The Denver Nuggets currently sit at 29-18, which is good for the sixth seed in the Western Conference. Sitting above Utah and Houston, it doesn’t seem likely they’ll fall lower unless there’s some major trades in the West before the deadline, but they’ll have a tough time passing Golden State and Memphis, and the trio of OKC/San Antonio and the Clippers seem locked into the the top three spots. That likely means that unless they manage to climb to fourth before the season closes, Denver will be locked in one of the must-see first round match-ups of the Playoffs. The Nuggets are a quality side and have been for years, but 2013 seems to be another year where George Karl’s men are running in place, and destined to be Playoffs fodder for the real heavyweights. Unless Denver can flip the script, they appear headed for another first or second round exit which leaves us wondering, when will they ever take the next step?
For George Karl, this season would mark the ninth consecutive time that his squad has appeared in the Playoffs. Only the Spurs and Mavericks can attest to that feat, though the Nuggets lack the championship that both the other squads won during that tenure. Furthermore, both the Spurs and the Mavericks made it to Finals at least twice, while the Nuggets had their best run in the 2008-09 season when they fell in the Conference Finals. The Nuggets are also the only team of the three to never finish with the top seed, and have bowed out in the first round eight out of nine times.
Looking at it from a glass half-full perspective, you could say the Nuggets are a pillar of consistency despite enduring the Melodrama, a bungled Iverson trade and not being a free agent hot-spot location-wise. However, from a glass half-empty standpoint, the Nuggets are a franchise that has failed to take the final step of development for nearly a decade and are led by a coach who has failed to get a championship in 28 years of head coaching.
The Nuggets are without a doubt a quality side, but the time has come for them to take the next step and become a serious contender. Going forward, the Nuggets are pretty restrained cap-wise with JaVale McGee, Danilo Gallinari and Ty Lawson all locked into long-term eight-figure deals going forward. Andre Igoudala’s player option at the end of this season gives them a bit of flexibility at the end of the year, but not a lot. Coupling in the location, and the Nuggets seem like they won’t be acquiring their definitive piece through free agency.
However, when you have a front office as creative and capable as Denver’s, that may not be an issue. Armed with the expiring contracts of Corey Brewer and Timofey Mozgov, the Nuggets are in a position to deal and possibly pick up another bargain that vaults from them from a solid team to an elite one. Paul Millsap has been linked to the Nuggets, and the Heat are reportedly interested in Timofey Mozgov.
The only other solution for the Nuggets is internal improvement, and judging by their finances, that’s indeed what they’re banking on. Ty Lawson is already a solid young point guard in the NBA but may have peaked already. His statistics this season don’t show a leap in production as you would expect from a young guard. His better-than-expected start his career may be all he can offer, but that’s not something the Nuggets should be disheartened by. Lawson is, right now, one the better point guards in the NBA with blinding pace. Danilo Gallinari is a brilliant two-way player, but isn’t poised to suddenly turn a 14 point career scoring average into anything that can carry a team to a championship. JaVale McGee poses the best chance for the Nuggets to take the next step without making any significant changes. We saw McGee monster a legitimate (when healthy) franchise Center in Andrew Bynum during the Playoffs last season, when McGee was engaged. Of course, keeping McGee engaged and focused has always been the battle and was the reason the Wizards booted him out at last season’s deadline. The talent is there in McGee, but the consistency and maturity still appears to be distant.
JaVale McGee may ultimately be the deciding factor for the Nuggets. If he can develop into the franchise carrying Center he’s hinted at possibly being, the Denver Nuggets should instantly be thrown into championship talk. The issue is, he’s not showing to be any closer to maturing this year than he was in Washington. The Nuggets awarded him a 4 year, 44 million dollar contract in the offseason which makes him the only player alongside Gallinari and Lawson to carry guaranteed money into 2015-16 (Kenneth Faried and Jordan Hamilton have received modest qualifying offers). If he fails to turn his talent into anything tangible, he could hamstring the Nuggets’ attempts at a championship and leave them lingering in no man’s land for another half-decade.
The Denver Nuggets right now are a very good basketball team and probably will be when the season finishes. But a very good basketball team doesn’t beat the Thunder, the Spurs, the Clippers or the Heat in a best of seven playoffs series. Very good cannot be good enough anymore if Denver are serious about winning their first NBA championship anytime soon, they need to be great. It’s time for the front office to get serious about taking the next step.