Over the next couple weeks, SB Nation's NBA blogs will be bringing you team previews. You'll be able to find them all right here on Denver Stiffs. Now, let's dig into the coming season for your favorite team.
Team Name: Denver Nuggets
Last Year's Record: 36-46, 11th place finish in Western Conference.
Key Losses: Evan Fournier (Magic), Anthony Randolph (Russia), Jan Vesely (Turkey), and Aaron Brooks (Bulls).
Key Additions: Arron Afflalo, Gary Harris, Jusuf Nurkic, and Erick Green. And for funsies: Danilo Gallinari, Nate Robinson, JaVale McGee, and J.J. Hickson (after his five game suspension) all are returning from season ending injuries.
1. What Significant Moves were made during the off-season?
The Nuggets wanted to upgrade their shooting guard position, so they went out and got the highly sought after Arron Afflalo back in a trade with the Orlando Magic. Afflalo, who turns 29 years-old on Oct. 15th, was brought back in exchange for Evan Fournier and the 56th pick (Roy Devyn Marble, Iowa) in the 2014 NBA draft.
The downside of the trade is that Denver gave up a talented 21 year-old prospect in Fournier, who had been productive during his first couple NBA seasons and averaged 19.8 minutes per game for Brian Shaw last season. The upside: the Nuggets now have two shooting guards, in AAA and Randy Foye, who are knock down outside shooters. Afflalo also brings leadership qualities both on-and-off the floor, a defensive presence, and a diverse offensive game (even if he refuses to dunk). The Nuggets have had quite a few players who have returned to Denver, like Chauncey Billups, Andre Miller, Antonio McDyess, everyone's favorite coach / analyst Mark Jackson, and ... (any others?). Let's hope Afflalo is here to stay.
Tim Connelly's first real draft (he was hired just days before the 2013 draft) with the team brought some surprises. Denver traded the 11th pick to the Chicago Bulls in exchange for picks 16 (Nurkic) and 19 (Harris). These moves may not mean much for a season or two, but Harris looks fairly NBA ready and Nurkic could be Denver's center of the future. Many in Nuggets Nation wanted the team to keep the 11th pick and the man selected there, Doug McDermott, so we'll see how it pans out.
2. What are the team's biggest strengths?
This team is still built to play at a fast pace. With Ty Lawson, spot up shooting guards and forwards, and bigs that like to get out and run in McGee, Kenneth Faried, and Hickson, this team will excel whenever it steps on the gas pedal. The fact that Shaw's team is two or three deep at every position should help mitigate dips in play when reserves are mixed in with starters. In fact, many of Denver's reserves could be starters for other teams. This has been the case with the Nuggets for years and it should once again be a benefit.
Shaw will want to keep instituting more of a half-court game with the Nuggets, and this season he'll have more play-makers on the floor to aide in that quest. Lawson, Robinson, and Foye all proved to be capable creators last season and with Gallo and Afflalo back in the mix, Shaw should be able to get very creative on the offensive end. We saw a lot of moving pieces last season on offense and we should see more motion away from the ball, that should allow for a lot of open looks.
There will be talk about who will take the big shots for the Nuggets, but Lawson, Gallo, and Afflalo have all proven capable in big moments and we should even see Faried get a few chances in key moments. Staying with the bigs, Denver has a little bit of everything with their power forwards and centers. Post play will be emphasized, along with lots of pick-and-roll play.
Shaw's team was pretty good at forcing teams to take lower percentage shots and Timofey Mozgov proved to be a pretty good paint protector. The team's 105.4 defensive rating (21st in the NBA - the number of points allowed per 100 possessions) wasn't exactly pretty compared to the Pacers' league leading 96.7 defensive rating, but we'll see if those numbers can improve with a healthy team. With two centers that can offer rim protection and athletic wings that can cover the perimeter, this could be one of Denver's better defensive teams. You don't often think about defense when it comes to the Nuggets, but Shaw wants that to change and he has the personnel to make it happen.
3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?
With players returning from injury and such a deep team, there are a couple areas of concern: one, can players handle heavy minutes? And two: team chemistry. We should see some minute restrictions on Robinson, Gallo, Hickson, and McGee as they are returning from leg injuries. Shaw has already stated that he may need to play guys for shorter periods of time, due to depth, and that is a bit tricky.
Whether it was George Karl or Shaw, the teams over the years responded better when players knew their roles and were given consistent minutes. Foye talked last season about having a hard time getting in a groove when minutes became a bit sporadic, and Shaw's rotation will be of the utmost importance this season. Will guys be okay in reduced roles, if it comes to that? Will playing more than eight or nine guys allow for the team to get settled into their roles?
How this team is able to perform in the half-court on both ends of the floor will also be paramount to success. Lawson looked comfortable in the pick-and-roll game on the offensive end and having more play-makers, again, should allow for a more diverse game. Can the Nuggets really get things going in the post? What will Faried's role in the offense become? Can Mozgov continue his upward trend? What will McGee look like?
On the defensive end, we saw the team makes strides in protecting the paint and in covering shots on the perimeter. The team struggled in the pick-and-roll game and changed their coverage a few times during the season. Playing against a team like the Spurs, you'll see four or five different pick-and-rolls in one possession. The Nuggets must improve there and in help defense.
The Nuggets ranked 16th in opponent's turnovers with 14.4 per game. It'd be nice to see the team create more turnovers, but it's a hard statistic to quantify. The Philadelphia 76ers led the league in turnovers created with 17.0 per, the Heat ranked second with 16.7 per, and the defending champs, the Spurs, ranked 25th with 13.9 per game. While creating more turnovers would be nice for the transition game, it also could come at the cost of giving up easy looks with a scrambling defense. While the Nuggets could again be average in the turnovers created department, having a disciplined defensive unit might be the better plan.
4. What are the goals for this team?
We will have quotes from players, coaches, and the front office from Media Day on where they think this team could potentially land. It should not be a surprise if the Nuggets are one of the darlings of the 2014-15 campaign. Last season it was the Raptors, Suns, Wizards, Blazers, and Bobcats that captured the "up-and-comers" talk around the league. If things go according to plan, expect the Nuggets to get a little national love.
Realistically, this team could battle for the fourth seed out West, seriously. Last season the Rockets captured that spot with 54 wins and that should be about where the fourth seed finishes this season. The Nuggets can get there. Most would take a return to the playoffs and call that a success, but in order to advance past Round One, you almost have to get home court - years of first round exits have proved that here in Denver.
If the Nuggets capture home court, then they should be expected to make a second round appearance in the post-season. If the Nuggets are the fifth, sixth, seventh, or eighth seed ... getting out of the first round will prove very difficult. The 2014 playoffs showed that parity might be closer than we've seen in the Western Conference for quite some time. But when push came to shove, the only upset we got in the first round was the fifth seeded Blazers knocking off the fourth seeded Rockets.
5. Who will win starting jobs this season?
Shaw used an approximate 592 different starting lineups last season, give or take a few hundred. Taking injuries out of the equation, Shaw tinkered with Hickson as the starting power forward and center, Foye was taken out of the starting lineup early in the season as he was dealing with shooting struggles, and Mozgov cemented himself as the starting center late in the season.
Lawson is the unquestioned starting point guard, Afflalo should start at the two, Gallo at the three, Faried at the four, and we'll see how the center spot shakes out in camp between Moz and McGee. Robinson is a proven spark off the bench, Chandler seems to play better as a key reserve, and Hickson's role off the bench proved to be a good one, too. If Foye can get loose quick as the backup shooting guard, the Nuggets are going to possess one of the deadliest benches in the league.
Shaw will have a lot of options for how he wants to close out games. Will he stick with a consistent lineup and force/allow a crunch-time unit to gel? There is definitely something to be said for going with a "hot hand" guy or two in crunch time, and Shaw showed last season that he'll stick with a guy if he is having a good game.
With camp set to open this week, we'll start getting a better feel for how this team is constructed and before you know it, the season will be upon us. It will be an exciting one in Nuggets Nation and we should see the team make a return to the post-season.