Dec 22, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Will Barton (5) and guard Gary Harris (14) react during the first half against the Los Angeles Lakers at Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
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After adding to their young core in the offseason, the Denver Nuggets are looking to take the next step as a team under second-year head coach Michael Malone in 2016-17
Not so long ago, in the 2012-13 season, the Denver Nuggets won 57 games while under the tutelage of Coach of the Year George Karl.
Fast forward three seasons later and the Nuggets are a very different basketball team. Long gone are the likes of George Karl, Ty Lawson and Andre Iguodala and Denver hasn’t reached 40 wins since.
Instead, the Denver Nuggets tore it down and started a rebuild. While some key players such as Danilo Gallinari and Kenneth Faried remain from that 2012-13 roster, today’s Nuggets roster is highlighted by the young talent across the board.
Nikola Jokic, Emmanuel Mudiay, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Jusuf Nurkic and rookies Jamal Murray and Malik Beasley are all 25 or younger and figure to play large roles in Denver’s immediate and long-term plans.
With a young nucleus in place, this season is all about the Nuggets finding their footing as individuals in the NBA but, more importantly, as a team.
Oct 3, 2016; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone reacts during the third quarter against the Toronto Raptors at Scotiabank Saddledome. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
Entering his second season as head coach of the Denver Nuggets, Mike Malone will be faced with the task of developing his young players into true NBA quality players whilst also allowing veterans such as Gallinari, Chandler and Faried to see adequate court time.
After his shock firing from the Sacramento Kings, the Nuggets made the correct decision in quickly scooping up Malone to replace Brian Shaw after two disastrous seasons.
Now with a season under his belt and many of his players returning, it will be interesting to see how Malone manages his minutes. Who gets more playing time – Harris or Barton? Gallinari or Chandler? How much can Jusuf Nurkic play next to Nikola Jokic and how well? Where does Murray fit into all of this?
Malone has some problems to work out but at least they’re not bad problems (e.g. former Denver Nugget Ty Lawson).
Apr 5, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Gary Harris (14) dribbles the ball against Oklahoma City Thunder guard Anthony Morrow (2) as Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) pressures Morrow as in the second quarter at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
Strengths: Lots of young talent ready to improve as a unit
As I’ve already mentioned, Denver is stacked to the brim with young talent.
Nikola Jokic is only 21 and is coming off an All-Rookie First Team appearance last season.
Emmanuel Mudiay is only 20 and contains all the athleticism and skills to become a John Wall type player.
Will Barton is on one of the best contracts in the league and was in contention for Sixth Man of the Year all season long in 2015-16.
I haven’t even mentioned Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Malik Beasley or Jusuf Nurkic yet.
Aside from rookies Murray and Beasley, these players have all got at least one season together under their belts. They started to show what they could do as a unit last season and I believe they are ready to show that on a more consistent basis this season.
There are very few young cores that are better than Denver’s right now. Sure, Minnesota and Milwaukee are better but Denver should not be ignored.
Don’t be fooled by their youth – these Nuggets are ready to take it to another level.
Mar 30, 2016; Memphis, TN, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried (35) during the second half against the Memphis Grizzlies at FedExForum. Denver Nuggets defeated the Memphis Grizzlies 102-89. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports
Weaknesses: The Starting Power Forward Position
For those of you who have been incorrectly informed, Kenneth Faried is not the player you think he is. Sure, he’s a hustle guy and he can grab his fair share of rebounds but Faried is not what the Nuggets need and he doesn’t fit with the team’s philosophy.
Just ask Mike Malone who, despite starting him, only awarded him 25.3 minutes a game last season, the lowest since his rookie season.
Even when he’s playing well offensively, Faried is a liability on the defensive end. Apart from his ability to get defensive rebounds, “The Manimal” doesn’t do much else on that side of the floor. In fact, Malone often benched Faried in favor of Darrell Arthur in many fourth quarters last year to make sure his team could keep it up on the defensive end.
Trade rumors have been swirling around Faried for a while now and I think it’s about time that the Nuggets trade their fan favorite for someone who can help contribute where they need help the most.
If Faried isn’t traded, other teams will only improve at exposing his weaknesses on a team where his play style clearly doesn’t fit anymore.
Oct 3, 2016; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Denver Nuggets guard Emmanuel Mudiay (0) dribbles the ball against the Toronto Raptors during the third quarter at Scotiabank Saddledome. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
X-Factor: Emmanuel Mudiay
Before the All-Star Break last season, Emmanuel Mudiay was one of, if not the, worst starting point guard in the NBA. He was incredibly low in Real Plus-Minus and Win Shares, turned the ball over a lot and was also outlandishly inefficient.
As a starting floor general on an NBA team, it is your job to not only get everyone around you involved but, in this day and age, also be able to score, defend and have a reliable jump shot.
Mudiay didn’t display much of any of that in the first half of his rookie campaign. Really though, it was understandable. To be given a task like that to assume as soon as you come into the league at 19 years of age would create unimaginable pressure and place the athlete in a situation in which they cannot be successful right away.
That is why by the time the more-lengthy-than-often All-Star Break was over, Mudiay had begun to find his footing in the NBA. With improved three-point and free throw percentages, Mudiay had finally started to improve his shooting form and the more experience he obtained, the less he turned the ball over and the less he cost his team wins.
We should expect Mudiay to keep improving this season, maybe even take a big step forward. His potential is still insanely high and the things he needed to work on have already started to show signs of improvement.
If Mudiay can keep progressing at the rate in which he has currently shown he is capable of, then the Nuggets should be in for a good season as Mudiay learns how to control and operate his team on the floor.
Feb 23, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried (35) talks with forward Danilo Gallinari (8) in the second quarter against the Sacramento Kings at Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
Even in a best case scenario, it is hard to see Denver making a return to the playoffs this season. They have most of the right pieces but they still need time to figure out how to piece it all together.
A season like 2015-16 isn’t out of the question either, but I imagine that the organization and its fans expect a few more than 33 victories this year.
The Western Conference is tough and Denver isn’t the only team on the rise, but they are capable of adding to last year’s win total and making a semi-serious push for the playoffs, which is exactly what I think they will do.