weren’t facing the Thunder in the playoffs. When one of them played poorly the other often picked up the slack. When George Karl was able to resist playing them together, they individually shined. But Felton always yearned to start and no matter how many minutes he got, he wasn’t going to be happy here. When it worked, we saw the potential of how good the duo could be, but it simply wasn’t going to last and everyone knew it.

We continued to see the signs as JR, Wilson, and Kenyon all bolted for China this summer. It doesn’t matter how badly the Nuggets wanted any of these players back, because they clearly all had doubts about returning. There are no guarantees any of them can return to their old roles with the team, and quite frankly I think JR and Kenyon felt they were better off parting ways with the Nuggets.

So yes, you can win without a superstar – but it’s so rare for a reason. You need unselfish two-way players who are comfortable stepping into a different role every night. You need guys willing to roll with a deep rotation, sometimes sacrificing individual stats and minutes for the greater good. You need them all to be underpaid and happy to compete for finite playing time with other talented teammates.

It’s very difficult to realistically build a team like that. That is why so many teams go with superstars, and why the Nuggets probably need to go with one too. Superstars last. It makes it so much simpler by defining roles for other guys to fall into. Supporting players can be comfortable knowing how they fit into the bigger picture. It gives the organization a clear vision and a foundation of stability from which to build.

It’s my opinion the Nuggets have to develop such a player on their own. It’s the best way for the franchise to reach the next era of sustained success in the NBA. It won’t be easy, it won’t come without frustration and it could likely come down to pure luck. If patience prevails and it’s meant to be, it will have been worth all the trouble. And most importantly, it’ll last.

So, to end that rant lets’ have a look at the latest round of free agent news:

Denver Post – Al Thornton considering Nuggets
Benjamin Hochman reports Thornton is in town to meet with the Nuggets and attended a practice. If this continues momentum, we’ll have much more coverage on it later. My snap judgement: not a fan.

CBS Sports – Free Agency Buzz
Ken Berger reports Nuggets had “good conversation” with Thaddeus Young and more talks are planned. Thad is young (see what I did there), has tremendous upside, and can fill a multitude of different roles at different positions. This shows you the type of players Masai is looking at and Berger notes that the Nuggets may be preparing for Nene to take a big money offer to play elsewhere. Thaddeus is restricted and the Sixers can match any offer.

Hochman – Nene meeting set for tomorrow
Benjamin Hochman tweets that Nene will meet with both the Nuggets and Indiana Pacers GM Larry Bird on Tuesday

Sam Amick at Sports Illustrated
Inside this article Amick discusses the likely case that Chandler will play out the year in China and return to the NBA in March. Chandler’s agent says he’s been in constant contact  with Masai and the Nuggets have strong interest in keeping Wilson long-term

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Charlie Yao

Managing Editor at Roundball Mining Company and writer since 2010. Unhealthily obsessed with Nuggets basketball since 2002. Follow me on Twitter and Instagram at the links on the left.
  • Owen

    Your writing has become considerably better over the year Kalen.

    • Charlie

      Much appreciated Owen. Keep reading and following the site. More articles from 3 different perspectives all coming soon

  • Owen

    errrr … wow can we erase that??

    • Kalen

      LMAO! But hey, that’s a nice compliment for Charlie, or any of us for that matter, too.

  • Jason

    Good article and I agree that somehow or another, we will have to draft a superstar player although I don’t this team tanking to get a top lotto pick so you either need luck with the bouncing balls or you need a pick in the 10-18 range to turn into that guy. The other option is someone on your team turns out to be that guy and we do have two options that could – Ty and Gallo. Both of them have the skill level and talent to be able to blossom, but will it happen?

    Either way, this year there are no WOW free agents. I say you frontload any contracts you offer so that we meet the minimum salary this season and keep cap space flexibility for next year and beyond.

    • Nick


      You are forgetting that we stole Hamilton in the draft last year. He has some ridiculous upside. Many people had him ranked top 10 but due to some concerns we were able to trade up and steal him int he 1st.

  • chronicnugs


    I think Hamilton has a chance to be a player, but history shows us that real superstar players rarely fall that far in the draft, especially US born players. It’s not the NFL.

    Also, he fell into the 20’s in a pretty weak draft. That alone should tell us something.

    That being said, i think he can develop into a dangerous weapon off the bench. Something to be said for that sniper who can come in and drop 20 in 25 minutes of court time.

    • chronicnugs

      sorry… @Nick

  • Matt Henry

    This is a phenomenal article; it truly articulates the difficulties of attempting to play good, solid team basketball in a professional organization. And, I definitely agree with your main point, that we need at least one dominant player, as opposed to a team full of above-average ones. However, it must be asked, even if we are fortunate enough to draft a future superstar, what are the odds that we can keep him in Denver for more than 3-5 years? By simply looking at current trends, it is obvious that superstars now have the power to play where ever they want, and Denver isn’t exactly the ideal place to play basketball (no offense to Denver).

    • Charlie

      Thanks for reading and leaving the comment Matt. Very good question about the ability to keep a franchise player. I’d say the answer lies in team chemistry. I think the Nuggets of the past decade had good talent but poor team chemistry. That all changed when Chauncey was brought on board, but unfortunately that came towards the end of Melo’s career.

      The Nuggets also gave Kenyon his ominous contract, and it ended all hopes of realistically improving enough each year. By building a young team with patience, purpose, and avoiding contracts like that I believe that this is just gonna be the right place for any NBA player to achieve everything he could want.

      Of course, there’s probably gonna be future players who want to win on their own terms and yearn for a big market no matter what. Can the NBA or the Nuggets do anything to stop that? I’m not sure that they can.

      It’s impossible to change what motivates a particular player. You have to select the right one

      • matt henry

        Thank you for replying to my comment. I’m glad that you’re optimistic about the Nuggets ability to obtain a superstar in the future (although the corollary about us needing a player with the right mentality is foreboding given the number of highly talented players that are complete headcases and/or egomaniacs). Anyways, I’m relatively new to this forum (I was a knicks fan until recent developments) and I had a question concerning coach karl. I’ve heard that he is not the best coach for bringing along young talent, or handling dificult players. So, do you think he is the best coach the handle the team during this upcoming rebuilding phase?
        Thanks, once again.

        • Kalen

          I know you directed this at Charlie, but I’ll throw my two cents in since I’m pretty sure me and him see eye to eye on this situation.

          I think Karl is a really good coach when it comes to one thing: low expectations. You give the guy a team left for dead and he has all the motivation in the world to turn them into a playoff contender; you give him a reigning MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, second best small forward in the game and an excellent supporting cast and he’s like a fish out of water. Karl has a big ego, but he doesn’t like to work with anybody else who has one either. Honestly he’s just more a fan of basketball than he is a coach of NBA players. He likes to see the game played the right way and often times young guys, or simply, guys who aren’t superstars tend to do this. That said, he’s so old school that he could care less about “player development” and grooming young talent. I think he takes a “it’s not my problem” type of attitude towards this aspect of the game.

          But to answer your question, yes and no. Yes, he seems to be in the right “underdog” situation with no pressure that he often thrives in, but he’s also got tons of young talent that he just doesn’t know what to do with. I’d actually prefer a younger coach at this point in time — someone who could relate to the players a little bit better — but overall I wouldn’t say this is the worst position to be in with Karl. That’s reserved for when you have a team full of top three picks in the draft; that’s where he’ll screw you over.

        • Michael (anotheraussienuggzfan)

          Matt, you are absolutely right about the amount of headcases/egomaniacs but I guess there would be no need for excessive contracts and s&t’s if we didn’t have those types of players in the NBA.

          In relation to coach Karl, he does have a rep of not getting along with some players and not playing his young talent. He has changed a little over his last few years and isn’t as confrontational as he used to be towards the players (some see that as a good and bad thing, as some players need a good kick in the backside sometimes), he has also played his young talent more in Denver than he has in his previous locations, some of that is due to that talent being from his beloved North Carolina.
          I’m excited for the season to start and see how our young guys perform, Faried will be interesting to see how he goes against bigger 4’s, his main positives in his favour are his motor and long reach. JHam is one I’m going to very keenly watching, looking at his stats from the Drew League summer comp he didn’t shoot well from 3 (1/10 over the last 5 games). One of the mentioned reasons he slipped in the draft was due to his coach giving him a bad report (some say this is because the coach didn’t want him to leave so soon), if the coaches comments were true then JHam could be a closer replacement for J.R. Smith than many would have thought (becoming Karl’s new venting target).
          As I have stated in previous posts I am a supporter of Kosta Koufos, I knew he had a decent jump shot but I didn’t realise, until watching, that he had such deep range and the shots all look good to form.
          I have read articles that state Birdman, Miller, Moz and Koufos have already started working out in Denver, however I haven’t heard of the rookies training there yet. I would’ve thought they would want to make a good impression and be in there working their butts off and getting to know their new teammates.

          • Matt Henry

            Thanks for answering my questions Michael and Kalen (although I notice Charlie’s reply is conspicuously absent) I think I now have a better idea of who coach Karl is. Although, it seems kind of odd that a coach who prefers old-school, fundamentally sound basketball would give Gallinari more minutes than Chandler. Anyways, I definitely look forward to seeing how he handles this team next season; it will definitely be a challenge.

            • Charlie

              The short answer is I have a lot of questions about George Karl’s ability to develop young talent. I thought the results with Linas Kleiza were very poor, and Ty Lawson has been brought along slower than I would have expected.

              However the alternative is to take a large gamble on a coaching overhaul. That could put the Nuggets into a tailspin of mediocrity for years, especially if they keep going through coaches like the Detroit Pistons. Having Karl at least gives the organization stability and eases players minds about coming to the mile high city to play basketball.

              We also have to give Karl for developing AAA and Nene to two of the most-efficient and most valuable players on the market this year. At the very least, Karl can run a respectable operation in Denver while Masai and Josh begin to set the table in terms of a rebuild.

              • Matt Henry

                Wow, I ask and Charlie delivers. Great responses, by all three of you, you guys really do make a good team; I know college professors who aren’t as well-versed in their subjects. I now understand the value of coach Karl; a small market team needs a reputable coach in order to compete with big market teams, in terms of recruiting high-value players. Thanks a lot guys.

  • Aaron

    I Dont Get Why Masai Ujuri Doesn’t Want To Do Anything Crazy In Free Agency..Thats Exactly What Denver Needs Right Now…I Dont Get It??

  • Matt Henry

    Thanks for answering my questions Michael and Kalen (although I notice Charlie’s reply is conspicuously absent) I think I now have a better idea of who coach Karl is. Although, it seems kind of odd that a coach who prefers old-school, fundamentally sound basketball would give Gallinari more minutes than Chandler. Anyways, I definitely look forward to seeing how he handles this team next season; it will definitely be a challenge.

    • Matt Henry

      disregard this post, I meant to leave this as a reply.

  • Peter

    Karl needs to go. He doesn’t want a young team and a young team doesn’t want him. All he’s going to do is further hinder the development of our young players like Faried, Mozgov and Hamilton while Miller and Andersen will get starters minutes. It’s no secret that Melo, JR and Kenyon all had poor relationships with Karl and that team made it to the west finals(huge help from Billups) in spite of him and they’re all gone now. Sure this team was labled as the “thuggets”, but I really believe nobody in the league hates JR Smith more than George Karl and he never gave him the confidence or minutes to reach his potential. If we had a different coach he could have been an all-star. I don’t see any 2-guards with more talent except for Kobe and D-Wade.