With the 2012-13 Nuggets season right around the corner it’s time for Roundball Mining Company to introduce the first of several season previews. This one comes in the form of our ongoing 5-on-5 series. Joining Charlie, Joel, Jeremy and I to make predictions and dish out opinions on the upcoming season is loyal reader, Joe Beebe. If you’d like to participate in a future 5-on-5 article remember to follow us on Twitter.
1. What’s the one word you would use to describe the 2012-13 Nuggets season?
Jeremy: Pivotal. The Nuggets have compiled a very deep and talented team capable of defeating any other team in the NBA. However, can they beat the league’s better teams often enough to advance to the franchise’s first Finals appearance since the NBA/ABA merger? There are a lot of fans and analysts who will be pulling for the Nuggets to defeat the conventional wisdom that a team needs multiple superstars to win a title. Another postseason flame-out would be deflating.
Charlie: Opportunity. The Nuggets seem to know they can be contenders in the West with the roster Masai has assembled. There’s a genuine excitement surrounding what this team can do and expectations seem higher than normal in the recent Karl era. Fans shouldn’t be expecting a title but it’s time for this talented core to start taking significant steps toward contention.
Joel: Rebirth. Ty Lawson is the only holdover from the Melo days (though Andre Miller is a transplant), Andre Iguodala brings a new pedigree as the team’s only All-Star and Olympic gold-medal winner, JaVale McGee brings… well, we’ll find out. But whatever it is, it’s new to this team. The symbolism of the new gold skyline alternate jerseys officially harkens the beginning of a new era. The buzzwords “youth” and “potential” will (rightfully) hover over this new team all season and the unfolding of its growth and development is a drama many NBA fans (not just those of us in Nuggetsland) are looking forward to watching.
Kalen: Crucial. This team is young, this team is inexperienced, this team really has all kinds of excuses it could use to justify losing more games than it should. But what about the ones it can’t use? Like, for example, the fact that Ty Lawson is about to explode. Or that the Nuggets just picked up an All-Star/Olympian? Or that they’re probably the deepest team in the league? If the Nuggets have just another “met expectations” type of year, something needs to change.
Joe: Different. Surprise, surprise, Masai Ujiri made another big move. The Andre Iguodala acquisition is as large of a move as the departure of Carmelo Anthony. Defensively, this team is not the same. Injuries killed the Nuggets last season in the development of Danilo Gallinari and the return of Wilson Chandler in a way that should not repeat itself. Throw in improvements from Jordan Hamilton, the arrival of Evan Fournier and the preseason emergence of Kosta Koufos and Corey Brewer (did I just write that sentence?) and you’ve got something here.
2. Which player on the Nuggets roster will be most improved from last season?
Jeremy: Jordan Hamilton. Players like Kosta Koufos and Corey Brewer enjoyed fantastic preseasons but the player who will show he has improved the most will be Hamilton. Thanks to his smooth stroke from behind the arc and the Nuggets’ dearth of dependable 3-point shooters, Hamilton should get minutes. When he is on the court he will prove he is more than just a long-range sniper.
Charlie: Kosta Koufos. He’s coming off a solid statistical year in which he wasn’t much more than a fill-in big. I think this is the year the Nuggets are ready to feature him in a regular role. If McGee can ever get it together Koufos has proven to be the ideal big man to pair with him. He’s earned the coaches trust and I think he’ll continue to produce steadily in limited minutes.
Joel: Based on his preseason performance it would be tempting to go with Corey Brewer. But the smart money is on preseason games being unreliable in predicting regular-season performances, meaning Brewer should regress back to his normal career trajectory. It will be most beneficial to the Nuggets if the correct answer to this question ends up being JaVale McGee. However, I believe that given his very limited role as a rookie last season and his hard work over the summer, Jordan Hamilton is poised to make the biggest leap, as long as he can prove to Karl that his defense and decision making won’t be too big of a liability to leave him on the court for significant stretches.
Kalen: Kosta Koufos. Here’s the thing: Jordan Hamilton, barring sufficient playing time, might have the biggest jump in production but it doesn’t mean he was the most improved. He just didn’t play last year. If he had, people would have realized how talented he really is. Koufos on the other hand — he actually got playing time and while he played well, he wasn’t spectacular by any means. That could all change this year. Koufos looks on pace to have a true breakout season — perhaps similar to the one Nikola Pekovic had last year with the Timberwolves.
Joe: There’s two answers here: the one that you’re searching for and the obvious one. An improved Javale McGee could make the Nuggets a major player for a title this year. That said, it seems like we’ll see more of the same, which could be great if you like “Not Top 10″ type of publicity. The clear choice is Corey Brewer. He’s over 40 percent from the 3-point line this preseason and has been the best player on the court in many of those games. I’m interested to see how Karl will work his rotation and if any personnel decisions will be made if Brewer continues to surprise.
3. Which player on the Nuggets roster is the most critical to the team’s overall success?
Jeremy: Danilo Gallinari. The players who would be most difficult to replace are Ty Lawson and Andre Igoudala, as no other players on the roster can duplicate their abilities. However, my answer is Gallo. When the Rooster is scoring efficiently the Nuggets are much more difficult to beat. Gallo can also be one of the team’s best passers and defenders and Denver will need his contributions in both of those areas. Most importantly, he must stay healthy, as last season he struggled to return to form after recovering from injury.
Charlie: Danilo Gallinari. The Nuggets are still a team that gets by with offense and they need their most dynamic scorer to be effective. Gallo can make plays with his passing and defense but he’ll be counted on as the primary source of scoring and shooting from the wing. Whether Gallo finds himself as a scorer this year is up in the air, but he needs to be more consistent either way. The Nuggets can’t afford the frequent duds Gallo has become known for in his brief Nuggets career.
Joel: Ty Lawson. By now, the evidence is clearly in the books (nowhere more vividly than in the last playoff series against the Lakers) that this Nuggets team pretty much lives or dies by Lawson. When he asserts himself as a force to be reckoned with — attacking the rim and using drives to set up easy scoring opportunities for his teammates — Denver’s offense is at its best. When he concedes the helm and defers too much to his teammates the Nuggets’ sense vitality seems to wither on the vine. Lawson owning his responsibility to pilot this team is a prerequisite for it to break through to the next level.
Kalen: McGee and it’s not even close. The NBA is all about size. You dominate with height first, then on down the ladder to other positions. Lawson, Iguodala and Gallinari should all have good seasons; everyone is expecting that. But what if McGee finally turns the corner? His combination of length, athleticism and size — if used correctly — is something very few of his counterparts in the league can tame. McGee has the potential to be a dominate force up front, similar to Andrew Bynum. If Denver has an Andrew Bynum on its roster, its an entirely different team.
Joe: This answer is the broken record of broken records. Ty Lawson is the key to making this team a contender. He has unrivaled speed and a great ability to get in the paint and make things happen for himself and his teammates. He also tends to take quarters over. However, it never seems to be in the fourth quarter and his effort seems inconsistent on a nightly basis. I think Lawson has the ability to go get 20 and 10 if he can keep the turnovers down and shoot more consistently. Look for the Nuggets to go only as far as Lawson takes them.
4. Are the Nuggets being overrated by the national media, who regularly has them finishing as a top two seed in the West?
Jeremy: Regular season success and postseason success are two completely different things. If Denver stays healthy and George Karl can concoct the best rotations to maximize Denver’s depth and talent, I would not be surprised to see the Nuggets toy with 60 wins. I do think some of the prognostications are aided by wishful thinking. Who does not want to see this Nuggets team succeed?
Charlie: It’s a little too much for me. Now that Oklahoma City has arrived I think there’s a natural inclination to think they’re done getting better. OKC is clearly a cut above the rest in the West even if the Nuggets are a worthy challenger. I just cannot bet that an improving OKC core finishes with a worse record than Denver. I like the Nuggets’ chances to challenge for the division but too many things need to go just right in order for them to be better than OKC.
Joel: Definitely. While it’s not entirely out of the question that fortuitously simultaneous development jumps from Lawson, Gallinari and McGee will combine with injury and/or chemistry troubles for the Thunder and Lakers — it is improbable. The good news for Denver is that its formula of bench depth, youth and an altitude-driven homecourt advantage adds up to a product custom made for regular season success. But the team from the West in last season’s NBA Finals (OKC) and the the Lakers, who’s starting five has four guaranteed Hall-of-Famers (not entirely out of their prime), must still be regarded as the favorites to win the top two seeds.
Kalen: Without question. Unless Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, Kobe or Durant goes down with a serious injury I don’t see any scenario in which the Nuggets can finish as a top two seed in the West. And what happened to the Spurs? Last I checked they still have their big three intact as well as one of the smartest coaches in NBA history and have finished as the top seed in the West the last two years. The Clippers got better and still have two perennial All-Stars. Until the Nuggets can prove they can hang with the big dogs, I will remain skeptical.
Joe: Although many see the Nuggets as a top-seed candidate, very few expect playoff success. I have argued in the past that much of the reason the Nuggets can’t get out of the first round is that they do themselves no favors. Finding ways to play the Spurs, Lakers or Thunder are not ways to give your team confidence. Given the lack of continuity on many of the contenders in the West and the style of play the Nuggets work with, I do believe that it is possible to be the top seed if all goes right. However, I think it is more likely to see the Nuggets fighting the Clippers and Spurs for that 3-5 seed range.
5. The million-dollar question: How many games will the Nuggets win in the regular season and how far will they go in the Playoffs?
Jeremy: I expect the Nuggets to set a franchise record for wins with 56, which will secure them the third seed in the conference. They will demolish some poor team like Dallas, Utah or Minnesota in the first round before losing a war of a series against the Lakers. If things shake out a little differently and the Nuggets face off with the Thunder in the second round, it will be very interesting. This Nuggets team is built to compete with OKC.
Charlie: I have the Nuggets winning 51 and falling short of a first-round playoff series without home court. I think at least one trade is pretty likely as the Nuggets face a ton of adversity early and often throughout the schedule. Denver really needs to do something special with this group and break the franchise record for wins to land in a top playoff seed like they want to. This team has more than enough pieces to do it but the lack of consistency from the bigs makes for little to no room for error.
Joel: I predict that the Nuggets, barring serious injuries, will accomplish no less than winning 53 games, taking second place in the Northwest Division and advancing to the second round of the playoffs. I’ll also add that this is a really tough team to make predictions for. There are so many variables regarding player development, chemistry, possible midseason trades and importantly, how well this squad can weather the brutal season opening 17 of 23 games on the road. Quite honestly, anywhere from the first to seventh seeds wouldn’t be shocking. Anything less than a fourth seed and a deep playoff run should be considered disappointing considering the talent this team has accrued.
Kalen: People forget: The West is stacked. Yes, the Nuggets improved, but so did everyone else. We still can’t count out the possibility of another big trade which could shake up team chemistry. The Nuggets have an incredibly tough schedule to start the season off. And every year the Nuggets lose about three or four games that make you shake your head in disgust. I’m as excited as I’ve ever been about this team, but I’m also no spring chicken when it comes to tempering my expectations. I say 53 wins, the fifth seed in the West and another bitter first-round defeat in the Playoffs.
Joe: There is no question that the Nuggets are a better team this year. There is not one game on the schedule that they can’t win which has not been the case in previous years. Andre Iguodala is the catalyst to a likely culture change on defense that fans like myself have been waiting for years to see. I see Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried taking significant steps forward in their careers and making highlights in the process. There are weaknesses though. The center position is a huge question mark and the West has evolved in ways that are impossible to predict. I see the Nuggets as a 55-win team. A second-round matchup with the Lakers or Thunder will be troublesome. Otherwise, I see them advancing to the Conference Finals.