If there’s one thing the Denver Nuggets could hang their hats on this year, it was the players. Denver has lots of them. Most of them good, some of them marginal, a few not so marginal. Some had career seasons, while others couldn’t quite live up to expectations fans set in the summer months leading up to tip off in October. If there was anything gleaned from this season it came from the players, each and every one, good or bad. In our latest 5-on-5 we attempt to examine which of these players belongs in all the superlative categories associated with postseason analysis. Yes, this is our awards post for the 2013-14 season, if such a thing is possible after such a strenuous year of basketball. As always, we encourage you to pose your answers to the following questions in the comments section below.
1. Who was the Nuggets’ MVP this season?
Kalen: Because he was healthy the entire season, improved so much and carried the Nuggets on his back the last few months, I’m tempted to say Faried; but really, how can you pick against Ty Lawson? The dude finished second in the NBA in assists per game and put up numbers that far exceeded his previous best. Lawson isn’t a superstar but he’s the closest thing Denver has to one.
Vytis: I don’t think you can argue against Ty Lawson here. He started the season out extremely hot and was making an All-Star case for himself. He had some inconsistent stretches, but when he was injured the offense just looked like a complete and utter mess. He was the one getting everyone going and was the team’s best player and ultimately the MVP as well.
David: As it has been since Melo was traded, it’s still Lawson. Denver was not a good team this year but they were downright atrocious when Lawson was hurt. In an offense that relies so heavily on the high pick and roll, Lawson was the lynchpin.
Tom: Ty Lawson. The Nuggets were average (29-31) in games he started and was available to finish, but woeful (7-15) when he came off the bench or was injured. Ty is excellent at setting up his teammates (assisting on 38 percent of field goals when he’s on the court, good for fifth in the league) and getting to the line (.504 free throws per field goal attempt, beating both Kevin Durant and LeBron James.) He’s the heart and soul of the Nuggets’ offensive attack.
Joel: Lawson. While he has his shortcomings – notably on defense and in too often not playing aggressively enough – he remains the motor that powers the Nuggets’ offense. Things tend to fall apart for Denver when he’s off the court, as evidenced by their .350 record in the 20 games he missed versus .468 in the 62 he played. Ty led Denver in scoring, assists and steals, and was second in PER only to Faried, who gets honorable mention as runner-up.
2. Who was the Nuggets’ MIP (Most Improved Player) this season?
Kalen: I’m tempted to say Mozgov, and while he’s as deserving as anybody here, I can’t look past Faried for the simple fact that he expanded his game more than I ever thought possible — all in only one year! Mozgov benefited more from a drastic increase in playing time whereas Faried truly went outside his comfort zone and adopted a whole new set of offensive weapons. That, to me, is what true improvement is all about.
Vytis: Have to go with Mozgov. He was cemented on the bench last season, and eventually moved into the starting lineup this year. I’ve seen him play internationally and perform well, so it’s not like he improved a ton, but he certainly took advantage of his opportunity and did make some progress.
David: Faried. It’s amazing how far he went in just the span of the second half of the season. He was on the trading block to start the year, barely able to scrape starter-level minutes in the first couple of months, and then all of a sudden he was Denver’s second best player and a force in the post. Many wondered if Faried could survive in an offense that didn’t appeal solely to his athleticism and his energy. I think he answered those questions definitively.
Tom: Timofey Mozgov. He played nearly 200 more minutes this season than in his previous three years in the league combined and posted career bests in most statistical categories (per game and per minute). He became a fairly stable presence on both offense and defense. He even hit his free throws at a higher percentage than any PF or C in the Nuggets’ rotation since Juwan Howard.
Joel: Mozgov. Per MySynergySports.com, just 6.4 percent of his offensive plays last season were post-ups, and he scored a comically bad 0.25 PPP on those. With Shaw running more post plays for him this season, those numbers have shot up to 23.7 percent and 0.8, respectively. And his overall PPP jumped from 0.86 to 0.97. There’s still much room for improvement, but he’s made great strides despite challenging circumstances and low expectations (exemplified by his No. 13 #NuggetsRank last year).
3. Who was the Nuggets’ most under appreciated player this season?
Kalen: Without question, Randy Foye. From the first time he donned a Nuggets jersey Foye has done nothing but meet and surpass all expectations fans had before the season — including nearly breaking the Nuggets 17-year-old, single-season 3-point field goals made record — yet throughout the year people clamored for more Fournier. I honestly don’t remember a more under appreciated player in all my years as a fan.
Vytis: I feel like Darrell Arthur is a top candidate for this nomination. When he was on the floor the Nuggets’ lamentable frontcourt defense was actually pretty solid. He was the team’s best and most versatile frontcourt defender, so I feel he was overall under appreciated by both the fans and even Brian Shaw.
David: Randy Foye. Maybe it’s because Denver hasn’t really had a gunner I liked since Al Harrington, or maybe it’s because Foye running the point was the lone bright spot in the black hole of February, or maybe it’s because he was likely Denver’s only consistently healthy good player, but Foye was my favorite Nugget last year. He was fifth in the league in 3-point attempts per 36 minutes, and he hit them at a good clip. That alone seals it for me.
Tom: Nate Robinson and Randy Foye. The pair were signed for a combined salary of less than the MLE and were mostly either ignored or criticized in offseason discussions by media and fans. Yet both were solid contributors as long as they were healthy, providing the Nuggets with outside shooting, decent but unspectacular playmaking, and more defensive effort and toughness than they got credit for.
Joel: Foye. Understated in both style of play and personality, he largely flew under the fans’ radar. But he quietly led the team in minutes played, and his 189 3-pointers were the second most scored in franchise history. His ability to spread the floor was critical in helping to draw defenses out and give Lawson and bigs in the post more room to operate. And although his defense was up and down at times, he was one of Denver’s most consistent, reliable and hard-working players.
4. Of the players who logged significant minutes this year (15 minutes or more per game), which impressed you the least?
Kalen: This is a tough one. Although Wilson Chandler underwhelmed yet again, he was also injured most of the year (yet again) and I feel guilty holding that against him. For me, I expected a lot more from Fournier. He got ample playing time to prove himself yet was wildly inconsistent, inefficient and averaged less than three assists and one steal per 36 minutes. If Denver drafts a shooting guard in June, Fournier could be in trouble.
Vytis: No question J.J. Hickson. He puts up numbers but he is one of the worst defenders in the league, and for every offensive rebound he grabs on one end, he makes up with a blown rotation on the other. He did quite well coming off the bench, but having him in the starting lineup in the first place was just terrible.
David: The easy answer here would be J.J. Hickson, but my expectations were already at rock bottom. No, I think this has to go to Evan Fournier. I had lowered my expectations for what I thought he could be after he came back to earth in the playoffs last season but I was never this pessimistic. He’s a nice spot up shooter but he’s a sieve and can’t really handle the ball as the secondary option.
Tom: I expected a lot more out of Wilson Chandler than he actually produced. He’s shown the ability to be an above-average shooter with a good midrange game, a solid defender in man-on-man and help situations, and a pretty good rebounder. He was none of those things this season.
Joel: Fournier – unfortunately. After his explosive breakout following Gallinari’s injury last season, I had high expectations for him to pick up right where he left off, coming out strong and continuing to build upon his surprising success months earlier. Instead what we saw was a setback, as he struggled to regain the confidence and competence he’d shown previously. He did improve from the start to the finish of the season, but still fell short of the potential he’d promised.
5. Of all the Nuggets’ free agents (Vesely, Arthur, Robinson, Brooks and Miller), which would you like to see retained the most and which would you like to see depart the most?
Kalen: I greatly enjoyed watching Aaron Brooks play basketball the last few months of the season, and although I’d like to see him come back most, the Nuggets already have Lawson, Foye and Robinson (who will almost certainly exercise his player option) to play the point; therefore, I’d take Arthur for his defense. Robinson is a bit too reckless and inefficient for me, so seeing him depart wouldn’t kill me.
Vytis: I’m going to cheat here. Since Robinson and Arthur both have player options, I assume both will opt in, and from what they’ve shown this season I’d like them back with the team next year. Brooks is also an interesting player and he did very well, but if Nate is healthy I don’t feel there is much of a need for another point guard. Miller and Vesely departing wouldn’t really change anything.
David: It’s hard to see Robinson and Arthur turning down their player options so I think they’re locked in regardless. I’d most like to see Vesley gone. He was fun and played hard but, to put it bluntly, he’s not an NBA player, no matter how cheap Denver could get him. I’d like to see Miller back because his contract is really cheap, even once guaranteed, and he remains a low risk, medium reward prospect.
Tom: Nate Robinson needs to stay. He’s the perfect backup to Ty Lawson. Arthur and Brooks are both legitimate NBA players worth keeping around. Vesely is slightly better than Quincy Miller right now, but Miller is two years younger with more upside and a cheap team option on his contract. If the Nuggets want to free up a roster spot, Vesely is the one who should go.
Joel: Since Arthur, Nate and Miller all seem likely to return, I’ll key in on the other two. Between them, Vesely would be the better option for retaining. He still has some potential for marginal improvement, and his energy, effort and scrappiness off the bench can be valuable. I don’t necessarily want Brooks gone, but being that he’s essentially a poor man’s Nate Robinson anyhow, he’s the odd man out and the Nuggets will need his roster spot for their draft pick.