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 counts — now 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.