A look at the rollercoaster year of Nuggets basketball
Hopes were high for the Nuggets at the end of the 2012 offseason, with some analysts predicting up to 59 wins and a top two playoff seed. Masai Ujiri had acquired Olympic gold medalist and star defender Andre Iguodala in a trade, and extended Ty Lawson and JaVale McGee with long-term contracts. He surrounded the team’s young core with veteran Andre Miller and cheap talent like Anthony Randolph and Evan Fournier.
But a difficult early schedule loomed. The Nuggets would play 22 of their first 32 games on the road, including 8 sets of back-to-back games. By the end of November, the team had a pair of four game winning streaks sandwiched in between three losing streaks of three games each, including worrying losses to the lowly Suns and Magic.
These struggles weren’t just a matter of scheduling, but also a matter of poor shooting. The Nuggets shot under 33% from the three point line and 68% on free throws in the first seventeen games of the season. These numbers would improve only slightly over the course of the full seasaon. The Nuggets’ shooting woes were on full display December 20 in Portland, where the team set an NBA record for futility by shooting 0-22 on three point attempts. But some of the Nuggets’ strengths were also on display, as the team grabbed 17 offensive rebounds and poured in 74 points in the paint in a close loss.
The start of January brought new hope. The Nuggets had managed a 17-15 record through the most difficult part of the schedule, and would leave the Pepsi Center only three times in the next month. The homestand started with a huge win over the Clippers, snapping Los Angeles’ franchise-record seventeen game win streak in a blowout where all-star Chris Paul was held to a paltry 10 points and 6 assists. Wilson Chandler returned from injury two weeks later, and the finally full strength Nuggets ran off winning streaks of six and nine games in January and February.
The Nuggets went back on the road for four games in five nights just prior to the All-Star break. A heartbreaking loss in Boston, in which the Nuggets missed potential game-winning shots at the end of all three overtimes, triggered another short losing streak.
But the Nuggets soon got back to their winning ways, avenging the loss to the Celtics in the first game out of the break, and then setting a franchise record by winning 15 straight games. The team showed its determination and capability by winning in a variety of ways during the streak. Kosta Koufos led the way with 18 points and 16 rebounds in a slow paced, grind-it-out comeback win against Memphis. Wilson Chandler dropped 35 points in an overtime win in Chicago, and Andre Miller’s near triple double on his birthday secured the win the next night in Oklahoma City. Corey Brewer got in on the action, scoring six points in the final nine seconds to secure a one point win against Philadelphia.
Early in April, with the Nuggets fully healthy and closing in on homecourt in the first round of the playoffs, disaster struck. Danilo Gallinari’s ACL partially tore in a game against Dallas, sidelining the team’s leader in free throws and three point makes for the remainder of the season. Ty Lawson, who led the team in scoring and assists, and Kenneth Faried, who led the team in rebounds, also suffered injuries near the end of the season and were somewhat limited in the playoffs. The team was kept afloat by contributions from rookie Evan Fournier, who scored in double digits in six of the final nine games, and the seldom-used Anthony Randolph, who scored in double digits in three of the final six games.
The Nuggets finished the season with a franchise record 57 wins, including 23 straight home wins to end the season, leading to major awards for George Karl (Coach of the Year) and Masai Ujiri (Executive of the Year). The team had climbed from being on the playoff bubble midseason to holding the third seed at the end of the season.
The Nuggets’ first home loss in over three months came at the worst possible time, in game two of a first round playoff series against the Golden State Warriors. The Nuggets had no answer defensively for Golden State’s floor-spreading small lineup. Offensively, the Nuggets continued to shoot poorly on free throws and three pointers throughout the series. After outrebounding opponents by nearly four per game in the regular season, the Nuggets found themselves in the reverse situation, with Kosta Koufos unable to hold his own against Andrew Bogut. The Nuggets were eliminated in six games, their ninth first round exit in ten years.
George Karl was fired just before the start of the NBA finals. Team insiders cited a lack of playoff adjustments as one of the major driving factors. Masai Ujiri and several other front office members also left for other teams early in the offseason. Even draft night had some drama, with Kosta Koufos traded for Darrell Arthur, and a money-saving trade that netted college basketball’s leading scorer and ACC player of the year Erick Green. Rookie head coach Brian Shaw and rookie general manager Tim Connelly now face the challenge of improving a talented team and setting the stage for postseason success after one of the wildest seasons in Denver Nuggets history.