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.