For the first time in over a decade the Denver Nuggets will not play in the NBA postseason. It’s an odd feeling and many fans are rightfully anxious about the team’s long-term future. For most casual sports followers, peering into the Crystal Ball of Tomorrow is simple. You know — for the most part — the security of your coach and team executives, as well as which players will return and which will hit the open market. But what about two, three, even five years down the road? After a season like the one the Nuggets had, isn’t that where all our heads really are? It was this very question that birthed the concept of our latest Roundball Roundtable where we attempt — although admittedly, somewhat blindly — to project where the Nuggets are heading in the very distant future based on developments from only this past season. As always, we encourage you to play along and submit your answer to the following question in the comments section below.
Let’s pretend the 2013-13 Denver Nuggets’ season is a storybook. There’s a narrative, characters, subplots, foreshadowing — all the good stuff that goes into producing a true classic. However, this is no ordinary novel — it’s a Chose Your Own Adventure book where the future of the Denver Nuggets can play out in multiple different scenarios, depending on which you chose. Furthermore, the 2013-14 Denver Nuggets’ season is only Chapter 1 in this epic masterpiece and the adventure really doesn’t take off until the latter part of the book, past Chapters (or in this scenario, years) 2 and 3. What we want to know is, what happens to this version of the Denver Nuggets when the final page of this books is flipped leftward? Where is this team heading three to four years from now? Is what the Nuggets currently have in place a recipe for long-term success or gradual decay? Judging by everything you’ve witnessed this year, from Brian Shaw to Tim Connelly to the players and and even Josh Kroenke, it’s up to you to chose which adventure you believe the Nuggets are most likely to undertake.
1. “Decadence and Demise” In this scenario the Nuggets do not drastically improve the next few years and begin a slow decline towards perennial lottery contention. Perhaps they stay competitive for a year or two, but eventually franchise cornerstones depart in free agency and the ones brought in to replace them aren’t good enough to keep the team competitive. Tim Connelly signs more stat stuffers with low basketball IQ and no inclination to play defense, while Brian Shaw’s own lack of an effective defensive scheme renders the team destined for anything but success. Eventually, replacements for Shaw and Connelly arrive but only after the Nuggets becomes mired in losing ways.
2. “A Team to Talk About” Here, the Nuggets experience moderate success for many years to come. They are not a title contender (mostly because they lack a superstar) but they challenge their opponent night in and night out, winning more often than losing. In many ways they are the same team they’ve been for the last decade or so under George Karl. They make the playoffs frequently, some years as a higher seed than others, but only advance past the first round on rare occasions. Tim Connelly proves to be a good general manager and Brian Shaw a fine coach at the NBA level. The Nuggets draft well, are able to retain most of their prized free agents and even land some high-profile players during the summer months. This is a team that generates positive buzz around October each and every year but never does challenge for an NBA title.
3. “Glory Years” This storyline sees the Nuggets eclipse most all current expectations, becoming a future powerhouse down the road. Through Tim Connelly’s shrewdness the Nuggets obtain a superstar and several other All-Star caliber players in addition to the pieces they already have. This is a team that vies for a top four seed almost every year, creating a culture where advancing past the first round of the playoffs becomes customary. Three years from now the Nuggets have clearly established themselves as a team and franchise that builds through savvy draft picks and perceptive, under-the-radar trades. Brian Shaw consistently challenges for Coach of the Year and helps many of his key players reach a potential they hadn’t realized prior to their time in Denver. When it’s all said and done, this will go down as the greatest Nuggets era known to date.
I feel like option two is the most likely direction for this Denver Nuggets team. This roster could still be blown up, simply because most of the guys are tradable, but it’s highly unlikely that will happen.
Kenneth Faried finished the season out strong and since his market value is at an all-time high right now it would make sense to try and swing a deal for him. However, the Nuggets have overvalued Faried in the past, so locking him up on a juicy long-term deal is the more likely option. This will keep the core of the team together, but also limit the team’s flexibility in free agency moving forward.
I think the fact that Denver has missed so many core players this season due to injury, as well as the fact that Brian Shaw was adjusting to his head coaching role, the front office is more likely to let the roster get healthy and give Shaw more time to work.
Even though a completely healthy Nuggets roster would be capable of playoff contention next year, it’s also a team that has a pretty firm ceiling. Championship contention is unlikely to be associated with Denver over the next couple of years, simply because fielding a competitive team is a more attractive option than blowing it up, stinking for a few years, and praying that the draft lottery is rewarding.
Predicting the long-term direction of this team is very hard. Ty Lawson, JaVale McGee and Danilo Gallinari (and perhaps eventually Faried) are all being paid a hefty amount of money over the next couple of years, and the short-term progress of this team will likely determine whether the three players will be re-signed towards the end of their deals or have their expiring contracts moved elsewhere.
What does seem pretty clear as of right now is that the front office is unlikely to get trigger-happy on trades any time soon, and instead will ride the entertainment value of this roster until they are forced to make some very big decisions down the road.
2. It’s difficult to glean much of anything about how secure Denver’s future is in Brian Shaw and Tim Connelly’s hands, the jarring transition from a decade of Karl-ball along with the slew of injuries which muddied the waters too much this season. That said, I don’t think we saw incompetence on either end. Yes, the J.J. Hickson signing looked bad at the time and probably just as worse now, but everything else, from signing Randy Foye and Nate Robinson to reasonable deals to holding steady on Faried to finding Aaron Brooks in the scrap heap, were all solid moves. Shaw looked to have a tenuous grasp on what being a head coach entailed during a rather ugly stretch in the middle of the season, but the last month or so of competitive play put to bed the idea that he had already lost the team. What three weeks of dragging a corpse of a team to respectability means for how talented a coach he is going forward is anyone’s guess. We love to fawn over Tom Thibodeau’s ability to get the best out of his team, but what makes him such a great coach is the ingenuity of his defensive system, something we have yet to see out of Shaw. Still, I think we have to refrain judgement from any first-year head coach, especially one who had to deal with so much unexpected attrition.
As for the future of the team itself, that’s rather murky as well. Lawson’s tied up on a good contract but Gallo and McGee did nothing but prolong the judgement over whether they can be counted as parts of the future this season. Denver won’t have any real financial flexibility until 2016, but by the end of next year they should know whose expiring contract (out of Chandler, Gallo, McGee, Hickson and Faried) needs to be flipped. Really, next season will be the determinant over whether or not Denver will truly fall off the rails, the one where the most decisions will need to be made. But, going off the information we have now, I have to think that those decisions will be made, if not by a savant (missing you always, Masai), then at least prudently. The Western Conference remains death for mediocrity but I think Denver can get to a notch just above that, a somewhat sheepish return to the George Karl status quo.
2. Trying to figure out with certainty how much you can take from this season is an almost impossible task but I think there are a few things that seem pretty clear at this point and that really hamper the Nuggets future.
Without much roster flexibility Denver needed players from inside the organization to grown and get better on both ends of the floor in order to have real hope for the future. For some players part of that growth happened this season; Timofey Mozgov became a reliable two-way big man and Kenneth Faried and Ty Lawson became pretty good offensive players. But none of those guys are elite players at their positions, which really hurts Denver.
Meanwhile (much to the dismay, and right now, disbelief of some fans) the young players that the Nuggets hoped would develop into above average role players — Evan Fournier and Quincy Miller — proved in long looks that they probably aren’t rotation players for teams that hope to contend.
So now Denver has a few players that can probably fit roles on title teams (Lawson, Faried, Mozgov, Darrell Arthur, Foye, and a healthy Gallo if he becomes his old self) without the necessary top 15 player. They also don’t have enough young players with actual potential or pieces that teams will want in trades besides the players mentioned above.
A core of Lawson, Faried and Gallo is enough to compete for a six to eight seed in a brutal Western Conference but it is hard for me to see much more than that, especially with some of the other non-playoff teams seemingly on the come up. The Nuggets will make the playoffs a few times over the next few years, and maybe even win a round once. But right now the Nuggets are far from being contenders and I am not sure I see a way of fixing that without getting lucky in the lottery.
May 26, 2017 – Following a 54-win regular season – their best since 2012-13 – the Nuggets fell last night to the Suns in game seven of the second round of the NBA playoffs. Though falling short of their goal of reaching the Western Conference Finals or beyond, the silver lining to the Nuggets’ disappointment is a seemingly brighter future ahead. Coach Brian Shaw is at last equipped with a full complement of players who not only are talented but also befit his coaching style and system. And general manager Tim Connelly – with help from last season’s expiring contracts – has cultivated a balance of assets and financial flexibility Denver hasn’t seen in years.
The current Nuggets era got off to a rocky start. Shaw and Connelly were hired in the tumultuous 2013 offseason and oversaw an injury-plagued, roller coaster year which brought more apparent steps back than forward. Changing direction was a rough ride for fans, who watched the team struggle through its first losing season in eleven years. Injuries, a somewhat illogical roster, and doubts about Connelly’s competence enshrouded the Nuggets’ future in uncertainty. One thing, however, was clear: The organization was committed to remaining competitive; they fully believed in Denver’s quick return to perennial playoff appearances.
Though Shaw had stumbled at times, his biggest early success came in the area of player development, as Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried, Timofey Mozgov, Evan Fournier and Quincy Miller all made significant improvements. As their progress continued, and injured players returned to health, the Nuggets – with their 2013-14 roster mostly intact – found themselves in an old familiar pattern the following two seasons: one-and-done playoff outings following surprisingly strong regular-season showings.
For his part, Connelly had found a more measured approach to running the front office after scrambling through a mix of solid and dubious moves in his first offseason in Denver. (Not trading Faried at the 2014 deadline may have been his best move early on). Partly by his own design, he was hamstrung by a roster with some hard-to-move contracts that hampered flexibility. But by retaining the best core and role players, building through the draft, and using 2015-16 expirings to free up payroll and acquire additional assets, the young GM now has the organization positioned well for the future. They may not crack top five in league standings, but for the foreseeable future they’ll be a scrappy mid-seed underdog with the potential to exceed expectations.
2. Despite the frustrations of a losing season, there are reasons to retain hope. The Nuggets may not win a championship, but they will at least put a scare into a championship contender in a second-round matchup in the next few years.
Ty Lawson posted the best assist numbers of his career and grew significantly more adept at getting to the line. Kenneth Faried developed a handful of reliable post moves and improved his defensive awareness to a nearly tolerable level. The pair emerged as clear team leaders, and despite being surrounded by a hodgepodge of role players in a tough Western Conference, they led the Nuggets to a 29-29 record in games where both were healthy throughout. The return of Danilo Gallinari should give the Nuggets three borderline star players for years to come.
Coach Brian Shaw had a mixed year. At times he seemed incapable of running a sensible lineup, giving too many minutes to Hickson at center and to Anthony Randolph at any position outside of garbage time. His falling out with Andre Miller mid-season seemed to signal a coach on the verge of losing the team. Yet gutsy late-season wins over Houston and Golden State showed the Nuggets had not laid down and were still playing hard for their coach. With another year to implement his system on both ends of the court, and a hopefully healthier roster to work with, coach Shaw will show he’s capable of running a playoff team.
Tim Connelly has a difficult job going forward, but he has more flexibility than it seems. The Nuggets have three borderline stars and several good complementary pieces signed at reasonable prices, plus JaVale McGee’s semi-bad contract. With a few expiring contracts each of the next two offseasons and probable increases to the luxury tax, the Nuggets have space to retain Faried and pick up a mid-level free agent, or possibly even to get involved in a larger trade. While I’m not convinced Connelly has what it takes to pull off a move as lopsided as the Carmelo trade, a decent draft and a smart free-agent signing is all it will take to put the Nuggets back in the playoffs for the next several seasons.