Five things to watch for this season

As the 2013-14 NBA season approaches, many questions hover around the Denver Nuggets. Almost everything that made the team successful in years past (especially last season) has now departed. There’s no more George Karl, no more Masai Ujiri, no more Andre Iguodala — no more certainty. There’s still a deep and talented roster, however the players that comprise it are less known commodities and more bags of speculation and temptation. The 2013-14 Denver Nuggets are, more than anything, a team mired with uncertainty. Though five topics of concern are presented below, this list could very well expand to seven or even 10. But in honor of brevity and odd numbers, here are the five most compelling storylines to watch for this season.

5. Will the Nuggets make a trade?

Ever since Carmelo Anthony strapped on his Sympathy Diaper and demanded a baby bottle filled to the brim with bright, flashing lights and rampant attention, the Nuggets have been starless. They’re a team with 10 to 12 really good players, yet no great players. The Nuggets don’t even have a really, really good player. Leading up to the NBA Draft executives often rank players in a tier system. Breaking things down in that fashion, the Nuggets roster looks something like this:

Tier A (Ex: LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, etc.): N/A

Tier B (Ex: Kevin Love, Chris Paul, etc.): N/A

Tier C (Ex: Rudy Gay, David Lee, etc.): Ty Lawson… maybe.

Tier D (Ex: Mike Conley, Nicolas Batum, etc.): Ty Lawson (definitely), Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, then Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee… maybe.

Tier E (Corey Brewer, Jarrett Jack, etc.): Basically everyone else on the roster except for a few bench players who’ve made a career of riding pine.

The tiers obviously continue on down, decreasing in overall player value as they go. The Nuggets have a few players in those echelons, but for the most part everyone significant on Nuggets roster ranks in tiers D and E. Because Gallinari, Lawson, Chandler and Faried are all solid, reliable, talented players, the Nuggets are able to win games. Throw in enigmas like JaVale McGee, Andre Miller and Nate Robinson, and the Nuggets have enough firepower off the bench to rival most teams in the league. On top of that, guys like Evan Fournier, Jordan Hamilton and Quincy Miller could break out any minute, threatening those above them on the depth chart for playing time.

The biggest problem facing the Nuggets right now is that the gap between many of these players is paper thin. Should McGee evolve into a more reliable center he could very well surpass Ty Lawson for the best player on the team, given his physical characteristics. Conversely, should Faried’s offensive game remain limited he could easily be replaced by J.J. Hickson as the starting power forward. The Nuggets have duplicates at many positions and overlap across the roster. They have plenty of good players but no All-Stars and nobody who can carry the team through the postseason as most stars do. At some point the Nuggets will have to fish a perennial All-Star out of the trade-market water if they wish to continue making the playoffs; otherwise, the lottery could be at their doormat faster than Tim Connelly and Co. would like to believe.

4. Which promising players will step up, and which will recede?

Ty Lawson is the best player on the Nuggets roster. He’s a fairly good scorer and plays the point guard position well. But Ty Lawson is not innately talented like, say, Chris Paul. His vision is not nearly that of the elite point guards in the game. But what causes Ty Lawson to stand out from the rest of his teammates is that he continues to improve every year he’s in the league, and when we analyze him before every new season commences we understand the room for improvement is always there.

This isn’t the case for all players on the Nuggets roster. As much as we love Kenneth “The Manimal” Faried, we also understand his limitations. Faried is not a good offensive player. He can’t shoot very well and has almost no post-up game. What’s even more disheartening is how his defense can be nonexistent at times. So, Faried isn’t just an undersized power forward — he’s an undersized, offensively challenged and sometimes undisciplined power forward. That’s a lot of problems to have for a guy in his third year in the league. And unfortunately, those problems aren’t going to be cured overnight. Even more unfortunate is that these problems make Kenneth Faried more dispensable than we’d all like him to be.

But Kenneth Faried isn’t the only Nugget with foreseeable obstacles in his career path. Neither Wilson Chandler nor Danilo Gallinari have been healthy since arriving in Denver — which was three years ago! At some point you have to evaluate how you’re supposed to move forward as a team if your starting and backup small forwards are only on the floor half the time. Additionally, JaVale McGee… well, we all know about JaVale McGee. He’s a $50 million player who falls down, throws an errant pass or blows an uncontested dunk just as often as he executes a fundamental basketball play.

The Nuggets have a lot of really talented young players. But talent is only talent if it’s realized. If certain guys continue to develop at a slow pace — especially under new head coach Brian Shaw, who has a reputation of developing young up-and-comers — or refuse to develop at all, the 2013-14 season could very well be their last in a Nuggets uniform. Because for every player on the roster who thinks their job is safe, there’s one of near equal value waiting to replace them.

3. Can JaVale McGee really mature?

JaVale McGee was drafted on June 26, 2008. At that time scouts knew he was a project. But that was over five years ago. Five. Years. Ago. Now McGee is heading into his sixth season as a professional basketball player. That means he’s already had five years of professional coaching, five years of holding a professional job and five years of conduction himself as a professional athlete… or at least trying.

At what point do we draw the line and fully admit that JaVale McGee simply isn’t worth it? That’s the question fans have to be asking themselves if McGee continues to show limited growth in his maturation this season. At what point do we all just give up and throw in the towel? It’d be one thing if the Nuggets were able to retain McGee for a relatively low price, but as of now McGee is making north of $10 million per year. And as of now, he’s an investment that’s not paying off.

To justify his contract McGee can’t just make one less awful play per game. It’s natural to expect McGee to be somewhat of a bonehead his entire career, but he can’t solely remain a bonehead who also struggles to play disciplined, professional basketball. He has to reverse this trend and become a true professional basketball player who occasionally struggles with his boneheadedness. That’s what real people do in the real world: They outgrow their childlike instincts and take responsibility for themselves. At 25, McGee should be more than capable of doing this. Whether he actually does should determine how long he remains with the team.

2. How savvy is Tim Connelly?

I don’t know what to say about Tim Connelly. He likes movies. He’s a fan of The Cure. He invited seven NBA general managers to his wedding this past summer and he’s the current general manager of the Denver Nuggets. All four of those things kick ass (especially the part about having seven general managers at your wedding. That’s just so stupid I can’t even comprehend it. And by stupid I mean incredibly awesome — just to clarify).

But I don’t really know much about Tim Connelly as an architect of a professional basketball team, and the little I do know doesn’t exactly blow me out of the water. In Masai Ujiri’s first open audition as general manager of the Nuggets he pulled off one of the most unsuspecting, lopsided trades in NBA history by persuading the Knicks to give up half their roster for a guy who had already publicly stated he wanted to go to New York! Several months later Ujiri followed up his remarkable opening act by drafting Kenneth Faried and Jordan Hamilton, then trading for Andre Miller on draft night. And in the coming months he traded for Corey Brewer and Rudy Fernandez, all while managing to re-sign three of the Nuggets’ top five players (who were also free agents) in Nene, Arron Afflalo and Danilo Gallinari that summer. In a very short amount of time it was clear that Masai Ujiri was a Grade A basketball mastermind.

Connelly on the other hand… well… let’s just say he’s not trudging in mastermind territory. Connelly’s first move was trading away a first-round pick in the NBA draft for cash and the rights to Erick Green, who subsequently didn’t even make the team this year. He then traded away last year’s starting center, Kosta Koufos, to the Memphis Grizzlies for Darrell Arthur and re-signed third-string center Timofey Mozgov to a ridiculously overpriced contract shortly thereafter. Two weeks later he watched the Nuggets’ top free agent, Andre Iguodala, walk out the door and attempted to atone for the loss by signing Randy Foye, Nate Robinson and J.J. Hickson — all of whom are on at least their fourth team in the last five years — to contracts amounting to roughly $30 million in combined money.

Though it’s still too early to evaluate Tim Connelly’s overall worth, there’s no doubt that the majority of his moves have underwhelmed thus far. This year should be a major determinant in assessing his value and likely forecasting how good the Nuggets will be in the near future. Connelly has a clear mission (trade for a star, or at least upgrade the talent level at the top of the roster) and ample firepower (in the form of a deep squad) to position the Nuggets on the path of continued success; however, should he fail he’ll not only threaten his own job security, but the security of the Nuggets franchise moving forward.

1. Who is Brian Shaw?

Unlike Connelly, Brian Shaw seems to have a fair amount of positive buzz surrounding his arrival in Denver. Upon his hiring, the NBA world exploded with praise and admiration for the Nuggets’ new head coach. And on Media Day the players displayed nothing but the utmost amount of enthusiasm regarding Shaw as a person, as well as his new coaching methods.

But Brian Shaw is still an unknown commodity. Though his track record as an assistant is excellent, and though you couldn’t convince even the most diabolical of mythomaniacs to say something bad about him, he still has yet to coach a regular season game in the NBA. Almost everything we know about Shaw relates back to his personality, his ethics and demeanor. When it comes to Xs and Os, defensive schemes and the ability to win basketball games, Shaw might very well be Tim Floyd or the next coming of Phil Jackson for all we know.

What we do know is that the Nuggets will only go as far as Brian Shaw will take them. This team has the players to succeed for at least a few more years, now it’s time to figure out whether it has the coach. If Shaw is the messiah his contemporaries are making him out to be, it will go a long way in delivering some much-needed assurance for a franchise that lost every thread of it’s security blanket (George Karl for the Kroenkes, Masai Ujiri for the fans) in the offseason.

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Kalen Deremo

Kalen was born in Durango, CO, in 1988 and graduated from Metropolitan State University of Denver in 2013 with a degree in journalism. He's now an itinerant hoping to travel as much as possible before eventually succumbing to the "real world." Aside from writing Kalen likes movies, music, spicy food and the great outdoors. Edward Abbey is his current idol.
  • Scott

    Shaw was quoted I believe today at practice when Wilson came back to say he could try him out at SG when Gallo comes back. I’m open to the idea because Wilson has shown to be able to make plays in the open court as a ball handler.

    • Evan Woodruff

      YES! why cant he? he is a better slasher and shooter then post up player. its his true position. besides the defense in the back court will improve.

      • Tyler Johnson

        Not to mention the 2,3 positions would be gigantic.

  • CD Pascual

    Willie finally returns to practice! His has got to be the fit for Shaw’s offense, at least with Gallo out

  • Thomas

    Stop stepping on Faried’s weakness and this adoration for Gallo.

    Faried’s impact on this team’s winning percentage is higher than Gallo’s – this is a fact. So there is obviously something wrong when you focus on Faried’s weak areas and glorify everything Gallo does. I mean, great defender? You gotta be kidding me.

    I care about winning, not style points. Faried helps teams win. I’d keep Faried, Lawson, Fournier, Nate and maybe Hamilton (do or die year, needs minutes). Everyone else is tradeable, particularly Gallo who is at his prime and is who he is after 5 or 6 seasons.

    Stick with the winner, not the flopper.

    • Len Nunes

      Faried deserves much respect for his enthusiasm which he translates into steals and blocks and rebounds on both ends of the floor but yet his biggest defender must admit the third year player has room to improve on defense and offense.
      Your right about Gallo’s absence leading to some glamorization about his defense and offense and your right that the growth left in Gallo’s game is a smaller window than Faried’s but…
      Faried’s game relies on style as much as Gallo’s does. The team will most definitely improve when Gallo returns.

    • John

      dude gallo way more important than faried. hes our best halfcourt player best 3pt shooter best at getting to the line and can matchup with other teams best offensive option. faried: horrible ft shoter, horrible post game, horrible post and man defensive player

      • Thomas

        It must be odd then that Faried’s stats like true shooting %, win share percentage, rebounding rate, player efficiency rating are all higher than Gallo’s, who has 6 years in this league and hasn’t improved much.

    • alex47666

      This is a joke Gallo>faried. Did you even watch the playoffs last year, we were F’ed cause we didnt have gallo. I like faried a lot, but Gallo and TY are the team right now

  • Mitchell Carroll

    This whole “Will Javale ever get it” rhetoric is getting old. Players don’t hit their best years until they are around 27-28. Expect some improvement, some mental lapses and some jaw-dropping plays. I mean, how many players in the last decade besides KD, LeBron and Dwight Howard really “got it” before 25? Give him time.

    • John

      all those guys were dominating the league by like age 21 tho

      • Mitchell Carroll

        That was a stretch comparison, true. Look at a guy like ZBo though, he was frustrating as hell to watch for a long time, but then he hit his late twenties, had a decent supporting cast for the first time in a long time and his potential was finally recognized. Playing center in the NBA isn’t easy, and a 25 year old who still hasn’t even grown into his insanely athletic body is going to take more time figuring “IT” out.

      • disqus_mThEJaZCaB

        The thing is JaVale basically wasted his first 3 and a half years in the league while on the Wizards, he learned nothing and was surrounded by morons. He was basically a rookie when he came here.

  • Charliemyboy

    Probably the best realistic article to date. I’m tired of thinking about Karl, as there is nothing we can do about it. But I’m not buying my season NBA pass (I live in Reno), as I don’t expect a duplicate year, especially after seeing a couple of pre-season games, and don’t need to get depressed at my age. Why would OK smash us when we beat them the last time we played them if we weren’t less, at least now. But OK is not less, now, even w/o Westbrook. Josh and Connelly are on the hot seat, and Josh can point fingers (three pointing back at him) and get away with it, unhappy fans or not. Good luck Brian, you better get some fundamentals established; I wouldn’t change things that much from what was successful; i.e., running, but if he does, and pulls it off, I’ll be surprised. 10 less wins is the general consensus, which can’t be applauded as good management in any scenario, when other western teams are much improved. Deep playoff and a championship? Really? How about ego, age (Karl) and $$ being the motivation. Prove me wrong, Josh.

    • Aaron Durkin

      Really??? Although I dont think this is a championship level team, in a weakend western conf I see this team as a top five team. Now hear me out as to why. This team has been constructed with young talent that has grown togther over the past 4 seasons. This gives them a huge advatage most of all at home where we have seen dominance over the past few years. another reason i think every one needs to step of the ledge is the concept of Baskettball Moneyball. Over the past 3 years I have seen a team that gets killed on pick and role defense, constantly switching leading to people being wide open on the wings. additonaly I have seen a team that is a has a drive and dish style but cant hit a open shote to save there life. when we dont run teams can just clog the lane and completly killing any offensive flow. so what did we do we picked up players that can shoot and that can not only move threw a screen but can actully shoote. I really think that the lose of Iggy will be felt much less due to a new D sceem and he was a disaster on the Off side of the ball. I think Nate will be a much better addition for are new style.
      just some food for thought

      • Thomas

        My concern is that Shaw has a lot of pieces and will experiment with line-ups, a la GK, and we won’t be able to have our most lethal starting five out there for the majority of minutes to win consistently and become a playoff threat. To me it is clear that this team should play mostly Ty-Chandler-Gallo-Faried-Mcgee when they are all healthy, with Nate, Fournier and Arthur/Hickson getting most sub minutes. I cringe that we may see too much Foye, too much JJ Hickson, too many total minutes to Miller/Mozgov/Randolph.

        The starting five I mention has to be able to play together for 30 minutes/game, not 20 or so like GK would do. There are just too many “good” players fighting for minutes, it’s a distraction that might get in the way of winning.

        • alex47666

          No faried should not start, I have said it so many times. Nuggets will be so much better off if hickson starts

          • Thomas

            Wrong again. One good year stats-wise in Portland (still not as good as Faried), on a bad team, and you put the guy in the starting five of a winning team, a team that without Faried wouldn’t have gotten close to 57 wins.

            Honestly, it’s delusional. To think that Gallo would have made the difference in the playoffs is silly, as much as claiming that it was Faried’s fault. Faried had close to a double double in 29 minutes and low usage (6 shots/game). We did miss Gallo but we got killed because Iguodala was playing for the Ws already. If we had Gallo and no Faried, it would have been worst. So far, Gallo is a playoff choker, look it up.

            • alex47666

              You really are hard on faried, he has no post game no defense and cant help spacing for ty and faried. Hickson last year was a better offensive rebound than faried, shot better at the line than faried. Faried efficiency declined last year, and remember game 5 when karl benched faried and started Koufos and mcgee on the court and we won that game. Gallo is the teams best floor spacer 2nd best free throw shooter and is our 2nd best defender. Gallo is more important to the team than faried

      • Charliemyboy

        I guess we will know if Karl got the best out of medium players, or had excellent players that he didn’t properly develop this year, won’t we. He did some things that sacrificed other things, but did get 57 wins. Hope we get more! How did Iggy do against LA the other night if he was overrated?

      • dynamo.joe

        He was an offensive disaster that scored over 1000pts?

    • Len Nunes

      Did you watch the NBA.tv Nuggets preview episode? Shaw openly admits he expects a few less regular season wins and a few more playoff wins because that’s the way he wants the guys to play. At the end of the day, I’d gladly “settle” for 8th place and a 2nd round of the playoffs in Shaw’s first year.

      • Charliemyboy

        How are you going to be in 8th place, and have to beat OKC, the Clippers or SA to move to the second round?

        • Len Nunes

          I believe the cliché is “that’s why they play the games”

          • Charliemyboy

            Point was. We will not make it to he second round if we play one of those three. Any bets?

            • Len Nunes

              so 11 days before the regular starts you want to bet that the Nuggets will not make the 2nd round of the playoffs. There are more than 5 questions about this edition of the Nuggets but if it makes your day, name your bet. Likely an avatar bet since I’m up in Canada.

              • Charliemyboy

                I don’t REALLY want to bet (and I live in Reno) and I hope they do do better than last year. But if they are 8th seed, the will be playing the #1 seed, and the facts of such a match make it very difficult to go to the second round. I’ve said I prefer 50-60 wins and so-so in the playoffs contrary to most positions because I don’t see ever doing much better in the foreseeable future. We need that many wins to get home court regardless, and then, I just can’t see this new team making it through the finals ever. Need a star? We had Carmelo and Chauncy and didn’t do too much better. I think it takes many almost stars playing together for years with one or two who can deliver under any circumstances; breaking things up won’t do it. Chemistry and coaching brilliance will. It’s too competitive. We may have to settle for just having a good team for many years and not much more.

              • Len Nunes

                “almost stars” = Lawson and GULP McGee, IF injuries finally ends, Gallo and Chandler
                “coaching brilliance” – year one Shaw gets slack, year two Shaw has to show he can adjust to teams adjusting to his style, year three the core mentioned in “almost stars” still needs to be here for the belief of hosting a playoff series to be a reality
                you’re right, this isn’t a 50 win team this season but with all the talk from Shaw being about being more like a playoff team, I’m hoping for that “difficult” series win and the Nuggs making round 2.

  • John

    ty lawson is far better than david lee or rudy gay so is mike conley. and cp3 a tier a player

  • gallogallo88

    just watched the lac-nuggets game, cp3 torched them.. I see a pattern here, superstars scoring in bunches.. this is where iggy’s 1-on-1 defense is missed.. this is why i hate him for leaving.. >_<

  • dagus1976

    Kalen,
    This is just a very well composed article.

    All of these things have crossed my mind this summer, especially the concerns with our new GM. I thought we would have done better with D’allisandro. (sp?) He would have made for a much smoother transition from Masai, and I think will be a great help to the Kings who have made some savvy moves.