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.
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