Continuing our series of "Western Conference playoff teams that may be proximate to the Wolves in the 2014 standings", it is time to consider the Denver Nuggets. The 2013 Nuggets may have been the most George Karl team ever assembled. Being coached by Karl helped, but an island of misfit toys roster, combined with outstanding regular season success and first round flameout against a lower seed, completed the picture. After a tumultuous season, where do the Nuggets stand? Are they a juggernaut in the making, as evidenced by their 57 wins & young roster, or will they regress next year? The picture is complicated by the departure of GM Masai Ujiri. As we don't know anything about the philosophy of the next front office, it is almost impossible to predict what the Nuggets will try to accomplish during the off-season.
Part One: The Core
Andre Iguodala (16.2 million player option in 2014). Iggy had his worst statistical season in years, averaging only 13 PPG, shooting 57% from the free throw line, and posting his lowest PER since 2006. He remains a valuable player as he is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, and an excellent passer. His ability to jump start the break, and play fantastic transition defense was one of the major factors in Denver's regular season success. He was also one of the few Nuggets to excel in the playoffs, averaging 18-8-5-2 (steals) with a TS of 62%. He will likely opt out of his contract to sign one more big deal, and the Nuggets have a difficult decision to make. In conjunction with the Gallinari injury, Iguodala's departure could push them all the way out of the playoffs in the brutal West. On the other hand, resigning a 30 year old athletic wing who has started to show signs of decline to a long, lucrative contract is a great way to cripple yourself for the future. Just ask Billy King and the Brooklyn Nets.
Ty Lawson (10.8 million in 2014). He recovered from a brutal start to post another solid season. It appears he is what he is at this point, a very productive player, an efficient 17 and 7, and credible late game option, if ineffective defender. He's probably the most secure player on the roster, having recently signed a 4/48 million dollar contract that runs through his age 29 season.
Danilo Gallinari (10.1 million in 2014). The idea of Danilo Gallinari is a better player than Danilo Gallinari. Ideally, he is a 6-10 James Harden who combines a knack for getting to the line with deadeye three point shooting and point forward abilities. In reality, he hasn't been able to fully realize all of those components together in one season, or raise his usage to that of a first or even second option. His unfortunate ACL injury will push the Gallinari experiment back another year, and deal a blow to Denver's 2014 chances, even if it hasn't dampened certain folks' enthusiasm for including him in trade proposals.
Kenneth Faried (1.4 million in 2014). The Manimal is one of every self-respecting NBA fan's favorite players. A bundle of energy, rebounds, efficiency, oops, and defense charitably described as improving, anyone who saw the Rubio-Faried show in the Rookie-Soph game is understandably jealous of a fanbase that gets to watch him every night. Faried actually led the Nuggets in Win Shares this past year, and further defensive improvements would make a credible fringe All-Star.
Part Two: The Young Vets
Wilson Chandler (6.3 million in 2014). Chandler had a career year, driven by 41.3% three point shooting. His other asset is versatility, as he is able to credibly play the 2, 3, and 4. If I was Denver, I would be shopping him this offseason, as he has a better chance of shooting near his career average of 33.5% from three point range next year.
Javale McGee (10.8 million in 2014). The man known as Pierre seems to be slowly developing into an actual NBA player rather than an alley oop specializing performance artist. The key word here is "slowly". His box score stats were fantastic, but the Nuggets were 5.4 points/100 possessions worse with him on the court per basketball-reference. Does not own a platypus, despite rumours to the contrary.
Kosta Koufos (3 million in 2014). Remember him? Koufos was the only Denver big to play consistently sound defense. He did a good job of staying inside his role, shooting 58% and gathering almost 7 misses in under 23 minutes a game.
Corey Brewer (UFA in 2014). You know the drill. Really good defense, bad offense with a bewilderingly high usage. For some reason, Karl trusted him, possibly because he fit the Nuggets helter skelter style. Anyway, Brewer had a green light, chucking 5.5 threes per 36 minutes, despite making only 29.6% of them. In his defense, he is the master of the transition leak out, and commits fewer horrible turnovers than his time in Minnesota.
Timofey Mozgov (RFA in 2014). Mozgov fell out of Karl's rotation last year, but he's seven feet tall, so he'll land somewhere. If you think this is easy, you try writing a paragraph about Timofey Mozgov!
Anthony Randolph (1.8 million in 2014). Can you believe he's only 23 years old? I feel like he's been in the league forever. Way to make me feel old, Anthony.
Part Three: The Crimean Vet
Andre Miller (5 million in 2014). Miller had an interesting season, from bitching about his role and teammates to singlehandedly winning Game One against the Nuggets, to almost singlehandedly, with an assist from Wilson Chandler, torpedoing Denver's chances in the rest of the series. Passive aggressive whining aside, Miller's old man game is a delight to watch.
Part Four: The Young Unknowns
Evan Fournier (1.4 million in 2014). He had a breakout April, averaging over 11 points a game on 50% shooting in only 23 minutes. His ability to step into a full time role will be very important for the Nuggets, as they attempt to adjust to the loss of Gallinari, and possibly others. He's been anointed as the "next big thing" in some circles after that April, and I don't want to get too far ahead of myself, but he looks to be an excellent prospect. However, at this point, he's far from a sure thing.
Jordan Hamilton (1.2 million in 2014). The second year swingman posted impressive numbers in garbage time last year (19 and 9 per 36). Unless Iguodala leaves, it is difficult to see a non catastrophic scenario in which he receives more than spot duty again.
Julyan Stone (RFA in 2014). A young point guard with intriguing peripheral skills and an allergy to scoring, who has spent very little time on the court.
Quincy Miller (0.8 million team option in 2014). A second round pick who didn't play. Miller looked intriguing out of college, though he did struggle somewhat in the D-League.
Part Five: The Future
Denver has many difficult decisions to make this offseason. A resigned Iguodala and Brewer would leave them capped out at around 70 million, just below the tax. They would probably be a 48-58 win team over the next few years, depending on Iggy's decline, Gallo's recovery, and Pierre's development. However, that's taking into account their home court advantage, which disappears during the playoffs. This team isn't a contender for a championship, and that's not likely to change, barring McGee and/or Faried turning into All-World defenders.
The other option is a partial teardown, with hopes of a quick, painless rebuild. The Nuggets could let Iggy & Brewer go, trade Miller and open with a lineup of Lawson/Fournier/Chandler/Faried/Koufos with McGee and Hamilton off the bench. They would be competitive next year, if not a lock for the playoffs. They could then bring Gallo back for 2014-15, trade Chandler and/or McGee, and have max cap room to go with Lawson, Gallo, Faried, Fournier, Hamilton, and whatever their picks turn into. If McGee turns into a player, it works out even better.
This picture is complicated by the departure of Ujiri, whose ability to turn assets into better assets was as good as any other GM's. He signed some questionable contracts (McGee in particular), but hit on the vast majority of his moves. Karl's status also appears uncertain, leaving the direction of the team up in the air.
The Nuggets have the 27th pick in the 2013 draft. They really need a 4/5 with defensive potential that can hit a jumper to pair with Faried or Koufos when the small ball is sputtering. Muscala would be a perfect fit should he unaccountably slide past Minnesota at 26. Should Gorgui Dieng fall to them, he could also fit their style. I would also not be surprised to see them choose a replacement for Andre Miller to spell Ty Lawson. Nate Wolters, Pierre Jackson, or Erick Green could be the best options there. The Nuggets are also in a good position to trade up, with assets like Chandler, McGee, Miller, or Hamilton to tempt a team picking in the teens should a player the Nuggets like begin to slide (Zeller would be an intriguing fit on this team).
Coming off the winningest season in franchise history, the Nuggets are in solid shape. Any team that wins 57 games has talent. The questions then become, how much can they duplicate that success in the future, and how long will they wish to keep this team together. I don't expect them to make any drastic moves before the next year, but will be interested to see what the new front office accomplishes.