Kroenke, Connelly and Shaw’s Nuggets defying expectations

There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
– Stephen Stills

What is going on here?

In the 2013 offseason, Josh Kroenke and Tim Connelly made a series of roster moves which did not seem to some observers (including many here at Roundball Mining Company) to be internally consistent or part of any apparent cohesive long-term plan for building a roster which could ultimately contend for a championship. Masai Ujiri and Andre Iguodala had bailed, George Karl had been fired, and the new player acquisitions were looking a lot like band-aid solutions to major arterial bleeding.

The bulk of the criticism was (and, to a certain extent, remains) a zoomed-out assessment. Looking from a distance at the collection of pieces the Nuggets had assembled, it seemed to be an Escher-esque puzzle which, like an enclosed circular staircase that endlessly spirals upward, could in no logical way be put together sensibly and cohesively.

Yet, at the same time, none of the particular moves Kroenke and Connelly made was in itself terribly bad, and from the front office’s point of view there was a reasonably defensible contention to be made that, under the circumstances, they had done the best they could do given the relatively poor hand they’d been dealt.

Giving the MLE for a player of J.J. Hickson’s caliber was not all that unreasonable, especially after his successful season on Portland. And given Faried’s defensive limitations and Denver’s then three-deep center position (featuring a player in JaVale McGee who the front office wanted to have a larger role) trading Kosta Koufos for Darrell Arthur with his defensive aptitude and floor-spacing abilities made a certain kind of sense (even if trading Koufos rather than Mozgov did not). The Mole (a.k.a. Andre Iguodala) was going to leave no matter what, so getting Randy Foye’s perimeter shooting and a big trade exception in return was a pragmatic cutting of losses. And after his surprisingly good playoff run with the Bulls, landing Nate Robinson at a bargain basement price was pretty much a no-brainer signing when the opportunity presented itself.

But two overriding inconsistencies (among several) made the overall picture appear much less promising than the spin the front office was putting on it.

First, there was a duplicitous aspect to the signings. Randy Foye, a relatively short combo guard, was brought in primarily to beef up Denver’s weak 3-point shooting. So why then subsequently bring in the diminutive Nate-Rob for essentially the same purpose, especially considering that the Nuggets already had an undersized backcourt? Not to mention the fact that George Karl was ostensibly fired in part for not developing young players, and hence that bringing in Foye and Robinson to take minutes away from Evan Fournier and Jordan Hamilton seemed to stand in direct contradiction to the front office’s stated objectives. Further complicating the puzzle was the question of why the Nuggets would, after bringing in mid-range specialist Arthur, as well as retaining the board-crashing Faried, throw money at Hickson, who replicated the strengths of those two other power forwards already on the roster.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, Shaw’s design on implementing new offensive and defensive systems appeared to be largely out of sync with the personnel Connelly and Kroenke were assembling. Shaw let it be known early on that he intended to run the offense from the inside out through the low post. Yet, his frontcourt has been stocked with players who either have absolutely no post game (Faried) or whose post play is extremely limited and doesn’t come naturally to them (everyone else). And though the offensive system Shaw said he wanted to run is highly predicated on great (or at least competent) screening, he was given a roster full of players who (with a few exceptions, notably of Arthur) are notoriously weak screen setters.

By the end of the offseason, most of the personnel moves the new front office had made were looking like a last ditch effort to scrape up the best remaining talent and, if at all possible, salvage playoff hopes for a team that had had the rug pulled out from under it by Iguodala. The trades and signings came across more as desperation than a vision-based, proactive team building.

And perhaps they really were. At the very least, their decision to fill emptied roster spots with veteran players did go directly against their publicly stated justifications for axing Karl. And perhaps more important – and worrisome – was what seemed to be a lack of patience, that despite their professed commitment to developing their young players to build for the future, they were willing to sacrifice that long term for the short term, presumably to prevent ticket sale dropoffs and season ticket holder defections.

And yet, everything now looks completely different from that 0-3 season start which had seemed to confirm our worst fears about this Nuggets season.

The Nuggets are achieving results which even the most pessimistic among us have to acknowledge – if we’re being honest – are not only defying the low expectations most had for this season’s team, but actually starting to indicate that they might be legitimately good after all.

Denver is currently ninth in ESPN’s Hollinger Power Rankings (tenth in SRS). They are also tied for eighth in the league in offensive efficiency, and have moved up to being tied for 15th in defensive efficiency as well (after having recently been in the lower third in the league). If the playoffs started tomorrow, they would hold the sixth seed in the West, and they have the eighth best win-loss record in the league. They are currently have won six games in a row, and nine of their last eleven.

There are no two ways around it: This Nuggets team is rolling, and as of yet they’re showing no signs of slowing down.

On top of their recent success, there is further reason to be hopeful. Although there’s still no clear timeline for Danilo Gallinari’s return from injury, indications seem to be pointing to approximately a month from now. And while he may not be the end-all cure-all for all of Denver’s shortcomings, he’ll surely raise his team’s overall level of consistency and bolster the defense.

And while there also are reasons to be wary of potential pitfalls in the road ahead, as a coda to this Thanksgiving weekend it feels more appropriate to simply pause and acknowledge that what many of us thought (and to be clear, we’re not out of the woods yet) was a roster comprised of jumbled, hastily thrown together, and somewhat desperate series of offseason moves is now proving to be more talented, capable of working together, and successful than we initially imagined.

Which doesn’t mean there still isn’t good reason to temper optimism with caution, and the understanding that it’s still very early in the season. But it is surely worth a tip of the hat to Kroenke, Connelly and Shaw that they have exceeded our expectations thus far, and it sure is a heck of a lot funner to watch the Nuggets rolling on a win streak than tanking or just being a bad and boring team to watch.

So cheers to this surprising success, and here’s to the Nuggets keeping on rolling.

You can follow me on Twitter here: @denbutsu

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Joel is a long time Denver Nuggets (and Broncos) fan from Colorado who's been living in Japan since the mid-90s, and blogging about the Nuggets since 2008. You can contact and follow him on Twitter: @denbutsu.
  • NateW

    Good article! I enjoyed it!

  • Andrew

    Well stated. This Nuggets’ team is exceedig my expectations so far. The big thing is how tough they have been on the road. They are 4-4 and were pretty close to knocking off OKC, as well. Did last years’ team ever get to .500 on the road? Who knows, maybe they can get a decent seed and pull off a first round upset to give them momentum going into next year with their rookie sensation (fill in your favorite name here), a completely healthy Gallo, and a year of Shaw’s coaching under their belts!

  • Daniel McDonald

    I have some questions for the writer:

    It seems as though we have a backlog of decent players at multiple positions, most glaringly combo guard and power forward. With McGee and Gallo coming back, we’ll have even more (possibly unusable) depth. With the caveat that trade speculation is often fruitless, I’d still like know who you would like to see traded from this roster and in return for what, and: would you rather see the team try to add pieces for a potential playoff run this season or acquire draft picks/unload salaries in an attempt to rebuild long term?

    Sorry if you’ve already answered this on the site.

    • Charliemyboy

      Too soon to answer. It turns out the duplication of strengths is actually as asset, while still filling gaps. Clever? We’ll see. What if we had beat OKC? ☺

    • JoelRMC

      Yeah, I was about 90% sure at the beginning of the season that they’d make a move or two by the deadline. Now I think they’re probably getting themselves into “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” territory, especially since I’m sure they’re confident (and probably rightfully so) that the current roster will play on an even higher level once Gallo returns.

      As for potential trade targets, Thaddeus Young and Omer Asik may both be available and within reach, but there are problems with both scenarios. Both PHI & HOU will be looking to get a LOT in return for those guys, possibly more than they’re worth, and Denver would have no guarantee of locking either down long term. In either case it would definitely mean giving up Faried, which is at the very least a painful decision for the FO to make, and one that could be very unpopular with the fans. Also, HOU is looking for a stretch 4, and Arthur is the closest thing DEN has to that. If the cost of Asik was losing *both* Arthur and Faried, would that be worth it? Could be, but there are good arguments on both sides there, so it’s not black and white.

      • Charliemyboy

        I can’t see it. Leave things alone for awhile. We have JaVale and no one is going to pay him what he’s getting, so he’s our center. Maybe Shaw performs a miracle on him… I don’t know; Shaw far exceeded my expectations so far He took JJ out as he was too small to battle V…., but Moz wasn’t. Faried is far more important to this team than his statistics. Only he and Ty are game controllers with any consistency.

        • matymaddog

          Are you still standing by your preseason prediction of a 36-46?

          • Charliemyboy

            Did I say that? ☺ So far I’m pleasantly surprised. 45 to 50 wins, but I’m not sure. If they had beaten OKC I would really be scratching my chin. We’ll get a little better feel if they win the next 5 or so.

  • Ban Johnson

    right on.

    I’ve been watching the NBA for 30 years pretty avidly — and usually, going into a season, you can just feel if a team makes sense or doesn’t. The Nuggets made so little sense to me going into this season I lost all my enthusiasm for them.

    Losing Iguodala, Koufos, Gallinari (for who knows how long), and Brewer was basically losing 4/5 of the defensive soul of last year’s team. Plus all the nonsense talk about Shaw slowing the team down and feeding the post… Plus the utterly uninspiring Foye and Hickson additions (who are pretty much the epitome of average NBA players with minimal upside left, and who are both undersized for what the Nuggets really need: rim protection and perimeter D.)

    Yet somehow the Nuggets are making up for it. Foye has been a mild surprise on D — just solid, kind of the opposite of Corey Brewer’s free-lancing style. Lawson is giving much better defensive effort, ironically finally playing like the alpha dog Karl always wanted him to be — plus he’s been an all-star (FINALLY!) and palpable leader on offense. Mozgov has been a better rim-protector than we’ve seen from him in previous seasons.

    And, just like last year, the Nugs are playing with a great unselfish team spirit. (Which actually goes a looooooooong way in basketball. It’s the “secret.”)

    So, we’ll see. The West is absolutely stacked and the Nuggets are less talented than many of the teams they’re competing with for 6, 7, and 8 in the West. It will be a minor miracle if a team with just 3 above-average guys (until Gallinari comes back) can claim one of those spots.

  • Charliemyboy

    Joel, should have elaborated more on our idiosyncrasies replacing last years’ as strengths; eg, bench. Also, the drive of experience of the remaining teaching Shaw that run and gun is in their blood. Also, watch the run-on sentences ☺.

    • JoelRMC

      Thanks for the feedback. I think you’re the first person in the history of the world to say I need to make one of my posts LONGER. 😉 But just so you know, Matt will soon be posting more on the topic of the Nuggets’ success thus far, and he may well cover some of the points you mentioned. But you’re absolutely right that more can (and should) be said. This team’s situation is actually pretty complex, and once you start peeling this onion, you quickly realize how many layers there are to it.

  • Capital G

    I think the Nuggets are winning in spite of the bad roster moves, not because of them. All those criticisms from the offseason still apply. And if you were looking at clearing the backlog of players at our strengths to upgrade our weaknesses, the players you would probably look the hardest at getting rid of would ALL be the ones we just signed! There were better signing out there this offseason, and I don’t have any more faith than I did at the beginning of the year in the new F.O.

  • Dan Mikanmaster

    Skill-wise it is a little funny we were all so skeptical. Last year everyone was crying for the Nuggs to add a shooter. They add 4 shooters and suddenly everyone’s screaming “what the hell are the Nuggets doing?”

    But roster-wise things are still screwball and my grand theory is that Kroenke and Connelly were banking hard on packaging Faried+Fournier+salary for a star PF (Love, Aldridge level) at some point this year. This kind of deal would make sense of both the Shaw system and the SG and PF heavy offseason. Maybe I’m not giving TC/JK much credit as banking on such a move would be pretty naive. And, like Joel points out – the Nuggs are winning in the meantime, so it’s not exactly “banking” but putting themselves in position for such a move. Maybe adding a bunch of decent but uninspiring players isn’t the terrible squandering of resources I first thought it was.

    I still worry about Faried’s and Fournier’s developments as players and trade values though with the crowded roster.

    • random900

      Yeah I really don’t think Shaw, Josh or Connelly wanted or anticipated on having Faried at the start of the season. Deadline will be interesting.

  • GK

    Totally unrelated but one thing I never was sure on was what exactly did masai ujiri do for the nuggets. He might have done everything and might have just been a feel-good figurehead.

  • Ckwizard

    I posted this off season that it was about Ty and how every move complemented his skill set. I am not sure how good this team will be at years end but one thing is clear to this arm chair coach.. Ty is a ballet and no matter what, any team Lawson is on is going to be competitive. Looking at the moves as most did in regards to the team or those players individual skills it is easy to understand the article and the perception that the Nuggets would struggle. The point I made months ago was that each addition or subtraction viewed through the Lens “of Ty Lawson” suggested this team would be good and the additions made sense in that context. Bring in players that compliment your best player and a back up in “Nate” that allows for the “Step on the throat” mentality talked about by the players to become a reality… I am very Ingauged to see how the argument “coaching matters” shakes out because at the end of the day the most vocal this year have been the Karl apologists, and for good reason they want an “I told you so” as bad as anyone but I am holding on to hope that Shaw can keep it going so last seasons griping by people like me can be justified. I am not surprised by the success of this team or the play of players like Hamilton but hey I will stay quiete for the short term while I watch this team become what they will… Oh and guess what Nuggets basketball is still “FUN”! Go Nuggets!

  • Andrew

    I think this post will be too late for any discussion (a little insomnia), but I don’t understand why people keep talking about a glut of players at PF or whatever. I understand when people say they have some duplicative skill sets, though. From what I’m seeing, what they really need is to just upgrade at the SG and PF positions and they could be going for it all. Maybe Fournier can develop into that star 2 guard, and hopefully Moz and Geezy continue to improve, but Faried and Hickson both struggle against tall PFs and neither are going to grow (or seemingly develop strong post games), so that seems to be where we are. Julius Randle and trade Hickson for a 2 that can score (and play defense) maybe?

    • alex47666

      want to tell us of a SG that can score and play defense

      • Andrew

        Ha. No. I was hoping somebody could tell me. There’s a kid named Andrew Wiggin, I remember hearing something about…

      • JED89

        aaron afflalo?

  • heykyleinsf

    I see Shaw as the biggest offseason acquisition. Look at how the Pacers are rolling, sure there’s talent there, but we could do well to see our guys play with the chemistry the Pacers have. It’s what I always wanted my favorite team to be, a team. Not a superstar and some other guys.
    I also think we’ve yet to catch full stride. And no, I am not giving up on Javale McGee.

  • Darren

    Tonight alone, we’ve got 6 guys in double figures so far, with 3 more one shot away from joining them. Those nine players don’t even include Andre right now.

    Looking to the future, that 10 man rotation balloons to 12 in a month or so if McGee comes back. While it’s one of the nicer problems to have, too many players without enough minutes can turn into an issue. I REALLY don’t want to see any of these guys go, but I worry that the chemistry may be lost if too many switches are being made. Looking at tonight’s minutes as an example, who do you limit further?

    J-Ham maybe, but his shooting has been nice.
    Arthur maybe, but we NEED his defense, especially in combination with Mozzy.
    Chandler will get limited, which sounds like a good idea for his health.
    Hickson’s minutes are already getting cut, so not much to take there.

    I just don’t know how they’re going to keep everyone happy and add 30 minutes for Gallo and 20 (?) minutes for McGee. An interesting problem for a GM to have…

  • be-ray

    Great write up. A perfect articulation of how I feel about this team. I was so disillusioned with all the pre-season moves that I nearly wrote the team off. But the wins keep rolling in and I’m not sure how cautious I should be with my optimism. Watching the Nets game last night told me a few things: we’re still deep, we’re playing like everyone is doubting us, and yet we’re still searching for an identity.