The Nuggets were one of the most entertaining teams last season, and before Danilo Gallinari’s untimely and unfortunate injury, a dark horse contender for the NBA title. Early exit aside, the Nuggets seemed well-positioned for the future, with reigning Executive of the Year Masai Ujiri, reigning Coach of the Year George Karl, and a roster sporting a great blend of talent, youth, utility and veteran savvy.
Then came the offseason.
Exit Ujiri, Karl and Iguodala stage left, enter Tim Connelly, Brian Shaw and a host of role players stage right.
Teams usually enter the rebuilding phase after one too many seasons of mediocrity, or when their core of stars become too old to carry the team to a title. Rarely, if ever, does a team press the big red detonation button after one of the best seasons in franchise history. And while the Nuggets didn’t wholly blow up the team, they may have actually become worse by not doing so.
To replace Karl, the Nuggets hired the highly-sought-after Brian Shaw, formerly a disciple of Phil Jackson. However, despite his upbringing in the coaching world, Shaw claimed he wouldn’t install the triangle offense in Denver. Supposedly, Shaw will maintain the same principles as Karl, emphasizing an aggressive defense and an always moving, always running offense. But can that system be as successful with Iguodala gone and Gallinari absent for the first few months of the season? Ty Lawson was the key to pushing the pace, but the abilities of both Gallinari and Iguodala to successfully play and guard multiple positions were what made the Nuggets such a nightmare in terms of match-ups.
It will also be interesting to see how Shaw uses his younger players, a main point of friction between Karl and the ownership. In his introductory press conference, Shaw said developing young talent was an area of emphasis, which means JaVale McGee, Evan Fournier, Jordan Hamilton and maybe even Quincy Miller will see increased minutes this season.
In an effort to address last season’s achilles heel — shooting — the Nuggets signed Randy Foye, who shot 41% from beyond the arc last season and Nate Robinson, who was so hot in the playoffs he would have made the Human Torch look like Iceman. However, the additions of Robinson and Foye don’t balance the scale, they just weigh them in the opposite direction. Ty Lawson, despite his tremendous season, was exposed on defense in the playoffs when Steph Curry opted to just shoot over the much-smaller Lawson. Robinson obviously doesn’t fix those height issues, and Foye is no staunch defender himself, and certainly worse than Corey Brewer, now with Minnesota.
The worse and most puzzling signing of the Nuggets’ offseason can be found up front. Even though Denver already featured a front court of Darrell Arthur, JaVale McGee and even Danilo Gallinari, who can shift to the four in small ball situations, theyfigured one more wouldn’t hurt and added JJ Hickson. Last season, Hickson played with the Portland Trail Blazers, and while he did average nearly 16 points and 13 rebounds per 36 minutes, the team overall was better on both ends of the floor when he was on the bench.With Hickson on the court, Portland scored 105.2 points per 100 possessions while opponents scored 110.2. With Hickson off the court, Portland’s offensive rating rose to 106.8, and their defensive rating sank to 108.5, per basketball-reference.com. It’s not that Hickson is absolutely horrible — though, he’s not good, either — but a line up featuring him and McGee down low will be a calamity on defense, and an unholy sight on offense.
The signing of Hickson is even more baffling when considered with the Kosta Koufos trade. Koufos was Denver’s best interior defender last year, and was a plus/minus monster. Yet, in a draft night trade, the Nuggets sent Koufos to the Memphis Grizzlies for Darrell Arthur. Though Arthur is more talented offensively than Koufos, he’s worse defensively and injury-prone. Regardless, with Arthur on board, the last thing the Nuggets needed was an undersized forward/center whose expected value as a defensive stopper is as high as Andre Drummond’s as a free-throw shooter.
This brings to light the biggest issue with Denver’s offseason: the complete eradication of their former identity, and their lack of a new one in its place. Iguodala may not have been the team’s best player, but he was their most important player, nearly single-handedly elevating that defense to new heights. Karl, meanwhile, though not without his faults, was the ideal coach for the roster, implementing a system that took advantage of his player’s strengths and weaknesses (In fact, Karl’s ingenious machinations were apparently too successful, as the NBA Board of Governors this summer approved a rule change stating a team will lose possession if its player leaves the floor and doesn’t immediately return. Karl often had players such as McGee and Koufos stand out of bounds on offense, thereby creating more space and stretching out the defense). Ujiri was the architect of this hodge-podge roster, patiently building it in accordance with his vision. Losing Karl and Iguodala meant a loss of identity, while the loss of Ujiri meant a loss of vision and direction.
Connelly, Denver’s new Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations, came from the New Orleans Pelicans, and was regarded as a swiftly-rising young executive. While it’s far too early to judge Connelly’s ability to build a team, his first offseason, aside from his coaching hire, didn’t exactly inspire confidence. Hiring Shaw was a good move in a vacuum, but the assets at Shaw’s disposal aren’t enough to make this team more than low playoff seed. Of course it takes time to find an identity, but a direction should have been set the moment Connelly arrived in Denver. From the moves he’s made so far, it seems as if he’s still trying to read the map.
Photo by Fried Toast via Flickr