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Year in Review: The Denver Nuggets

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We wrap up the YEAR IN REVIEW series by analyzing the team as a whole and talking about some of the key takeaways from this season.

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Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Year in Review Series



Overview

by Adam Mares

What a difference a year makes.

Last year at this time the Denver Nuggets were without a coach and without direction. Both the short term and long term outlook of the team was bleak.

Although the team missed the playoffs, the 2015-16 season was a success by any reasonable, objective standard. Las Vegas had the team projected to win just 26 games, and that assumed reasonable health to players like Danilo Gallinari, Jameer Nelson, and Wilson Chandler. Gallo missed all of March and April, Jameer missed over half of the season, and Chandler went down to a season-ending hip injury in the preseason. Yet despite the misfortune to three of the Nuggets most experienced and most talented players, the Nuggets blew past their projected total, winning 33 games, a total that probably could've been higher had the team not taken it's foot off of the gas (translation: tanked) in the final two weeks of the season.

At the heart of what went right for the Nuggets this season is Michael Malone. After the short and disastrous tenure of Brian Shaw, the Nuggets were under a great deal of pressure to get their next coaching hire right. While the jury is still out on Malone's prospects as a coach in the long run, he passed his first test as coach of the Nuggets with flying colors. The culture inside the locker room is completely opposite of what it was last season. Players bought in to Malone's approach and played with much more of a consistent effort than they had in previous seasons under Shaw. Every member of the team's young core also showed signs of improvement as the season went on, from Emmanuel Mudiay on down to Jakkar Sampson.

The biggest standout and surprise of the season was the play of rookie center, Nikola Jokic. As a 2nd round pick in the 2014 NBA draft, Jokic was not very well known or thought of around the league entering the season. He played just four minutes in his NBA debut and was used sparingly throughout the first few weeks of the season. However, in the limited minutes he did play early on, he looked impressive. By January he was named the starting center and by the all-star break he was beginning to generate national buzz as a rookie of the year candidate. In the end, Jokic will probably finish second or third in rookie of the year voting, especially impressive given that this year's rookie class is the deepest and most talented class in a decade.

Emmanuel Mudiay was named the face of the organization last September. His season was much more up and down than Jokic's but there were a lot of promising signs from the rookie point guard throughout the year. Mudiay's shot improved as the season went on, as did his assist to turnover ration. Mudiay's weaknesses early on were easy to spot - turnovers, conditioning, jump shot - but his strengths were just as noticeable. Mudiay has great vision and feel for the game and excellent size for a point guard. His defensive potential is very high, as demonstrated by his lockdown defense on Damian Lillard in the team's early season win over the Trailblazers. Few players made as big of a leap from October to April as Mudiay did. His intense work ethic and desire to be great make Mudiay an excellent prospect to make a leap in his sophomore season and the Nuggets trajectory will likely mimic his own.

One player that made a big leap between their rookie and sophomore seasons was Gary Harris. Harris played sparingly under Shaw but started all 82 games for the Nuggets this season, leading the team in total minutes and steals while also making huge improvements in his FG% and 3FG%.  Will Barton also continued to improve and was a leading candidate for the NBA's sixth man of the year award, finishing fourth in the voting.

After starting the season as a team that was equal parts young prospects and in-their-prime veterans, the Nuggets roster got younger and younger as the season went on. The team added Jakkar Sampson and Axel Toupane, two young players with low risk contracts to go along with Joffrey Lauvergne, Jusuf Nurkic, and the three players mentioned above to create a very promising cache of young players that give the Nuggets a lot to work with going forward. The team probably still lacks a superstar and is unlikely to add one in free agency anytime soon. For now, much of the Nuggets future depends on the continued development of their young core as well as the fate of their 21.8% chance at landing a top three pick in the upcoming NBA draft.

All in all, the 2015-16 Nuggets season was far and away the most promising and entertaining season the team has had since the 57-win team in 2013. Casual fans will be slow to jump back on the bandwagon, but by all objective standards, the Nuggets did as good a job as one could've hoped for at hitting the reset button after the debacle that was last season. This Nuggets team is likeable once again and the roster has shown signs of developing into something special. Whether or not that something special means a playoff team in years to come, a contender in years to come, or a champion in years to come is yet to be determined. For now, however, the future in Denver is bright, even if it is far from certain.

Important Stat

By Zach Mikash

6.3

That would be the average number of blocks per game by the Nuggets opponents, which is good for the most blocks allowed in the entire Association. Denver struggled consistently this season with converting near the basket and I'm pretty sure the team is still having nightmares about Hassan Whiteside. Emmanuel Mudiay in particular struggled with getting his shot blocked as he accounted for about 15% of all the Nuggets shots that were sent back by the opposition.

Emmanuel will hopefully improve in that area but what also is likely to help is some better outside shooting. The Nuggets were near last in 3pt field goal percentage this year as well and with no consistent outside threats opponents could pack the paint without worry. A knockdown shooter could give Denver a much better success rate at the rim, maybe a guy like oh, I don't know, Brandon Ingram.

Room for Improvement

By Gordon Gross

Defense.  It's gotta be defense.  Denver was poor-to-terrible at most spots on the floor in that regard (http://nyloncalculus.com/stats/opponent-production/) and their three-point defense was third-worst in the league.  The Nuggets were also abominable at finishing near the rim (league-leading attempts, near the bottom in percentage-finished) but that's more of an individual skill.  If Nurkic and Mudiay get it in gear over the summer our percentage will soar.  Defense is a team game, and even in the last week of the season Malone was lamenting our inability to contain the ball on the perimeter in any fashion.  (https://soundcloud.com/altituderadionetwork/coach-malone-after-kings) These Nuggets are young, but they have to find their defensive chemistry and will, and that takes all five players - and perhaps a few different players in the mix as well.  Finding a shot-blocking threat and a long perimeter defender would go a long way in that regard.

Highlight of the Year

By Zach Mikash

The play of Jakarr Sampson was often unheralded and he usually is referred to for his defensive energy (which is sort of synonymous with just not very good) but his windmill jam off a no look Will Barton pass against the mighty San Antonio Spurs will earn him the highlight here.

Best Game of the Year

By Daniel Lewis

Draymond Green felt like this game should have an asterisk next to it because he didn't play, so it wasn't a true loss, but regardless, this was the Nuggets best game of the season.

Danilo Gallinari was magnifico for Denver, getting to the free throw line for 19 attempts over 38 minutes of play. Gary Harris had 19 points and seven rebounds, while also providing great defense against Klay Thompson throughout the evening. Will Barton and Darrell Arthur were liquid gold off the bench, combining for 39 points. Even a disaster performance from Jameer Nelson and Emmanuel Mudiay, who combined to shoot 2 for 17 from the field, couldn't deter the Nuggets this night at home in the Pepsi Center.

The Nuggets had a 10-point lead to start the fourth quarter, but the Warriors can score nine points quicker than any team in the league with their 3-point shooting, and things got uncomfortable in the fourth quarter. Steph Curry went all NBA Jam and started making shots from the mountains on the Pepsi Center court, but a Gallinari steal with less than ten seconds helped protect a two-point lead and was the play of the game. Watching Gallo pound his chest as the stadium (which had a lot of bandwagon Warriors fans in attendance) cheered was what being a fan is all about.

Roundtable

What was your favorite thing about the 2015-16 Denver Nuggets?

Gordon Gross (@GMoneyNuggs): Watching the team play with joy again.  I watched more basketball this year than in either of the Shaw seasons because those things were a constant dirge.  The basketball wasn't exciting, the players looked like they wanted to be taken out to pasture and the coaches seemed like they hated everyone.  This year everybody enjoyed playing with each other and the selfishness that seems to engulf many losing clubs wasn't present to that extent here.  My expectations for next year are higher, but the Nuggets delivered on their promise to make basketball watchable in the Mile High City again.  Next step: get people to actually watch.

Daniel Lewis (@minutemandan): Emmanuel Mudiay. The Nuggets finally realized they needed to rebuild after hiring Michael Malone in the offseason, and committed to that rebuild by taking Emmanuel Mudiay in the draft. They could have gone for a wing like Justise Winslow or a center like Frank Kaminsky or Miles Turner if they wanted to try to make one more postseason run, but they invested in the future and hitched their wagon to the young point guard. Mudiay definitely struggled at times, but his growth over the season was evident and I think the future is bright for this team. With Mudiay, they can step forward into the modern NBA and leave behind the shackles of the past.

Zach Mikash (@ZachMikash): Gimme some Big Honey! Jokic was supposed to be this project player who may pay off down the road and he turned out to be a very competent starter and a Rookie of the Year candidate. Mudiay was expected to be a big time rookie, but once Jokic was added to the mix the ceiling for that duo, and by extension the Nuggets overall, became very exciting, both this season and hopefully many seasons to come.

Is it more important for the Nuggets to get growth from their young players going forward, or to consolidate some of their talent into one better player?  Keep in mind, that player could be Boogie Cousins.

Gross: I'm going to go with growth from their young players.  Getting a really good, young team together can help convince some good player to join up here and prevent a Melo situation where all the players he would have been able to succeed playing next to get traded in order to get him there.  The rebuild requires Mudiay, Jokic, Harris and Nurkic to take steps toward becoming great players, and based on their growth this year I'd rather give them the time to do that.

Lewis: Can I cheat and say that they should try to do both? It's a door that is painted purple and gold - the Los Angeles Lakers. They are in a win-now mode, and they can't win now if Luke Walton has to teach Brandon Ingram how to play man-to-man defense against NBA players. If the Lakers get a top-2 pick, the Nuggets could offer Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, Jameer Nelson, their first pick in this draft, and their first pick in the 2017 draft for Lou Williams and the Lakers pick this year, which they use on Ben Simmons. The Lakers can then compete for a playoff spot with D'Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Gallinari, Julius Randle, and Faried. The Lakers could go sign Festus Ezeli, and they'd still get to draft a rookie (like Buddy Hield) with the pick the Nuggets send over. The Nuggets would be able to integrate Simmons into their lineup, adding the best player in the draft to a core of Nikola Jokic, Emmanuel Mudiay. Tack on the addition of their other two draft picks, and the Nuggets would be set to be playoff contenders for the foreseeable future.

Mikash: I'll use one of my favorite lines recently...that all depends on the draft. If the basketball gods smile upon Denver for once and get us a top 3 pick then player development is probably the way to go, otherwise at some point you have to get the guy who can be relied on in crunch time situations and the playoffs to get you points and victories. Is one of those guys already on the team though? Could Jokic develop into a Dirk Nowitzki like player who carries Denver to a championship? Perhaps, but adding a difference maker certainly won't hurt.

Before knowing the offseason plans, just based on the current healthy roster: do you think the Nuggets will make the playoffs next year?

Gross: I think it will wind up a lot like Utah's season this year.  If healthy, we probably squeak in, and if we lose more chunks of the season to injuries on important players then we probably miss by a game or two.  I would expect the wins threshold to make the playoffs to rise next year as well, so just getting to Utah's wins-level may not be enough.  I'll say we don't make the playoffs next year without a surprising talent infusion, but I expect to be the 9th seed.

Lewis: No. At the beginning of this season, few were expecting the Trail Blazers to be this good, but it looks like they'll be playoff contenders next season as well. It's nice to think that the Pelicans will compete for a playoff spot, but they seem perpetually disappointing - the Nuggets should be better than them. Same story, different desert for the Phoenix Suns. The Utah Jazz will still have to figure out what to do at point guard, so the Nuggets should be at least on their level next season. One should never count out Rick Carlisle and Dirk Nowitzki, and if Dave Joerger is with the Grizzlies, they'll probably be grinding out an above .500 season too. After Kevin Durant leaves Oklahoma City, the Thunder will likely be in the group competing for the 5-8 seeds as well, and all that mess probably won't help the Nuggets. I think they'll be closer to .500 this next season, but I think it will be very difficult to make the playoffs (as it should be).

Mikash: If they are healthy all year they should compete for a spot. Imagine a team that doesn't play Jakarr Sampson and Axel Toupane but plays Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari. Imagine a team who has Jusuf Nurkic at full speed for an entire season. Add in some development and growth in the young players and they should be right on the cusp. Whether or not they get in though depends on how lucky teams like the Mavericks, the Jazz, the Pelicans etc get. That #8 spot is going to be hotly contested next year and as currently constructed Denver should be a part of the battle to win it.