2011-12 Denver Nuggets season review (and future outlook)

Heading into the 2011-12 season the Denver Nuggets were a mystery waiting to be solved. After coming off the most chaotic seven months in franchise history the team made monumental strides in the offseason to remain competitive even after parting ways with Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups. In addition, the NBA lockout saw key contributors Wilson Chandler, Kenyon Martina and J.R. Smith all vanish to the opposite side of the world until midseason, leaving even more questions marks about who would be with the team moving forward. But as the season progressed, piece by piece Nuggets fans collected clues about the identity and subsequent standards the team would possess, which ended up being very similar to years past.

Through the first two months of the season several key storylines emerged. First and foremost, the Nuggets were winning and in pretty convincing fashion. It reminded many of the 2010-11 post-Carmelo Anthony team that finished the season going 18-7 behind a strong second unit and unselfish, team-first mentality. Even with Kenneth Faried sidelined due to Karl’s “old school” approach of treating rookies with contempt, the Nuggets still managed to come out of the gate strong. The team went 14-5 through its first 19 games of the season, including the franchise’s first ever five-game road winning streak that was capped off with an epic win against Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden, in which Danilo Gallinari put up a career-high 37 points against his former squad.

Unfortunately for the Nuggets, after starting off scorching hot and extremely promising, things went south rather quickly. Throughout the heart of the season the Nuggets were a disappointing, enigmatic, inconsistent group of random substitution patterns based largely upon which players weren’t injured that day. The Nuggets went 5-10 in February and 9-7 in March. Then in April after regaining its health and thus, form from the beginning of the year, the team finished the season strong going 10-4 over the final month of the 2011-12 campaign.

Though injuries played a role in the Nuggets downfall through the middle stretch of the season, fans struggled with the idea that they were the sole reason for the team’s miscues. After all, every team in the NBA was fighting injuries in some form or another, yet many continued to play up to expectations regardless. The Nuggets, however, adopted a near listless style of play that centered around optional defense and sporadic offensive outbursts which led to numerous losses to inferior opponents. In the end these losses proved to be the difference between homecourt advantage and a “Gone Fishin” segment on TNT’s Inside the NBA after only one round of the playoffs.

Nevertheless, the one element of the season that likely lingers with fans is how the Nuggets finished with a bang. The team won its last four games to overtake the Dallas Mavericks as the sixth seed in the West which set them up for a “favorable” matchup with the three-seeded L.A. Lakers. After starting off slow, losing three of their first four games, the Nuggets stormed back to win two straight and extend the series to play a seventh and deciding game in L.A. Though the Nuggets would eventually lose, the team fought hard and showed tremendous heart and soul — all rarities for the Nuggets come playoff time in the past under George Karl.

As a whole, the 2011-12 season should be considered a (mild) success. And although the high points were encouraging, the doldrums should not be overlooked. For every exciting playoff game the Nuggets won, they had two miserable losses in the regular season that could have easily been avoided by playing with more zeal and of course, defense. Karl certainly deserves credit for finally showing up in the playoffs and giving the fans something to cheer for, but he shouldn’t be let off the hook for the way the team performed for about one-third of the season. In his final postseason team speech Karl mentioned the fact that every game during the regular season countsnow if only he can get his team to take this message to heart, then the Nuggets might be in business.

So big question remains: What did we learn this year?

The first answer that probably comes to mind centers around team structure. Between Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried and Arron Afflalo the Nuggets have a great, young core moving forward. While each of these players had their fair share of struggles, none were drastic disappointments considering expectations heading into the season.

Lawson finished as the team’s leading scorer averaging 16.4 points per game including 19 points per game in the postseason — more than Chris Paul, Tim Duncan, Danny Granger, Joe Johnson, James Harden, Andrew Bynum, Amare Stoudemire, Chris Bosh or Zach Randolph managed to average, most of whom played at least one extra series than Lawson. In addition, Lawson also averaged the most minutes and steals per game on the team in the regular season.

Not far behind Lawson in minutes per game was Arron Afflalo, who often times logged north of 40 minutes on any given contest. After starting off the season incredibly slow, Afflalo surged during the last half averaging 18 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3 assists per game on .504 percent shooting from the field and .431 percent from downtown post All-Star break. His progression over the entire season was once again a sight to behold.

Gallinari went in the opposite direction as Afflalo. He started off averaging close to 19 points per game over the first month of the season then tailed off dramatically after injuring his ankle in early January. Proceeding the All-Star break Gallinari averaged only 11 points per game on .358 shooting from the field, which was largely due to his decreased aggression and willingness to settle for long-distance jump shots. Even considering his lackluster final few months of the 2011-12 campaign, Gallinari had a fine season full of surprisingly good defense and promising development on offense.

Which brings us to Faried — the “Manimal” — who didn’t see consistent playing time until mid-January yet still led the team in PER and finished the season making the NBA’s All-Rookie First Team. Faried averaged a double-double in the playoffs, had a 27-17 game in only 24 minutes of action during the regular season and was a key spark plug for the Nuggets renewed sense of urgency down the stretch.

Other players floated in and out of the lineup throughout the season due to injury, production or trades. In fact, of the entire roster which was one of the deepest in the NBA, veterans Andre Miller and Al Harrington were the only bench players to maintain a consistent role and dose of minutes from start to finish. Rudy Fernandez appeared to have cemented his position as backup shooting guard before going down with an injury in January that forced him to miss the rest of the season. Fan favorite, Chris “Birdman” Andersen, saw his minutes revoked and handed over to the much larger Kosta Koufos and Timofey Mozgov who battled for the starting center position throughout the year. Then, after a long negotiating process which eventually culminated in the signing of a new five-year, $37 million contact, Wilson Chandler played in only seven games before undergoing hip surgery which sidelined him for the remainder of the season. Which left only Corey Brewer as the one guy outside of Harrington and Miller who could be relied upon to produce solid minutes off the bench. His energy on defense and affinity for getting out on the fast break embodied everything Karl implored his team to do and in the end, earned him the coach’s trust and the fans’ support.

Aside from the core of Lawson, Afflalo, Gallinari, Faried and possibly Chandler, one other Nugget may very well end up signing a long-term deal with the team: JaVale McGee. On the night of the trade deadline Masai Ujiri and Josh Kroenke shocked Nuggets Nation by announcing they had traded longtime franchise cornerstone Nene for the wacky, physical specimen that was JaVale McGee. For much of his career with the Wizards, McGee was a prototypical “knucklehead” who become more famous for his boneheaded, “What was he thinking?” type of plays rather than his actual production on the court. However, once traded to the Nuggets, McGee transformed into an entirely different player in only several months and proved to be one of the Nuggets most valuable commodities in the playoffs. As a restricted free agent this summer the Nuggets will have the right to match any offer thrown at McGee and although they’ll likely negotiate a deal one way or another, the cost to retain him is undoubtedly going to put a dent in the team’s wallet.

As of now the Nuggets have roughly $50 million committed to players on the roster heading into next year. With McGee and Lawson still awaiting new, much more lucrative contracts, the team is in line to make some big decisions this summer. Something has to give. Salary must be cleared one way or another if the Nuggets wish to include Lawson and McGee as building blocks for the future. Though Karl and Nuggets management strongly desires to re-sign Andre Miller, it makes much more sense financially to draft a point guard with one of the Nuggets three picks in the 2012 NBA Draft, or let the tall, defensive-minded Julyan Stone take over the reigns as Ty Lawson’s primary backup. Furthermore, the Nuggets have just over $20 million locked up next year between Harrington, Chandler, Mozgov and Andersen, with only one of those players having contributed significant minutes in the past season. Somehow the Nuggets must figure out a way to shed salary, re-sign its key players and still remain competitive. A tough task, but one Masai Ujiri has proven he can handle.

Standing back and looking at the franchise from afar, one would have to remain optimistic about the future of the Denver Nuggets. Never tentative nor bashful, Masai Ujiri has proven to be one of the better general managers in the NBA. His standards — placed on production above all else — and basketball savvy have allowed the Nuggets to skip the rebuilding process all together after losing Carmelo Anthony in February of 2011. The team is already on the rise once again and looks to stay perched near the top of the Western Conference for years to come.

The upcoming draft should give fans an even closer glimpse into the exact level of genius Ujiri possess. If he’s as shrewd as many believe, he’ll figure out a way to steal several players (just as he did with Hamilton and Faried) that will be able to contribute to the Nuggets success for the next handful of years while remaining on their rookie contracts, thus giving the team the financial flexibility it’s in dire need of.

All that’s left now is to figure out how to take a roster teeming with young talent and translate it into postseason success.

Over the last decade this has proven to be the omnipotent road block for the Nuggets, almost all of which has occurred on George Karl watch. Having lost six playoff series to lower seeds during his career and advancing past the first round of the playoffs only once while with the Nuggets (largely thanks to Chauncey Billups) despite nine straight years of making it to the postseason, one could argue Karl has already overstayed his welcome by a large margin. Though actually competing (rather than rolling over) in the 2012 postseason was a step in the right direction, it remains to be seen whether Karl will truly elevate his standards to match Ujiri’s or instead keep them at the mediocre echelon they’ve rested at for years. If the latter proves to be the case, the impetus then falls on Ujiri to refrain from holding a double standard for his coaches by giving them a leeway his players certainly don’t receive.

  • mitch

    pretty sure you mean its the first time the team has swept a five game road trip, not the first five game road winning streak, but all in all i agree, good season, lots to learn from, but definitely nothing to be satisfied with.

    I’m exited for the future of this team. with wilson chandler coming back for a full season, manimal getting a full offseason of work, a confident ty lawson after dominating games in the postseason and another (hopefully) solid draft, the nuggets should contend sooner than later (hopefully).

    also, andre miller, while he is a good point guard, is much more suited to a portland-esque style of play, not the run and gun tempo the nuggets employ. i would love it if the nuggets improved at back up pg, not by getting a “better” point (isnt miller 10th all time in assists?) but by finding a fast, young guy that can shoot. maybe toney douglas? end of rant.

    • mitch

      other than douglas, maybe johnny flynn or nate robinson. thoughts? i know everyone seems to think stone can be a successful backup, but what has he shown so far to justify that?

      • Kalen

        I’d prefer Stone over all three of those guys. You’re right in that he’s had very limited time to prove he’s worthy of carrying a heavy load of minutes, but even so, he’s looked really good in what minutes we’ve seen of him. His vision is excellent, as is his defense and apparent ability to run the offense.

        As I’ve said, the Nuggets don’t need scoring from their backup point guard; they just need somebody who can essentially do all the things Stone does. Remember, he had a pretty impressive college career making Conference USA All-Defensive teams and setting numerous school and conference records along the way. Chad Ford once said that if he just had a jump shot, he’d have been a lock for the first round of the 2011 Draft.

        The best glimpse I caught of Stone was in his D-League stint. He came in and was immediately the best player on the court for long stretches of time. He thoroughly outplayed Jordan Hamilton and had the announcers praising his unselfish style of play. I think given he’s had an entire year more to develop his offensive game, he’s probably ready to get some serious playing time. He should play on the Nuggets summer league team this year, where we’ll get an even better idea of where he stands. But right now, I’m an advocate and a believer.

    • ken

      I feel like people take Andre Miller for granted sometime I mean hes bounced around the league alot, but like you said he’s tenth all time for assist. I see no reason for not signing him again unless we really need the money for signing Lawson, and Mcgee. And to your point about signing Toney Douglas, believe me I have watched about 2/3rds of the Knicks games this season Toney Douglas could not run an offense when he started in the beginning of season the Knicks offense was very stagnant, and his on ball defense is not too good either. For the draft I feel like its best to draft a Power forward because I don’t know how long you can rely on Al Harrington as we all know hes been playing hurt and as we saw in the playoffs he didn’t provide the spark that he usually does coming off the bench. Looking for a point guard or shooting guard with an edge or the so called “Clutch Gene” would be good because I really feel like we need a player that can go out there i knock down a few of those shots, because is this season you never knew who was going to be the closer. Hopefully Galo can do that or maybe Arron or maybe we already have another very good guard in Hamilton that few have got to see of the course of the season but we haven’t seen it thus far.

  • DAN

    One of our major advantages is our team is built for this new collective bargaining agreement. We don’t have a disproportionate amount of money locked up in two or three players, like the Lakers, Heat and other teams that will be in serious cap trouble. We have a roster full of young reasonable prices pieces we can move if need be.
    In order to maintain this flexibly we should let Miller and Rudy walk and amnesty Bird. Ideally we could dump big Al but I don’t see that happening.

  • FinazzAus

    I think we need to jump the draft for two reason. Number 1, you get a better play that’s fairly clear. Number 2, save money. A early round pick gets roughly what 3mill. That’s a lot better then the 7mill we are paying miller or the 8mill for chandler. Drafting a high pick gives us the ability to stay competive and sign the players we want too (Lawson and McGee)
    If we package chandler, mozgov or KK and our first round pick (20th) we should be able to get a top 7 pick. And use our trade exception to shred $$$.

    • chugfish

      Any GM willing to give up a top 7 pick for 20 and mozgov or KK is a total fool. Maybe, MAYBE chandler and 20, but even that is probably a stretch.

      • FinazzAus

        Clearly no one is gonna take moz and our 20th pick. Chandler is the major player there. Someone like Toronto would do it. They loved chandler but he wanted to much before BECAUSE Toronto couldn’t offer him the 5th year. He his in there price range and would have him for 5 years. Keeping a player for 5 years is something they have struggle to do.

  • Ricardo

    The nuggets should re-sign Miller and McGee, they were essencial to the nuggets extending the series to seven games; a good contract for Miller would be like $3-5 million and for McGee $7-8 million. It would also be a good idea for them to use the amnesty clause on Anderson, let go of Fernandez, and get a less-paid shooting guard in the draft so they could have money to re-sign Lawson next year. It would also be a good idea to trade Chandler to another team for a future 1st-round pick, he wouldn’t be able to produce consistently and develop into a great player with Gallinari and Brewer playing in the same position as him.

    • dynamo.joe

      I would agree that $8M would be fair for Mcgee, but they won’t be able to get him for that kind of money. I think they may be able to get him for $10M and hope they are willing to let him walk if someone else offers more than that.

      If I was Javale Mcgee I would agree to 5 yr/$50M, 2 yr guaranteed and the final 3 yr players option. Cuz, if what we saw in the playoffs wasn’t a fluke, was a genuine evolution/harbinger, 2 years from now he can demand a max contract. If it was a mirage, just a high point in the rollercoaster that is Mcgees’ career production, he can exercise his option collect an additional $30M.

      I hope they can get Ty for $55M/5yr. Maybe a bit higher.

      They should amnesty Bird, not because he’s done, but because paying someone nearly $5M to shine the seat at the end of your bench is ridiculous. That spot should be <$1M.

      They should let Miller go just so this can unequivically be Ty Lawsons' team.

      I'm ok with giving the backup minutes to Stone. Right now, unless he develops an offense this summer, he is Anthony Carter 2.0. So, I'm surprised Karl isn't leaning heavily on him.

      Anywho, thanks for the run Nuggets and RBMC I enjoyed it all season.

  • Henry aka LWH and formerly KFH

    Kalen, thanks for this very nice season wrap-up and assessment of where the Nuggets stand as they move into the offseason. Hoping to see more from all three of you guys about where you believe the Nuggets need to improve. Draft? Trades? Free agents? None of the above?

    Where do we most need a roster upgrade? Post-up PF? Back-up PG? Shooting wing?

    Thanks!

    • Kalen

      Thanks Henry. I’ll have many more pieces to come that will address most of these questions. Right now the Nuggets don’t have any glaring needs or weaknesses, but in my opinion a combo guard who could come off the bench and score in a variety of ways might be nice. I guess you could say backup two guard is an area of need but Hamilton looks to be able to play this position.

      • Henry aka LWH and formerly KFH

        Shooting is a need, for sure. But does it have to come from a reserve shooting guard? I’m hoping Hamilton gets the minutes he needs so he can become that instant scoring off the bench, whether at the two or the three. If we get Fernandez back, he can compete for same at the two.

        I’m much more interested in solid scoring from a post-up big who can also shoot from the outside. Harrington hasn’t cut the mustard for me. In fact, I see him as a drag on this team’s play, both offensively and defensively. I know he’s a Karl favorite and a team leader, but he seems to me to detract from the proceedings with selfish play.

        How about a 6’10″ or taller PF who can create shots on the block, along with some outside shooting? If our starting five is Ty/AAA/Gallo/Faried/McGee (or any of our other 13 centers), it seems to me that front-court scoring is lacking. My fantasy PF would be the starter, with Faried bringing monster energy, rebounding and shot-blocking off the bench with serious minutes played.

        Is it Ilyasova? (Doesn’t really have the post-up game.) Pau Gasol? Paul Millsap? (Doesn’t have the height.) Or is this a longer term project to be pursued via the draft?

        Seems like we have the assets to make it happen, and I would bet Ujiri is in the hunt for that guy. Not saying it will come together soon, but here’s hoping.

  • Marc

    You guys hate on GK way too much. We lost all those years because playing Carmelo-ball CANNOT be succesfful in the playoffs…. just look at the knicks.

    • Bill

      Agreed. You say GK needs to elevate his standards? That implies that he’s just collecting a paycheck and not interested in winning a championship. Denver hasn’t had a championship caliber team. Would you suggest they take the quick-fix approach and fire their coach every 3 years so they can be in perpetual rebuilding mode?

      • Kalen

        How does saying his standards aren’t on the same level as Ujiri’s suddenly mean all he’s interested in doing is collecting a paycheck? That’s a somewhat of a slippery slope. I know Karl has a passion for coaching and that a paycheck isn’t why he’s here. But I also listen to his constant quotes in the media about his goals and more often than not they’re mediocre. I’ve also seen the way his teams have imploded in the playoffs (not just with the Nuggets) and watched as his players display their frustration with him. If the Nuggets showed up and played every year like they did in the playoffs this year, I wouldn’t have a problem — but that’s hardly the case.

        The ’09 Western Conference Finals team was definitely championship caliber. It was just as good as the Lakers, if not better. The difference was that one team had Phil Jackson and one had George Karl — that’s it. Karl’s coaching downfalls were well documented in that series (see: in-bounds plays).

        I don’t know what you mean about firing a coach every three years and perpetual rebuilding mode. Given Karl’s record in the playoffs I’m not exactly sure what the Nuggets have to lose. There have been plenty of good coaches that have been hired and fired over the last several years — many of which probably could have done just as much, if not more with the Nuggets than Karl has. Stan Van Gundy is the most recent example. Plus, who’s to say the Nuggets won’t land the next Pat Riley, Greg Popovich or Phil Jackson? All those guys had to start some place too…

  • Trevor

    If Wilson Chandler is healthy to start the year he should be the Nuggets sixth man. With that said the Nuggets should trade Al Harrington for a good post defender/rebounder to come off the bench at the PF position. They should try and sign a good outside shooting back up PG maybe Kirk Hinrich to replace Andre Miller. Give Jordan Hamilton minutes Corey Brewer would have had this season and hope he can be good shooter off the bench. Hopefully they can bring back McGee and hope everyone else continues to develop into the players we think they can become.

  • steve

    I just read an article that said the Lakers are interested in Al Harrington and could be willing to trade their 8.9 mill trade exception and a 2nd rd pick to the nugs for him. They need a stretch 4 off the bench in the worst way i guess. Murphy and Mcroberts were pathetic for them.

    Would you guys, including Kalen, welcome this sort of move by the nugs? Do you think this is actually possible or is it just LA fans/analysts blowing smoke? I tend to think it’s a good move due to Al’s age and with Wilson Chandler in the mix. We could use that trade exception on a Mo Williams or even JJ Redick type who are 2 of the best 3 pt shooters in the league and neither is signed past 2012-13 season.

    I mean i’m also not against trading Chandler in the right deal. Just want to improve the team now AND long term.

    • FinazzAus

      I would welcome this move. I really doubt it would happen. But it gives the nuggets the ability the then lose harringtons contract and re invest in a young player and also gives the nugs the ability to amnesty bird. Then to combine saves the nuggets a heap next year in cap space

    • Henry aka LWH and formerly KFH

      Let’s hope the Lakers’ reported interest is for real, and that Ujiri jumps at the chance. That would create the need for a legitimate scoring power forward, and the Nuggets have other assets that could be turned into one.

  • DAN

    Would love to get out from under Big Al’s contract but the Lakers are already miles over the cap. This kind of move would really be very short sighted for them. It would also mean we would need a back up PF, Chandler and Gallo are not PF’s and should not play the four.

    • steve

      dan, yes Lakers are over the cap but with this move it wouldnt matter since it’s covered with the trade exception they received from the Odom deal. They would not be penalized with any luxury tax for any player they deal for 8.9 mill or less. The nugs in turn would get the trade exception and could use it to go over the cap without being counted towards it.

      • http://nuggets.proboards.com LotharBot

        trade exceptions let you go over the cap, but they don’t let you ignore tax penalties. It’s the same with other exceptions, like the midlevel. You can use the exception to get a player, but you still pay lux tax for them.

        On the plus side, the Lakers are one of the few teams that don’t care about the tax. So if they really are interested in Al, I could see them taking him off our hands.

  • Ian

    Getting rid of Harrington is a good idea no matter what the consequences. 1. He’s being vastly overpaid. 2. We could literally sign any scrap-heap PF to a cheap deal and he’d be more-or-less an improvement over Harrington. Giving him to the Lakers is just icing on the cake. The only concern I have is I think the Lakers are smarter than that. Harrington’s injured, paid a lot and isn’t getting any younger.

    • steve

      This came strictly from a LA writer from the LA Times. Al’s deal is only fully guarenteed for one more year and then you can buy him out for half of what is left. For a team that likes to spend $, i dont see it being a huge deal for them if Al doesnt work as planned.

  • Darren

    I personally don’t want Al Harrington or Andre Miller on the team next year! Al throws up to many “Carmelo me shots”, and Andre slows the pace down every time he’s on the court. The Nuggets are jeckle and hyde when they are in. They both have some positives, but nothing special for the money that couldn’t be better invested!

  • Greg

    Don’t know if anyone reads bleacher report but they had an interesting article on the nuggets offseason and potential ideas. One was trading for josh smith (not sure how I feel about that). Here’s the link:
    http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1194572-denver-nuggets-5-important-offseason-moves-for-kroenke-and-ujiri

    After reading all of the article, the nuggs could construct a superb and deep team (all hypothetical):
    Starting 5:
    Lawson, AAA, Gallinari, Faried, McGee (re-sign)
    Bench:
    Miller (Re-sign), Jason Terry (sign as a FA), Chandler, Harrington, Koufos
    Reserves:
    I assume Bird will be gone (whether traded or amnesty)
    Stone, Hamilton, Brewer, Mozgov

    Those last 4 would get quality minutes and maybe 10-15 teams in the NBA, that’s how deep this team would be!!!!