With the 2011-12 season right around the corner, Charlie and I decided to delve into some of the topics that most interested us regarding this year’s Denver Nuggets team. However, when all was said and done, we ended up with more of a season preview than anything. So, whether you’re a seasoned Nuggets aficionado or simply just a casual fan, we hope you enjoy our take on the most pressing storylines heading into the upcoming Denver Nuggets campaign.
After eight years of arguably the most successful era in Nuggets history, the formula for success will not be altered. Highlighted by the re-signing of high-profile free agents, Arron Afflalo and Nene, the Denver Nuggets emerged as one of the most uninhibited spenders of the offseason — a strong statement to counter the notion that the franchise is unwilling to splurge in pursuit of continued success. These crucial additions also confirm the fact that Josh Kroenke and Masai Ujiri firmly believe in their post-Carmelo Anthony trade promise about winning with an entire roster teeming with talent and plan mold the franchise in a similar fashion going forward.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this unconventional paradigm is how aptly it suites the type of offense recent Nuggets teams, guided by “superstar” Carmelo Anthony, have employed over the last several years. What’s made these individual squads such a threat is no secret: They played at an extremely fast pace in order to outlast opponents — especially at home where the Mile High altitude drowns out their counterparts — and were never shy when it came to shooting the basketball. In fact, for four straight years the Nuggets have won at least 33 games at the Pepsi Center, which is not only an elite home record for just one season, but a flat-out mind-boggling statistic altogether. Still, this was accomplished with a shallower bench and a “superstar” that for the most part slowed down the offense in order to better suite his style of one-on-one play.
After facilitating a trade that sent Carmelo Anthony to New York, the Nuggets have been an organization flooded with youth, size and depth — all three of which were greatly lacking for a large part of the last decade. These elements will help continue to fuel the high-octane offense the Nuggets have become known for, which could potentially shatter many offensive ranks and statistics previously set by any one of the Carmelo Anthony-led offenses. In addition, the perpetual lack of height the Nuggets’ front-court has sustained since Marcus Camby left town has finally been addressed and should undoubtedly aid in the rebounding department where the Nuggets have struggled for so long, even finishing 28th in offensive rebounding rate last year.
The keys to success for the 2011-12 Nuggets are the same that made the post-trade team of last year so dangerous: unselfishness and defense. The Nuggets averaged 24.1 assists per game and were top five in defensive efficiency through the final 25 games of the 2010-11 campaign — both of which were rare feats during Anthony’s tenure in Denver. When combined with the fact that the ball now has no “sticking point” in the offense, the Nuggets’ youth, size and depth should be able to freely flourish while it simultaneously coalesces. Because while Nene, Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari and Arron Afflalo provide a strong foundation for a solid, but relatively nonexplosive offensive, none of them demand the ball in order to be effective either. Once Andre Miller, Rudy Fernandez, Chris Andersen, Kennth Faried, Kosta Koufos, Timofey Mozgov and Cory Brewer are added to the equation, you can make an argument that this team has even more offensive firepower than last year’s, even with Carmelo Anthony.
Though the modern-day NBA model may require a single franchise player in order to win a title, there’s no evidence that the Nuggets don’t have this player on its current roster. While Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari have come on relatively slow since being drafted several years ago, both are in a prime position to take their games to the next level. Should either of these players elevate their production to All-Star caliber, there should be no doubt that the Nuggets have all the ingredients necessary to win a championship.
Meanwhile, the biggest question surrounding the organization outside of “Do we have/can we obtain a superstar?” has to revolve around how the rotation will be managed and what type of player development will occur with so many young, talented guys on the roster. Of course having enough depth to trot out two starting lineups is great, but there is indeed a downside to this phenomenon in that a few players who deserve playing time will be mistreated with the short end of the stick. One can only imagine how badly George Karl will draw the ire of furious fans after the first bad loss of the season; however, those who are already itching to tear Karl apart over the perceived “tightened” rotation and quite possibly Faried’s playing time might be missing the entire point about depth and how it relates to the direction the Nuggets have chosen to steer towards.
Those who clamor for Faried to start may not realize how heavily invested the Nuggets are into both the aging Nene and emerging Arron Afflalo. For these players, as well as the savvy Andre Miller, the time to not only get into the playoffs, but win while there, is a fleeting and unquenchable prospect. Even as we speak, the window for squeezing the last good years out of Andre Miller and Al Harrington is paramount; therefore, the necessity for rookies to play is virtually nonexistent from Karl’s standpoint. Because developing a scary young core for the future often entails immature mistakes and bouts of inconsistency from many of the younger players, maintaining a “win now” attitude simply does not mesh with this timeshare rotational method. Having an experienced team full of veterans that can get it done come playoff time is much more important at this juncture. And truthfully, if “winning now” is what everyone signed up for (including the front office), then nobody should really complain too much with Karl’s lack of tolerance towards the rookie learning curve.
Numbers don’t lie: Faried is one of the best rebounders to grace the NCAA. Even in limited action during a sloppy preseason he showed tremendous athletic ability and a knack for out-hustling everyone else on the floor. Unfortunately, at times, he also looked flatfooted and lost while trying to guard players on the wing or high-post area. Faried must work on his lateral quickness and improve his fundamentals below the rim. The only way he can do that is through minutes and it’s hard to see him getting enough given this teams goals at the moment. Faried probably deserves playing time based solely on his preseason production and collegiate records alone, but don’t be surprised to see him play the high-energy hustle guy role for 10-15 minutes per night, and nothing more. Should, for some reason, he take the same giant steps Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo and Danilo Gallinari look to take this season, then expanded playing time should certainly be on the menu for the “Manimal.”
Though the Nuggets have many potential surprises awaiting the start of the season, two under-the-radar players to keep an eye on are recent trade acquisitions, Rudy Fernandez and Corey Brewer. As mentioned above, though Gallinari and Lawson each have a good chance to be this year’s breakout performer, both are already seen as solid NBA players at this point in time. On the other hand, Rudy Fernandez and Corey Brewer remain three-year NBA enigmas who have bounced around like a pinball from team to team despite how incredibly talented they are. Fernandez has the skill-set, experience and mentality of a veteran but can’t seem to escape his sentimental desire to return home, meanwhile Brewer has struggled with consistency, shot selection and the hype that’s attached to being such a high draft selection. Both are possibly facing the single-most pivotal season in their careers but at the same time could end up playing huge roles due to their veteran status.
Yet through all the speculation, breakdowns and analysis, only one person has true control over the fate of the 2011-12 Denver Nuggets, and that’s George Karl. For years fans have gone back and forth with Karl regarding his unique personality and coaching philosophy. One one hand, when you least expect it he’ll pull a rabbit out of a hat and on the other hand, when stakes are high and the game is on the line, he’ll fail to prepare the team with even the most elementary of in-bounds passing plays. What fans have come to expect with Karl, is the unexpected. He’s Forrest Gump’s signature maxim “Life’s like a box of chocolate; you never know what you’re gonna get,” all wrapped up into a real-life NBA head coach. And though it’s difficult to say exactly who Nuggets fans should expect to see opening night against the Mavericks, a betting man would probably lean towards “Good/Motivated George” (to borrow from his “Good J.R./Bad J.R.” nickname) due to his fondness of small egos and willing passers, both of which this 2011-12 Nuggets squad is stocked full of. If “Good/Motivated George” chooses to show his face on the sidelines this season — instead of having it buried between his palms — don’t be surprised to see the Nuggets with a top four seed in the Western Conference come April.
[Finally, below is a statement addressed to our readers from Charlie regarding his position with the Denver Nuggets direction this year:]
I’ve enjoyed reading all the comments coming in lately, and I wanted to note a particular one from loyal reader, Ernie. I know he and a few others are concerned that even though I didn’t 100 percent agree with every offseason move, I would be biased in a quest to prove my view that rebuilding would have been better. That definitely won’t be the case. There is no guarantee rebuilding wouldn’t lead to another string of bad luck and draft busts like the 1990’s. This is the team we have this season and I’m all the way behind the Denver Nuggets and what they are trying to do.
I think Masai and Josh have done a decent job building on what the Nuggets have had going the last few years. If I had to be brutally honest and bet my life savings on the outcome of this season, I see a very good regular season team that is going to struggle with defense and the slow, deliberate style of play in the postseason. However, it’s important to keep in mind Denver has perhaps never had front office and ownership as aggressive as this current regime. This is a team loaded with assets and for now, flexibility. The future is still wide open for this franchise and right now, I think this team could be more exciting to watch than just about anyone and I cannot wait for the games to start.