Much has been made this season about what the 2013-14 Denver Nuggets are not. They’re not a good team, first and foremost. They’re not healthy. They’re inconsistent. They lack defensive fundamentals that are often a hallmark of championship-contending teams. But for everything the Denver Nuggets are not, there are many things they are — which deserve recognition as dusk approaches on the season.
As it stands the Nuggets are poised to finish with the 12th worst record in the NBA. They’re not even close to making the playoffs in the West and wouldn’t even make them in the abysmal East either. In the early part of the season, while hovering around .500, the Nuggets won seven straight games in a row at one point. But that pseudo-glory was short lived as the Nuggets soon fell on hard times, losing eight straight and 11 out of 12 on separate occasions from late December to early March.
All in all the Nuggets season has been up and down in terms of results. When you combine season-long injuries (Lawson and Chandler have both missed a quarter of the year) with season-ending injuries (McGee after five games; Hickson after 69; and Robinson after 44) and those who’ve missed the entire year due to injuries (do I even need to say it?), you’re already put in a position where simply staying afloat is commendable. But when you consider that of the six players mentioned above, four were at one point starters and the other two the first to come off the bench for Brian Shaw, staying afloat then becomes more of an ideal than a reality.
Of the additional myriad obstacles entrenched between the Nuggets and the road to success this season, including Brian Shaw’s own progress as a first-time head coach in the NBA, an entire roster constructed to run like a coalition of cheetahs instead of running set plays, a lack of innately defense-minded players, raw youth, midseason trades and season-long inner friction as the team transitioned away from transitioning, it’s no wonder the 2013-14 Denver Nuggets have resembled more the amusement park rides next door to the Pepsi Center than the steady, 50-win squad we’ve known in years past.
Call me a Karl hater, a Shaw apologist, outwardly infallible or just plain crazy, but I believe the Nuggets needed a season like this. They needed to see which players could step up to the challenge of altering their game to conform to a new system, and that they have with the recent developments of their holdovers from the Ujiri era — Lawson, Faried and Mozgov to be exact. The Nuggets needed a season of “development” to see what Brian Shaw is made of. They needed to see which role players were dispensable and which were deserving of big pay days. They needed, in what appears to be one of the better drafts in the last decade, a lottery pick to groom and incorporate into the rotation at a very meager hit against the cap. Granted, it would have been nice to do all this while winning many games and making the playoffs for the umpteenth time in a row, but given the unpredictable nature of injuries as well as the changes administered by Josh Kroenke last summer, it was virtually unrealistic all along to think the Nuggets were on track to make the playoffs, especially given the quality of basketball played in the West.
What we fans must realize is that the reset button on this team was pressed in the summer months of 2013. Not the “Changes” button, nor the “Alteration” button, but the “RESET” button — the big, fat red one where once you push it there’s no turning back. And as is often the case when you push the reset button, you tend to reset — totally. Although many, including yours truly, would have liked to believe the transition from one generation to anther could be seamless, that was never really a possibility and this season was a harsh lesson in acknowledging that fact.
Brian Shaw is not George Karl. He cannot win as many games as George Karl can at this point in his career, but there is room for improvement, and we’ve seen much already. Same goes for Tim Connelly. Lord knows he is not Masai Ujiri. Hell, nobody is Masai freakin’ Ujiri. But perhaps Connelly has learned a lot already since taking over as general manager of the Nuggets last summer. Perhaps, in truth, he’s a lot more talented than we’ve been led to believe. I know that I, for one, have certainly enjoyed the additions of Randy Foye (who after only one season in a Nuggets uniform has already established himself as one of the best 3-point shooters in franchise history), Aaron Brooks and Darrell Arthur. And I know many of you have delighted in the arrivals of Nate Robinson, J.J. Hickson and even Jan “Airwolf” Vesely, even if I have not quite as much.
Taking into account all that’s been mentioned above, this season then appears more than anything to be about one incredibly valuable human characteristic: growth. As fans, we haven’t done too much of that over the last decade or so. Each year has been about the same, with the same results, and we always knew that next year wouldn’t be much different either. But now we are seeing things in a new light, through a different kaleidoscope of powder blue and gold. What we have before us is no longer an equation, where a highly unconventional model of basketball is played, amplifying certain philosophies while brazenly omitting fundamentals in order to deliver a tightly packaged number of wins at the end of the regular season no matter how times it was it exploited for its flaws in the long run. No, what we have now is wide open space, a verdant pasture, room for growth, improvement, possibilities, and we’ve already caught a glimpse of what that future can be like this year.
Brian Shaw is not a perfect head coach. I’ll be the first to admit that for much of this season I wasn’t even sure he was a good coach, one worthy of manning an NBA franchise. And though I’m still reluctant to fully endorse him as someone who should take up permanent residence as head coach in Denver, it’s critical we acknowledge how far the Nuggets and Shaw have come in a little over five months. They’ve gone from oscillating pendulum of dysfunction (thanks in large part to, again, everything mentioned above) to a disciplined, well executing team that plays with a sense of vindication, pride and spirit. In other words, they’ve grown.
Each and every player on the Nuggets roster has expanded his game this year — some more than I ever thought possible — thanks to Shaw. Faried is leading fast breaks (albeit, somewhat recklessly), scoring hook shots over taller players in the post and dishing out dimes like a point guard, playing by far the best basketball of his life. Under Karl, Faried couldn’t even get off the bench his first two months with the Nuggets and was otherwise seen as a one-dimensional energy guy. Ty Lawson has far eclipsed the best numbers of his career prior to this season, making a strong push for the All-Star game and ranking second in the NBA in assists per game behind only Chris Paul — all while operating in a slower, more traditional offense than the frenetic pace administered under Karl that Lawson was supposedly tailor made for. Then there’s Mozgov, who just absolutely stormed, pillaged and devoured the expectations of Nuggets fans everywhere when he nearly registered a 20-30 game just a few days ago. I guess now is as good of a time as any to note that, under the watchful eye of George Karl, Mozgov could barely even get off the bench thanks to Karl’s infatuation with Kosta Koufos.
Prior to his arrival in Denver, Shaw was seen as a player development coach. After one year in Denver it’s becoming apparent that that notion should be confirmed. What he once did with Paul George and Roy Hibbert he’s now doing with Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried and Timofey Mozgov. Shaw is taking chances. He’s putting in the necessary work to ensure long-tern success, even if it’s costing the Nuggets a possession here, due to a Timofey Mozgov 3-point attempt, or even a whole game there, thanks to a concerted effort at getting Kenneth Faried post touches for 48 minutes straight. Remember, growth is not growth without struggle, occasional backtracking, trial and error. One season — his first, it should be noted… if it wasn’t glaringly obvious already — of 30-something wins, abound with injuries, roster malfunction and a transitioning between nearly disparate styles of play does not make Brian Shaw a bad coach. Not by any stretch. Especially given the development of key cornerstones and role players in such a brief amount of time. Let us not forget that at the inception of his career, through his first four years as head coach in the NBA, George Karl won an average of 30 games per season, resigned once and was fired once.
So while the pessimist may point to Denver’s record as an omen for an ominous future, and the optimist may petition for Jan Vesely to be a viable contributor on next year’s squad, I say let’s try and call this season exactly what it was: growth. There are signs of potential for the future; they should not be ignored. Shaw is a coach who has proven he can squeeze the most out of his players, and the Nuggets — barring catastrophic injuries — still have lots of talent coming back next year. But to look at this season as a failure, I think that’s a mistake. A failure is a season with no bright spots, no trademark wins (like the one the Nuggets had against the Warriors the other night), no promising improvement from linchpin players, and above all, no growth. The 2013-14 Nuggets may not have won many games, had multiple All-Stars or secured home-court advantage in the playoffs, but they grew, and I think that’s something worth being excited about.