The NBA season is upon us and the Denver Nuggets remain under the radar despite making the playoffs last year. While Denver lacks a "superstar", their unselfish and defensive playing style after the Carmelo Anthony trade rendered them quite successful last year and could set them up to make some major noise in the West this season.
While I am not going to go as far as to say that Denver is a title contender, the Nuggets are one of the youngest, deepest and most well-rounded teams in the NBA which lands them as one of the biggest benefactors from the shortened, more compact NBA schedule.
The first thing I will do is break down every position for the Nuggets. Then I will look at some potential breakout players in the upcoming year. Finally I will make my prediction for where the Nuggets will end up at the end of the regular season and if a play off run is in the cards as well as give some bold predictions.
This is going to be one of the strongest positions for the Nuggets all year. The starter is going to be Ty Lawson with Andre Miller backing him up. The Nuggets established that Lawson was going to be the starter of the future when they traded away fellow young point guard, Raymond Felton, in a three team trade that netted the Nuggets twelve year veteran and former Nugget, Miller, along with rookie Jordan Hamilton.
Lawson is entering his third year with the Nuggets and is looking poised to make a name for himself this season. The former standout at North Carolina has shot over 50% from the field and over 40% from behind the arc in each of his two seasons in the NBA. Lawson has shown steady increases in points per game and assists per game while keeping his turnovers per game under two. Lawson only played in one of the two preseason games against the Suns but put up 21 points to go with seven rebounds, two assists and three steals. I'm not the only one who thinks Lawson is going to have a great year. John Hollinger of ESPN.com predicted him to win the NBA's Most Improved Player award.
While Lawson will get the majority minutes at the point guard position, Miller will see plenty of time on the court as well. Miller spent his last two years as the starting point guard for the Portland Trail Blazers. While Miller's scoring totals have fallen off a little bit over the last couple of years, one thing that he continues to do very well is pass the ball. In both of Denver's preseason games Miller was in double digits in assists. George Karl has expressed his excitement about getting to coach Miller again saying that he welcomes Miller's smarts and natural leadership. Miller could also serve as a great mentor to Lawson. Karl also hinted that there will be times where the two point guards will share the court similar to what Lawson and Felton did last year.
With J.R. Smith being an unrestricted free agent and Arron Afflalo being a restricted free agent, there wasn't a whole lot of certainty at the shooting guard position for the Nuggets heading into the off-season. Smith had expressed interest in exploring free agency and then signed with a team in the Chinese Basketball Association which prevents him from returning to the NBA until March. The Nuggets resigned Afflalo to a five year deal and traded for Rudy Fernandez and Corey Brewer from the Dallas Mavericks. These moves gave Denver the certainty at the two-guard position it desired.
Afflalo is entering only his fifth season but is considered one of the leaders on a very young Nuggets team. Afflalo is known for his defensive ability but has turned into a solid spot up shooter as he shot 43% from 3-point land two years ago and 42% last year. Afflalo's overall field goal percentage has increased steadily every year. After Carmelo Anthony was traded to the Knicks last year, Afflalo stepped up as a leader and was essential in Karl's plans to establishing a more defensive minded team. Look for Afflalo to help continue that mindset this season.
Fernandez is more known for his performance against the Redeem Team in the 2008 Summer Olympics than his performance during his three years in the NBA. The 6-foot-6 Spaniard is not as explosive as Smith was, but is much more consistent and a better defender than Smith. Fernandez had a solid rookie year as the Spaniard averaged 10.4 points a game off the bench for the Trail Blazers. However, over the last two years Fernandez's field goal percentage has decreased. Fernandez has also seen a strong decline in his shooting percentage from behind the arc which was supposed to be his biggest strength. There has also been reports that he might pursue a buyout to go play for his former team in Spain. As for now, Fernandez is staying here and scored eight points, dished out three assists and got two steals in his only preseason game against the Suns.
Danilo Gallinari is expected to be the starter with Brewer and Hamilton expected to receive some minutes as well. Wilson Chandler who was a part of the Melo trade, started 19 of the 21 games he was in Denver and is also stuck in China with Smith and Kenyon Martin.
Gallinari is expected to see an increased amount of time with Chandler being stuck in China. The fourth year player from Italy is expected to be one of Denver's leading scorers and will see plenty of minutes to prove why the New York Knicks spent the sixth overall pick on him in 2008. Gallinari has made steady improvements over his three years in the NBA. The Italian spent a lot of time at power forward in New York and played power forward from time to time for the Nuggets. With Nene moving from center to power forward, it will be rare to see Gallinari at a position other than small forward. Gallinari put up 15 points in 24 minutes in Denver's first preseason game and 23 points in 34 minutes in Denver's second game.
As I explained in my previous article, Brewer is known more for his accomplishments with the University of Florida than his contributions in the NBA. The 6-foot-9 forward is known as a good defender and is potentially Denver's answer to slowing down Kevin Durant. Brewer is a young and capable backup who was a part of Dallas's championship run after being traded there from Minnesota. Brewer didn't play too much in the playoffs as he was behind Shawn Marion and DeShawn Stevenson but is a good locker room guy. Brewer scored 20 points in the second preseason game.
Karl has a reputation for not giving rookies many minutes. With Gallinari and Brewer ahead of him it is likely that Hamilton won't see much time on the court this year. But the rookie out of Texas averaged 18.6 points and 7.7 rebounds per game in his sophomore year. Hamilton is listed as a guard, but at 6-foot-7 he will probably be used as a small forward and looks to have a bright future.
Coach Karl has made it clear that he plans to move Nene back to the power forward position means the 6-foot-11 Brazilian will be matched up with smaller guys and could have a great season on the offensive side of the court. Nene managed to increase his points per game last year from the year before despite having less minutes. The biggest reason for that is Nene shot 61.5% from the field and has a very soft touch around the rim but also has the ability to throw it down with the best of them. Nene was considered one of the top free agents in the 2011 class and might have a chip on his shoulder considering he didn't generate the kind of offers from other teams that he thought he would get. Nene has improved drastically as a defender and will step into a leadership role this season.
While I mentioned earlier that Karl doesn't like to play rookies, I think Kenneth Faried will be the exception. Karl loves high motor guys who work relentlessly on the boards and on defense. Karl had to be salivating when Faried fell to the Nuggets in the draft. While Faried isn't very polished on the offensive end and is undersized for a power forward at 6-foot-8, what Faried gives up in height, he makes up for in strength and tenacity. Faried broke the NCAA rebounding record at Morehead State. There were suspicions that his lack of competition in college inflated his stats. But in his first preseason game against the Suns, Faried had 14 points and six rebounds in only 15 minutes. And oh by the way, five of those rebounds were offensive. Faried had six points and five rebounds in 11 minutes in his second preseason game. Three of those rebounds were offensive. If Faried can play remotely as well as he played in his two preseason games, the Nuggets might have struck gold.
Rounding out the power forwards will be Al Harrington. Harrington is known for his ability to spread the floor and hit open shots. Harrington averaged 10.5 points per game off the bench and will have a similar role this year. Harrington had 12 points in 13 minutes in the only preseason game he played.
This is the position that is the biggest question mark heading in to this season. Karl has said that Timofey Mozgov is expected to start and Chris Anderson and Kosta Koufos will also see minutes.
Mozgov played a very limited role for the Nuggets last year as he was the third center behind Nene and Anderson. The 7-foot-1 center from Russia is entering his second year and was a late minute addition to the Melo trade. Mozgov saw little time for the Nuggets last year but did receive some good minutes while in New York and did a respectable job on the boards. Mozgov won't be asked to have much of a scoring impact with Gallinari, Nene and Lawson on the floor with him. Mozgov will be more expected to be rebounding a defensive threat for the Nuggets. Expect Mozgov to improve on his rookie season and hopefully be known for more than just being posturized by Blake Griffin last year.
Anderson has long been a fan favorite in Denver. The Birdman brings a lot of energy off the bench and is a good rebounder and defender. Anderson is entering his 10th year in the NBA and is also recovering from a knee injury.
Kofous wasn't expected to get much action this year with Nene resigning and Mozgov being the expected starter with Anderson backing him up. But Koufos may have earned some minutes as the 7-footer from Ohio State put up 15 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks in Denver's preseason game. Like Mozgov, Koufos is going to need to show more patience as he fouled out of the game and Mozgov ended with five fouls.
There are tons of candidates on the Nuggets to have a breakout season. ESPN asked 30 sports writers to predict who they think will win the NBA's Most Improved Player Award. 18 players were selected and three of them were Nuggets. As mentioned earlier, Hollinger chose Lawson. Afflalo got a vote from Brian Kamenetzky from ESPN LA and Justin Verrier from ESPN.com selected Gallinari. I'm going to go with Hollinger and say Lawson is due for a breakout season.
While Lawson is usually the smallest player on the floor, he is also usually the quickest. This was his biggest asset coming out of the draft, but since that Lawson has developed quite an outside game as he shot over 40% from 3-point land in each of his first two seasons. Lawson has yet to produce the assists number that would be expected of a point guard, but Lawson has the luxury of a mentor in Miller who is currently 14th all time in assists and could end up cracking the top 10 by the end of the season. Lawson has always been able to get to the lane and get baskets in the paint. But his improved shooting and his vast potential for his passing to improve makes him my pick for breakout player of the year.
As far as the season is concerned. I expect the Nuggets to take one step up and get the number four seed. If this wasn't a shortened season, I would probably put them back at the five seed, but their youth and depth will move them up one seed this year.
I'm not sure if the Nuggets are capable of winning a playoff series yet, but they certainly have a chance to get out of the first round depending who they play. If they draw a team like San Antonio or Dallas that has plenty of experience in the playoffs it would be a tough battle for Denver. But if they draw someone like the Portland Trail Blazers I can see the Nuggets winning the series although I do not see a conference finals in the cards this season. I definitely see the Oklahoma City Thunder winning the division and earning the 1 seed.
Danilo Gallinari will be an All-Star
I expect Kevin Durant to win the starting small forward spot. But Durant is in a tier of his own and there really isn't any other dominant small forward in the Western Conference anymore with the departing of Melo. This is where Gallinari steps in. He is going to see a lot of minutes and will get to play the small forward position where he will likely have a couple of inches on his opponent. Gallinari will face competition from Rudy Gay, Gerald Wallace and Caron Butler. Gay and Butler will be coming off injuries while Gay is going to try to mesh with a team that did far better without him in the playoffs. Wallace hasn't quite fit in with the Blazers yet and it will be interesting to see how he plays this year.
Andre Miller will win Sixth Man of the Year
This will be the first time in more than ten years that Miller won't be a regular starter. But that doesn't mean that Miller won't get plenty of minutes. Raymond Felton averaged almost 32 minutes per game for the Nuggets last year without starting a game. Miller is expected to have a similar role as Felton and should generate about the same minutes. Miller will always put up good numbers in assists and has averaged over four rebounds per game for his career as a point guard. What it will come down to is whether or not that Miller can be the scoring threat that he has been in the past. If he can, then fellow sixth men around the league better watch out.
Well that's all for now. If you agree, disagree or think I left something off feel free to comment.