Introducing your first annual Denver Stiffs 2011-12 Award Winners!

Well, it's over. A lockout-shortened offseason, followed by 66 torturous, compressed games, clawing into the playoffs, only to be sent fishing in the first round – again.

With the Nuggets’ defeat at the hands of the hated Lakers, the Nuggets move on to an offseason in which there are some big questions to be answered. Will Masai Ujiri use the Nuggets’ amnesty clause on Chris Andersen or Al Harrington, or will they be included as a part of a trade? How much money will be offered to the precocious JaVale McGee? Are Timofey Mozgov and Rudy Fernandez as good as gone, or will one or the both of them be back? Does Andre Miller want to remain a Nugget, and do the Nuggets want to resign him? What will happen to Julyan Stone and Jordan Hamilton?

We’ll find out soon enough. But first, presenting this year’s Denver Nuggets award winners, carefully selected by the committee for your perusal. In no particular order…

Rookie of the Year: Kenneth Faried (aka “The Manimal”)

Kenneth Faried has truly been a blessing for the Nuggets. Taken 22nd overall in the 2011 draft, Nuggets fans were thrilled that the front office was somehow able to swindle the Portland Trailblazers into taking guard Nolan Smith instead of everyone’s favorite 6’8″ ball of energy. Although it took some time for him to prove that he deserved his playing time – as it does for all rookies under George Karl’s system – Kenneth made an impact whenever he had time on the floor. He plays with an energy and athleticism that is rare in the NBA and never stops moving. He can elevate above the rim, is constantly muscling his way to rebounds all over the court and plays with an infectious positive attitude, always smiling and cheering on his teammates. From constant highlight-reel dunks to ripping down boards with ferocity, no rookie on the Nuggets this year made as much of an impression as did the Manimal.

Averaging 10.2 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, Kenneth Faried finished the regular season with a 21.94 PER – highest of all rookies – and was fourth in the ENTIRE NBA in PER at the power forward position. It’s still too early to tell, but I feel that there are lots of positive signs pointing to Kenneth Faried potentially becoming the next superstar to don a Nuggets uniform.

Nate's Thoughts: I can't wait to see what Jordan Hamilton (and perhaps Julyan Stone too) does with more playing time next season, but the obvious choice is Kenneth Faried, unless you've been in a coma for an extended amount time.

Andy's Thoughts: Considering Kenneth Faried finished in the top three for NBA ROY voting, he's certainly a no-brainer pick for the Nuggets' ROY. If Faried continues to improve, this 22nd overall pick may prove to be one of the great steals in recent NBA Draft history.

Jeff's Thoughts: Julyan Stone! wait….Kenneth Faried. Sorry, I spelled that wrong. It's fairly self explanatory why Faried is the Rookie of the Year.

Chris' Thoughts: Kenneth Faried. Not much to say about this – Manimal exceeded expectations in every way imaginable and brought aggressiveness, tenacity, and energy night in and night out. Despite being undersized, Faried had a better total rebounding rate than guys named Love, Bynum, Duncan and Noah. He also created easy and efficient offense (a ridiculous 61% TS%) on put backs, lobs and run-outs. He hit countless clutch free throws and towards the end of the year he started developing both a post up game and a spot up jumper . Faried needs to do a better job of understanding team defensive concepts and rotations but the future looks bright.

Honorable Mention: Jordan Hamilton

Jordan Hamilton – affectionately known as “J-Ham” – was taken just four spots behind Faried (at 26th), yet has also shown flashes of brilliance. The 6’7″ shooting guard out of Texas had a few breakout games when the Nuggets were fraught with injuries, scoring a career-high 18 points on 6-11 shooting in a losing effort at the Clippers. Though his minutes were sparse and inconsistent, “Ham” showed an excellent shooting touch and could be an important backup for Arron Afflalo next season.

Defensive Player of the Year: Arron Afflalo

Arron Afflalo had his ups and downs this past season, to be sure. He had an abysmal start to the year, seemingly unable to find his range and playing ineffective basketball after much offseason praise and finally landing a very lucrative contract extension. There were times when some Stiffs readers even called for trading the Bruin due to his disappointing play. But one thing that has always impressed me about Arron has been his tenacity. His constant drive to get better, even if he isn't playing well at the moment. He gradually righted the ship over the course of the season, ending up shooting 47% from the floor, 41% from 3 and 80% from the line during the regular season (the playoffs were a different story, unfortunately), a very efficient offensive line from any shooting guard.
To me, though, "AAA" or "Trip" will always be a better defender than he is an offensive weapon. Despite his struggles scoring in the postseason, Afflalo will and always should be valued more for his defensive contributions to the success of the Nuggets. Throughout the year, he chased other teams' guard around screens, through picks, under the basket, beyond the arc – wherever his man went, Arron was right there with a hand in his face. Although there were nights in which Afflalo was burned, it certainly wasn't frequently. Afflalo always responded with a tighter close-out, a better rotation, more active hands or a blocked shot, and that is what I admire most about him. With a full offseason and training camp and his future with the Nuggets secure, the Nuggets will be counting on his defensive presence on the wing for years to come.

Nate’s Thoughts: Andre Miller!! Joking! JaVale McGee. The Nuggets didn’t play a ton of defense last season, but when McGee came aboard, the lane finally got some protection. Danilo Gallinari also should get some consideration as he had some big time games on the defensive end versus some difficult opponents … namely LeBron James.

Andy's Thoughts: While it may have taken him a while to find his offensive game, Arron Afflalo was a defensive stalwart all season long and had the thankless task of guarding premium opposing two-guards and small forwards nightly.

Jeff’s Thoughts: Danilo Gallinari. What you say? Why not JaVale McGee? I strongly considered McGee…but I don’t think he was on the team long enough to determine that. I’m saying Gallo because, outside of some periodic mental lapses, Gallo was given tough assignments on Rudy Gay, Lebron James and Kobe Bryant and did a very respectable, if not downright great job on each. Despite what Kobe said in the playoffs … Gallo was in his head.

Chris' Thoughts: No one. The difference between this year's Nuggets team and last year's post-trade Nuggets team? Defense. When your defense is 4th worst in the league in defensive eFG% given up and you give up the worst shooting percentage in the league on 3 pointers everyone shares responsibility. If I had to choose, it'd be Gallo because our team defense was best when he was on the court. While he wasn't the best individual defender on the team, his ability to alter shots with his length, play good fundamental defense without fouling, and finally securing a defensive rebound a good percentage of the time to end the possession made him super valuable from a team defense perspective.

Most Improved Player: JaVale McGee

Despite being acquired mid-season for longtime center Nene, JaVale McGee has at times looked like a completely different player than the oft-ridiculed center he was with the Washington Wizards. McGee’s acquisition by the Nuggets seems to have, in some ways, wiped his tarnished slate clean, and he’s played with the intensity and dedication on the Nuggets that many suspected was there, just hidden behind the veil of terrible that was the Wizards. McGee went from a perennial loser to a perennial playoff team and seems to have realized that if he wants to be a star, this is the place where he will become one.

At 7 feet tall and 250 pounds with a wingspan that rivals Mr. Fantastic’s, JaVale has greatly improved even in the short time he spent with the Nuggets. He cut down on boneheaded plays and silly fouls – though there were still some, to be sure – he started listening to his coach and teammates, and more than anything, started playing INTELLIGENTLY. In the postseason’s game 3 against two All-Star players in Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, McGee played the best game of his career – going for 16 points (on 12 shots), 15 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks with just one turnover. If McGee can somehow find a way to consistently put up lines like that, the Nuggets may have found the center to regularly compete with towers of the Spurs and Lakers.

Nate’s Thoughts: Ty Lawson – he grew as much during the playoffs as he did during the regular season. He finally took over the offense and was a full-time starter this season and flourished. I’d say JaVale McGee was a close second and if he’s re-signed, he could have a breakout season next year.

Andy's Thoughts: I have to go with Al Harrington here. After a sub-par (by his own standards) 2010-11 campaign, Big Al got himself into better shape entering the 2011-12 season and was the Nuggets' staple off the bench while providing solid veteran leadership to the youngsters. Harrington was so good this season that he garnered some Sixth Man of the Year Award attention. I can't say enough about what the Nuggets got out of Big Al this season!

Jeff's Thoughts: I'm going to say Al Harrington here. Despite being ridden into the ground like a circus elephant by his coach, until the end of the year Big Al showed remarkable improvement from the previous season where he was all but useless. Good job Al!

Chris' Thoughts: JaVale McGee – I don't think I've seen a player as bad as JaVale was his first few games in a Nuggets uniform (he had a couple games where his +/- was -15 or more while Koufos' was +15 or more). On offense, he was either committing a dumb foul or throwing up a shot that was allergic to even touching the rim. On defense he was jumping at everything and either goaltending, committing a defensive foul, or leaving himself out of position by fanning on the block. Not to mention he'd never box out when a shot went up and rely on jumping over a guy to get a rebound. Fast forward to the Lakers series and JaVale was boxing out more than 50% of the time (he wasn't when he was tired), trying to block a shot when he actually had a chance at the block, playing defense without fouling, and even contributing on offense. The key for JaVale going forward will be how consistently he can do the things I mentioned above. He went from a guy who never did them to a guy who does them about a 3rd of the time.

Least Improved Player: Timofey Mozgov

I didn’t initially want to include this “award”, but there’s no player more deserving of it than Mozgov. When the Nuggets insisted on acquiring Mozgov as a part of the Carmelo Anthony trade, it was with much anticipation and expectation that Mozgov would become an important part of the Nuggets’ frontcourt rotation. Instead, the 7’1″ center has shown that he’s the same clumsy, foul-prone player he always has been. He showed no improvement in his ability to catch and finish at the rim, appeared as though he was wearing cement shoes on many of his defensive rotations and never showed the level of improvement that the Nuggets front office expected (and needed) from him. Beset by ankle injuries, Mozgov was even benched late in the year when it became clear that as low as the ceiling was, even Kosta Koufos was outplaying him. I would like to think that with a full offseason regimen Mozgov will show up for the 2012 season ready to become the bruiser the front office was counting on, but I’m not hopeful.

Nate's Thoughts: Chris Andersen. He was relegated to a bench role after Kenneth Faried broke out as a must play and couldn't get on the floor over Kosta Koufos or Timofey Mozgov.

Andy's Thoughts: Timofey Mozgov was quite a disappointment this season. In fact, had Moz stepped up the Nuggets may not have had to make the trade for JaVale McGee (although, thankfully they did … the Nuggets don't push the Lakers to 7 without McGee … period). I keep hearing that "Moz is young, give him time" but he has played two-and-a-half seasons now and we're not seeing the upside that we envisioned when he got here. One more year?

Jeff's Thoughts: Timofey Mozgov. I seriously thought that Moz would make a big leap forward this year by consistently starting. Yet, despite starting for most of the year, he proved to be confused and inept on offense. So much so that players stopped throwing him the ball because of his stone hands. While Moz was able to play some stout defense on Andrew Bynum, he was too frequently abused.

Chris's Thoughts: Danilo Gallinari. I'll answer this from the perspective of guys who are on the right side of the age curve (under 27) who you would expect to steadily improve rather than look at it from the perspective of who declined the most from last year. If you look at Gallinari's offensive production he has been steadily regressing since his rookie year when you would expect him to steadily improve. Some of it is increased usage leading to decreased efficiency and some of it is injuries. While he still does tons of things on offense that are super valuable, the lack of improvement is disappointing and this team will need his career to follow a typical age curve to become a contender.

Most Valuable Player:Ty Lawson

As Lawson goes, so goes the Nuggets. It’s really as simple as that. When Ty is playing aggressively, getting out on the break and taking the ball to the rim, the Nuggets are virtually unstoppable. When Ty turns it on, his speed is unrivaled in the NBA and he can blow by nearly any defense. He has shown the ability to hit the long ball, forcing teams to close out on him, and has developed a nifty midrange game to supplement his skill at the rim. Without a doubt, Ty Lawson was the force that propelled the Nuggets to a 38-28 regular season record and a major factor in their sole postseason victory.

But as Lawson goes…so go the Nuggets. It is impossible to discount how valuable Ty is to the Nuggets, which is both praise and admonishment to the speedster when looking at the season in retrospect. Since being drafted, Ty has been mentored by two of the best guards of this generation in Chauncey Billups and ‘Dre, but still has yet to show the “killer instinct” that many are looking for – that unwavering desire to win, to be the player who’ll put his team on his back when they need it, and at times simply will them to victory – consistently. He will have amazing performances, games where one wonders “is this the All-Star Lawson?” and then virtually disappear the next game, shooting poorly and timidly deferring even when given open looks. Can Ty continue to improve, or have we seen as much of the Blur as we’re going to ever see?

Nate's Thoughts: They didn't have one. Everyone was pretty important and different guys stepped up at different times all season. In the same sense – every player was the most valuable. A true team.
Andy's Thoughts: This is a tough call, but I'll go with Ty Lawson because it seemed as though when he played well, the Nuggets won games. And when he disappeared, the Nuggets lost games. This was quite evident during the Nuggets playoff series against the Lakers. But it's tough when your team's MVP is a guy who disappears occasionally!

Jeff's Thoughts: This one is hard. I'm inclined to say Ty Lawson … and this is primarily because the Nuggets offense was so anemic when he was passive. So it's not exactly a ringing endorsement but there it is.

Chris' Thoughts: Ty Lawson. As mentioned many times in post game write-ups, the Nuggets fortunes tended to rise and fall with Ty's aggressiveness. Among PGs who played more than 25 minutes per game Ty Lawson ranked 4th with better than a 58% TS%. Ty did a great job of using a lot of possessions very efficiently, creating for teammates, and made huge strides becoming one of the Nuggets' primary options on offense. He did this while turning the ball over fairly infrequently and rebounding at an above average rate for a point guard.

Coach of the Year: Pamela McGee

If this award seems like a shot at George Karl, good – it should be taken that way. Aside from being a good mother, WNBA star and JaVale McGee fan, Pamela McGee has always had her son's back and supported him, despite the adjustments that he needed to make. Watching her cheering loudly for JaVale in games 3 and 4 of this past series while staring down a fan who was clearly not impressed with McGee the younger will be seared into my brain for years to come. Her mere presence seemed to improve the play of the Nuggets, especially McGee, who was at his most effective when mom was nearby.

Nate's Thoughts: The Nuggets fans on Denver Stiffs. Come to the site after a loss and you'll see what needs to change … TRADE FOR CHRIS BOSH, GET RID OF GALLO, AFFLALO NEEDS TO GO! We heard it all this season … But a great season nonetheless. Thanks for reading the site and for making Denver Stiffs a place where you come to talk about Nuggets basketball!

Andy's Thoughts: For all the heat George Karl took here at Denver Stiffs and elsewhere in the Denver media, he deserves credit for guiding the Nuggets through a tough season and getting a great effort out of his squad in the playoffs. Karl's Nuggets have historically folded in on-the-road Game 5 situations, but this year they pulled off an upset in Game 5 and forced a Game 7. In Karl's 8 years as Nuggets head coach, I rank this season as his third best coaching performance (first being the WCF run in 2008-09, second being his debut season when the Nuggets went 32-8 after he took over for Jeff Bzdelik and Michael Cooper).

Jeff's Thoughts: Keorge Garl, the alternate reality George Karl who always plays the correct rotations AND doesn't run his veterans into the ground. COY!

Chris' Thoughts: Andre Miller – Andre did so many little things this year that were really sharp. Little things like fouling on defense when the other team had numbers in transition, trying to get 2-for-1's at the end of quarters, getting in Andre Iguodala's head by saying his free throw percentage to him right before he shot two clutch free throws. In addition to the easy baskets he created for his teammates, his smarts and on the floor coaching were probably responsible for a few extra wins.

Honorable Mention: George Karl

I truly like George Karl. For all his faults as coach, and there are many, Karl is an upstanding person and has been a big part of Denver for nearly a decade. He’s a fixture of Denver sports, to be sure.

But at the same time, something has got to change, either with Karl’s style or with the leadership of this team. I cannot count how many times I have been left shaking my head when I see the Nuggets fail to execute in the half-court, as Karl simply does not assign half-court play with as much importance as he does simply “playing basketball”. From head scratching lineups to uneven distribution minutes to a failure to gameplan for the opponent appropriately, Karl seems to not so much coach at times as he does simply to offer occasionally helpful suggestions.

As we’ve now seen for 8 out of the last 9 years, Karl’s coaching methods are satisfactory to get the Nuggets to the playoffs, but totally unacceptable once there. It’s no coincidence that the Nuggets simply did not have an inbounds play until the arrival of Chauncey Billups. It’s also not a coincidence that despite much regular season success, Karl has an abysmal 75-99 playoff record. He relies too much on worn-down veterans without placing enough trust in younger players to prove they are up to the task. He stubbornly refuses to “play the matchup”, frequently forcing his team into situations in which the tallest player on the floor for the Nuggets could be Al Harrington.

Most damning, though, is the talent that Karl has had at times in his career – coaching the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson and Chauncey Billups most recently – and yet has still done virtually nothing with it. Out of 23 seasons coached, Karl has made it out of the first round just 8 times. Is it really that the pieces just weren’t there, or that Karl was simply incapable of using them to their fullest potential?

Make no mistake about it, this year will either see the Nuggets with success and beyond the first round or Karl out the door. I believe that it would be premature to dismiss Karl without a full offseason working with this freshest Nuggets crop of talent, but postseason success for the Nuggets is long, long overdue.

That's a wrap for this year's Denver Stiffs Awards, folks. Have an excellent summer and stay tuned to Denver Stiffs for Nuggets news, notes and offseason developments. See you at the draft!