How good are the 2011-12 Denver Nuggets? Now that the opening night roster is largely in place, Arron Afflalo is not officially signed, but I anticipate he will be in the next few days, we know what Denver has to work with.
Earlier today we Kalen, Charlie and myself made some high level projections in our second 3-on-3 installment as to how good Denver will be this season. As I am wont to do, I would like to delve into the roster with a little more depth as we attempt to determine what should be expected of this team.
Right off the bat we need to address the desire to connect this team’s potential with the fantastic finish last year’s team submitted. This team is actually deeper from one through 15 than last season’s squad, but there is one massive difference. Attitude. The post-Melo roster last year was full of players with Great Wall of China sized chips on their shoulders.
Every one of them was insulted by the trade. The Nugget players who were left behind had been told by Carmelo that they were not good enough for him. The Knicks players who were traded to Denver had been told collectively they were less valuable than Carmelo Anthony. They all were highly motivated to stick it to Carmelo and the Knicks. Because of that unifying desire they all played selflessly and with an unnaturally heightened sense of purpose.
That screw you attitude is not something that can be sustained forever. The players that remain have gotten it out of their system while the newbies do not have it. That unifying force that drove Denver to dominate their opponent every night is gone and it is not coming back. Players will have different motivations this year and that complete selflessness will be lacking.
Denver’s depth is undoubtedly an incredible advantage over this abbreviated and ridiculously taxing season. There will be nights where they will win games because they can put more players with fresh legs on the court than their opponent.
Denver does have talent and in order to have a successful season, they will need a breakout season from either Ty Lawson or Danilo Gallinari. If neither one of those two show significant improvement, Denver will struggle against the top teams in the league. In looking at the changes from last season the Nuggets have taken a step back at three of their top seven spots. The exchange of Andre Miller for Raymond Felton is nearly a lateral move, but Felton is more explosive and while he made me crazy the way he constantly cut off the roll man on ball screens by changing course and dribbling across the lane the screener was supposed to use to dive to the rim, he was dynamic on the break and made several big shots.
The exchange of Rudy Fernandez for J.R. Smith is a big step back. Fernandez has not shot the ball well the previous two seasons and even when he is on, cannot replicate what J.R. could do. Fernandez is a more willing passer and might prove to be a new partner on the pick and roll with Nene that Smith was so shockingly effective running.
Kenyon Martin will be dearly missed, primarily his ability to defend on the perimeter and bail out teammates who would get caught up on screens. What many fans did not notice is Kenyon was a very good passer. He rarely made the dramatic eye popping passes, but was very adept at putting the ball directly where it needed to be. If Nene does indeed play power forward the drop off from Nene and Kenyon to Nene and Mozgov is rather drastic. If Mozgov is not able to earn a starting spot at center, and Nene must man the pivot resulting in being paired with Al Harrington all bets are off. I believe Kenneth Faried is the best answer at power forward, besides Nene of course, and that he will earn playing time at some point this season, but there is no guarantee Karl lets him off the bench.
If there is one thing that could lift Denver to the same level as the other elite teams in the west, it is their team defense. The Nuggets defense after the trade was as good as any in the league. Apart from Afflalo, Nene and possibly Corey Brewer Denver does not have any defenders who would be considered above average for their position in their top ten players. Lawson is better than he gets credit for, but he struggles against bigger point guards. Fernandez is below average. Birdman is wildly inconsistent. He will play the pick and roll like Anderson Varejao one trip down the floor and then look like he has never been taught what to do the next. Mozgov’s abilities are hindered by his size and he moves like a fence post although his length makes it easier for him to recover. Andre Miller is strong, but does not have the lateral quickness to handle quicker guards.
The good news is in the past when Karl has really focused on defense in training camp, the results have been very good. Hopefully, that will be the case this year. Of course, with so many new faces and an abbreviated training camp, there is only so much he can do.
I made no secret that I was in favor of Denver rebuilding. From the time Denver started fielding trades for Carmelo the worst case scenario was getting a package that was good enough to remain a playoff team, but not good enough to truly contend. Now Denver has spent their cap space to retain Nene and bring in players with below league average PERs. They will have one more shot at signing a big time free agent next summer, but apart from that, I am not sure how they will get this team to reach the next level.
Their draft picks will be in the late teens to early twenties. They will struggle to get a legitimate franchise player to sign in Denver as a free agent. Denver has collected a strong slate of assets, but they certainly are going to fall short of putting together a trade offer for a star like the Clippers just did. Their only young intriguing players are Lawson and Gallo. I am not sure that the Rooster is going to improve dramatically beyond the player he is today and regardless how effective Lawson is teams will be turned off by his size.
For Nuggets fans who could not stomach the thought of rebuilding, you got your wish. They will be a playoff team for the foreseeable future, but I fear that is all they will be.