In an eventful offseason, the Nuggets have taken one of the strangest rosters in the NBA and doubled down on the strange. Their one lower-tier star is gone (Andre Iguodala), the lineup is as odd as ever and center JaVale McGee -- ever the oddball -- promises to play an even bigger role after his lack of minutes reportedly played a part in former coach George Karl's dismissal. The experimental bent of the team may have left with Karl, but this is still a fundamentally weird bunch of players to be cobbled together in pursuit of a playoff berth, and one that raises some serious questions in anticipation of the 2013-14 season.
Can the Nuggets guard anyone?
The Nuggets finished 11th last season in points allowed per possession, but since then they've lost Iguodala and fellow swingman Corey Brewer to free agency, signed big man J.J. Hickson to cut into the playing time of another newcomer, Darrell Arthur, and filled out the rotation with two undersized, offense-first guards in Nate Robinson and Randy Foye. Each of those moves will chip away at Denver's defensive effectiveness, but Iguodala's departure is easily the most brutal turn. Denver rated as a top-five defense with Iguodala on the floor last season and a bottom-10 defense without him, in part because of his ability to tackle whatever defensive assignment the Nuggets required.
If an opponent was too big for point guard Ty Lawson, too quick for forward Danilo Gallinari or even too versatile for power forward Kenneth Faried, Iguodala stepped in to control that matchup and alleviate pressure on the rest of Denver's defense. The Nuggets' freedom in manipulating defensive assignments is part of what opened up their flexibility overall, facilitating their frenetic style of play by making small-ball sets more tolerable on defense. This is the transformational power of a player as long, strong and relentless as Iguodala, and this is what Denver stands to lose without him averaging about 35 minutes as the team's defensive fulcrum.
Without Iguodala, Gallinari -- once he returns from knee surgery -- and Wilson Chandler will be asked to pick up opponents' best perimeter players, rather than be allowed to do solid work on secondary threats. The trickle-down figures to be brutal: Players such as Lawson and Faried will be left to their own devices in unfavorable matchups; Denver's short-statured reserves (who will be filling the void during Gallinari's absence) will log minutes at consistent disadvantage; and the back-line big men will be tested and exposed even more than they were previously.
J.J. Hickson (left) tends to be a step slow on defense. (Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
The big-man issue is where things get particularly unpleasant. The trio of Hickson, McGee and Faried promises to whiff consistently on rotations. Karl had a hell of a time finding any workable combination of McGee, Faried and Kosta Koufos last season, and of those three Denver traded the most consistent defender (Koufos) and replaced him with a player (Hickson) who seemed to give up uncontested dunks for sport last season. Hickson does an exceedingly poor job of closing off an opponent's first step, leaving him susceptible to anyone wise enough to face him up and attack the basket. On top of that, Hickson can't be relied on to step over to defend the pick-and-roll. He tends to cling to his own man for a few beats too long before just making it into the bottom of the frame as the ball goes through the net. Even the NBA's photo services are littered with evidence -- an ocean of pictures that put Hickson at the scene of the crime, flat-footedly watching some opponent score.
Unfortunately for Denver, Faried and McGee aren't much better. Faried is active and consistently engaged, but he can bounce his way too far out of position and generally misses the subtle cues that savvier defenders identify. He's well-meaning with his hustle, but Faried is at best a secondary defensive big man, badly in need of a superior to handle the bulk of the responsibilities that come with comprehensive coverage. McGee has yet to be that guy, and when the two played together, Denver's D slipped into a zone of ineffectiveness that even a high-powered, fast-paced offense couldn't overcome. That duo was a rare net negative for a team that outscored opponents by 5.6 points per 100 possessions overall. Expect more of the same next season, with Hickson's lapses making things even more interesting while Arthur -- a good defender who is in no way equipped to salvage this mess -- fills spot minutes off the bench.
Can Denver create enough half-court offense to sustain playoff contention?
The Nuggets built the NBA's fifth-ranked offense last season by playing fast and getting to the rim. In the first round of the playoffs, however, Golden State was able to sniff out the misdirection and leakouts that made Denver's offense so potent in the regular season, leaving Lawson, Iguodala, Chandler, Brewer and Andre Miller to create on the fly while the Warriors packed the paint. That worked about as well as one might expect, and the crux of that same puzzle remains for the Nuggets to solve this season.
In playing two non-shooting big men, Denver invites opponents to crowd the interior and challenge players like Chandler and Foye to hit outside shots. Both can, and in some games they will connect on enough three-pointers to keep defenses honest and create room for regular pick-and-roll play and Lawson's drives. That the success of the Nuggets' offense might so often fall to them is worrisome, though, especially given that Denver will use at least one other non-shooter in the rotation in Miller. The altitude in Denver and the team's track record of off-ball movement should help open things up, but it remains to be seen if Lawson -- with help from Miller and Robinson -- can initiate the bulk of the offense in a way that he's never had to do before. Lawson has had help from ball-handling wings such as Gallinari and Iguodala, but with Iguodala gone and Gallinari out for an extended stretch, Lawson will have to fight through the lulls in his play and show an even greater command of offensive creation. He's quite good as is, but simply needs more help than he's likely to get.
Robinson is an interesting wild card in this regard because he buoyed Chicago's offense last season by manufacturing shots out of stale half-court sets. Denver is equipped to run a more interesting offense, but Robinson's ability to bail out stalled possessions should be valuable all the same. Of course, this is assuming that Denver can channel Robinson's most productive skills in the same way that Chicago did (which is in no way a given), and that the Nuggets can find room for Robinson on a team that already has a backup point guard in Miller and already relies on one undersized ball handler in Lawson.
Will the Nuggets continue to push the pace under Brian Shaw?
No matter what can be parsed from interviews, culled from back channels or derived from his experience as an assistant, we don't know much yet about Brian Shaw, NBA head coach. Denver's offensive and defensive systems remain a mystery, as does the notion that the Nuggets might continue to run so unashamedly. It takes a deliberate commitment to create a fast-breaking juggernaut on par with last season's Nuggets, beginning with a philosophical understanding of the values of transition basketball.
Karl clearly had an appreciation for what opportunities could be fostered in the open court by a team with such speed and athleticism, but the same may not be true of Shaw. This is a team that compensated for its shortcomings last season by scoring nearly a fifth of its points in fast-break situations and a shade less on free throws (in part because of pushing the pace), both of which would likely change if Shaw opts to tweak Denver's style. How the Nuggets might go about making up for those points would create a challenge for a rookie coach looking to make his mark.
Will Denver's gambles pay off?
The Nuggets are banking on the following: McGee's ability to maintain his production and influence as his playing time increases; Lawson's capacity to create even more offense than he did a season ago; Faried's development on both ends of the floor; Gallinari's recovery and health; Robinson's ability to contribute without self-detonating; Shaw's bona fides as a coaching prospect; the viability of this current core, which is set to have Denver capped out for the next three seasons; Gallinari's and Chandler's capability to defend elite perimeter scorers; the rebounding upgrade from Koufos to Hickson as a means to help one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the league; and the notion that the West won't be as deep as advertised.
There's a lot up in the air for this team, to say the least, all of which corresponds to a wide range of possible outcomes. The Nuggets are no better than a solid playoff team, but a few wrong turns could put them well into the lottery.
Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.