In Roundball Mining Company’s first postseason reflection piece we’ll be taking a look at the evolution of the Denver Nuggets over the last year and examine what we’ve learned about the team throughout the process. Though the Nuggets have laid the foundation for the future through savvy front-office dealings there’s still quite a bit of uncertainty surrounding the roster. Therefore, our most recent 3-on-3 aims to analyze certain aspects of the present, past and future. As always, feel free to hand out your answers to these questions in the comments section below.
1. What aspect of the Denver Nuggets has changed the most since the start of the season?
Kalen: The progression and similar decline between Arron Afflalo and Danilo Gallinari. While neither of these guys had their best showings in the playoffs, there’s no denying that as a whole, they shifted positions between the start of the regular season and its conclusion in April. Remember, through the first month of the season Gallinari was averaging close to 19 points per game while shooting roughly .47 percent from the field and .88 percent from the line. In addition, he set a new career high with 37 points in what was, at the time, the biggest win of the year against the Knicks. It was by far the best month of his career.
Meanwhile Afflalo was a borderline pariah amongst fans and frequent victim of hypothetical trade machine deals after he got off to a slow start averaging only 10 points per game on .415 shooting from the field and .692 from the line over the first month of the season. Fastforward to April (the last month of the regular season) and Afflalo was carrying the team on his back through the midst of a playoff hunt, averaging about 19 points, four rebounds and 3.4 assists per game on .521 percent shooting from the field, .45 percent from downtown and .84 percent from the line.
While many will point to Gallinari’s injuries as the downfall of his season — and rightfully so — you still have to acknowledge the fact that he had close to a month to get back to his original form from the beginning of the year, yet he only averaged 12.6 points per game on .37 percent from the field during this span. Seeing how much these players changed over the course of the season should pose as a harsh reminder to fans that judgement is meal best served with a side of patience.
Jeremy: Expectations. When the Nuggets started off 14-5 there was a good portion of Nuggets Nation that believed the boys in blue were a contender. As the season wore on and injuries took their toll, the focus shifted from winning the West to just making the playoffs. By the end of the season, despite having a full complement of players (sure Wilson Chandler missed the playoffs, but he was never a factor in the season including the 14-5 opening) fans were no longer hoping for a shot at the finals, but rather a couple of wins before being eliminated.
The front office showed they knew the Nuggets were not contenders with the Nene trade, and when Denver forced Game 7, fans who were talking about a deep playoff run were now content to enjoy the second most successful playoff “run” in 18 years. I think heading into the offseason everyone is on the same page, Denver is a very good young team, but they are a player or two away from being a true contender. Some may believe that those players are on the roster and just need to mature, but I doubt anyone will be proclaiming Denver a preseason favorite to make the finals next year.
Charlie: The Nuggets identity. I think this shortened season was the first true test of whether the post-Carmelo model had any prospects for sustained, long-term success. Last summer there was the idea that trading Melo for an ensemble cast of role players was all the rebuilding the Nuggets needed to do in order to start competing for a championship.
Kalen: Never back down; always have confidence in your abilities. I know it sounds cheesy, but it’s so true. For whatever reason the Nuggets have always been intimidated by the Lakers. As a result, they’ve never played their best basketball against them. I honestly believe that if you changed the Lakers uniform, looks and names of the players and put the Nuggets up against them, it would be a totally different series. The Nuggets played nervous and insecure in the first two games, which ended up costing them in the long run. The good thing is, they finally seemed to understand that they too are professional basketball players and on any given night can compete with anybody in the world. This will be invaluable moving forward, especially a year from now when they’re back in the playoffs once again.
Jeremy: While it was good to see Denver make the shift from regular season intensity to playoff intensity between Game 1 and Game 7, I think the biggest lesson is seeds matter and thus every game in the regular season matters. Denver lost plenty of games they should have won this season, even though they were shorthanded on many nights with the attitude that making the playoffs would suffice. If the Nuggets want to be taken seriously in the playoffs, they cannot be content to blow regular season games as they did in Toronto, against New Orleans (twice) and Cleveland. If Denver wants to be more than a one-and-done playoff participant, they must put more of an emphasis on winning every game possible to ear the highest seed possible. It’s no coincidence that the one time this millennium Denver made it out of the first round of the playoffs they were a two seed.
Charlie: Hopefully it will teach the Nuggets to never be satisfied with themselves. After being out of the playoff picture at the All-Star break, Denver finished strong to move up to the sixth seed and definitely entered the postseason too complacent with what they had achieved. The result was a Game 1 in which the scared Nuggets didn’t look ready to play and basically laid down while putting the Lakers in the drivers seat for a series win. Even as the Nuggets toughened up and perhaps were the better team in the latter part of the series, they did themselves in by getting behind the 8-ball early. In the regular season, the Nuggets can settle for winning one out of two on the road or having their deep bench make up for some lackluster performances by their best players; in the playoffs, that just doesn’t fly. This team isn’t going anywhere past the first round until the coaches and players take that to heart.
3. What’s must the Nugget do to ensure they improve even more next season?
Kalen: Say the course. Since the Melo trade the Nuggets front office has spent the last year and a half constructing a team with the exact DNA this current Nuggets squad possesses. Now that it’s finally arrived it’s important to see where this roster can go. Obviously the Nuggets will continue to make moves in order to put them in a position to win more games, but outside of moving Chandler and a few other small pieces, I think it’s crucial that the Nuggets keep the starting five in tact and run with this youth movement. Let Jordan Hamilton, Julyan Stone and hopefully another talented rookie (similar to Faried) become vital parts of the rotation in addition to the veteran presence of Al Harrington and a possible stabilizing free agent. Although young, there’s an enormous amount of talent on this roster and it would be disingenuous to break it up before we really get a chance to see how it can play as a cohesive unit.
Jeremy: There are plenty of areas where Denver can improve from their recent campaign. My No. 1 suggestion would be to commit to playing defense. While the Nuggets have had a reputation as a poor defensive team over the years due to their high points per game average, for much of the Carmelo era the Nuggets were a staple in the top ten of defensive efficiency. That changed in 2009-10 when the Nuggets sank to 16th. This season Denver finished a pathetic 19th in defensive efficiency, the lowest they have finished in that category in a decade. Denver has size, athleticism and young legs plus George Karl has proven he can coach defense. The Nuggets should be a fantastic defensive team and if they want to be successful in the future, they better make playing defense a priority.
Charlie: The Nuggets just need to keep doing what they’ve been doing — namely building a strong foundation around youth and athleticism. Denver has a good thing going as the kind of farm system where developing players can see their raw talent realized in the form of on-court success. It’s amazing to me how an often ridiculed player like JaVale McGee was able to make huge strides in such a short time and become legit in the basketball community’s eyes with a change of scenery. Beyond that, I just think the Nuggets need to continue adapting their style of play to the personnel and cutting ties with what they were traditionally known for during the Carmelo Anthony era. Even in the span of this one shortened season the Nuggets have gone from a fairly average rebounding team to one of the league’s elite. With a good locker room free of any troublesome egos, this team has the ability to be even more fundamentally sound and assuming they are able to develop their size a little more, the next step might be playing a little bit slower and perhaps even becoming a more defensive-minded team.