(right) is averaging seven points and 3.4 rebounds this season. (Bart Young/Getty Images)
The Nuggets announced Sunday that starting center JaVale McGee is out indefinitely after X-rays revealed he had a stress fracture in his left shin.
McGee, 25, had started all five of Denver's games, averaging seven points and 3.4 rebounds in 15.8 minutes per appearance.
First-year Nuggets coach Brian Shaw has spread out his frontcourt playing time among McGee, Timofey Mozgov, J.J. Hickson, Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur and Anthony Randolph, and McGee's playing time was actually down this season compared to the 2012-13 season, when he was a full-time reserve behind Kosta Koufos.
The Denver Post reported that McGee has been playing through pain in his leg, but that the situation become untenable during a Friday loss to the Suns. The paper also reported that Shaw is still weighing his options when it comes to replacing McGee in the starting lineup.
Timofey Mozgov has been the backup center, but Shaw said he'll decide at a shootaround Monday whether he'll start Mosgov, or J.J. Hickson in McGee's place.
"Now [there will be] more minutes for JJ, more minutes for Timo, more minutes for Darrell Arthur and possibly Anthony Randolph in the mix there somewhere as well," Shaw said. "That's one of the positions we have the most depth at, so I'm confident that the guys who have to fill in will be able to carry their load."
Denver is off to a slow start at 1-4 following an offseason that saw the departures of Coach of the Year George Karl and Executive of the Year Masai Ujiri. The Nuggets' rotation was far from a finished product, and the loss of McGee probably shouldn't be characterized as a devastating one, given his limited role and contributions so far this season. That said, Denver has opened the season as a bottom-five defensive team with McGee and things could get even uglier without him.
Shaw has talked this season about establishing a low-post presence this season, something he would have to more or less abandon if he turns to Hickson as an undersized center. An active forward capable of rebounding in volume, Hickson simply lacks the defensive skills and awareness to protect the paint as a center. Used as a starting center by the Blazers last season, Hickson's defensive numbers were unsightly (107.5 defensive rating, minus-5.3 net rating). Mozgov fits the traditional paint-filling profile of a big-bodied pivot, but he's a drastic downgrade athletically from McGee and Hickson. His defensive numbers are also atrocious (105.8 defensive rating last season, minus-7.2 net rating).
Not to rub salt in Denver's wounds after a terrible offseason and a rough start to the 2013-14 campaign, but the best answer for replacing McGee would have been Koufos, who was one of the Nuggets' best defenders and plus-minus performers (100.8 defensive rating, plus-8.0 net rating) last season. Denver's inexplicable Koufos-for-Arthur trade looked bad at the time and it looks even worse now, as Shaw is stuck with a bevy of redundant power forwards and Mozgov to man the middle.
To make matters worse, the schedule isn't doing them any favors. This week, they'll get to figure things out against the Jazz
before playing a stretch of eight straight games against teams that are either playoff locks or strong postseason hopefuls to close out November. Six of those eight happen to be Western Conference teams, meaning Denver could already be looking at a serious standings hole by the time Dec. 1 first comes around.