Nuggets present challenge to Pistons in season opener
Injuries contributed to the Denver Nuggets dropping from a 57-win team in 2012-13 to 11th place in the Western Conference last season.
Now fully healthy, the Nuggets look to return to their winning ways starting Wednesday night against the visiting Detroit Pistons (8 p.m. pregame, 9 p.m. tip-off on FOX Sports Detroit)..
Denver plummeted to a 36-46 record last season due to a rash of health problems. Danilo Gallinari missed all of 2013-14 with a knee injury, JaVale McGee played in only five games and J.J. Hickson and Nate Robinson suffered ACL injuries, leaving point guard Ty Lawson and forward Kenneth Faried as the focal points of the offense.
"When we're (a) top three (seed) in the West, they're going to know who we are," Lawson said.
Lawson took on an expanded role due to the absences last season, averaging 17.6 points, 8.8 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.6 steals - all career highs. However, he also finished with 200 turnovers and the worst shooting percentage of his career at 43.1.
"Ty Lawson has All-Star ability," coach Brian Shaw said. "Whether he takes that next step or not is completely and utterly up to him. That's going to come down to his commitment every day in practice."
Shaw has similar expectations for Faried, who averaged 13.7 points and 8.6 rebounds last season before representing the United States in the World Cup, during which he shot 63.3 percent and was named to the All-Star Five. Denver rewarded him with a four-year, $50 million extension.
"He will be a point of emphasis for other teams to game plan against, whereas before maybe he wasn't," Shaw said. "It's what every player goes through that reaches that level.
"Star players, once they have an effective season, the next season, teams start double-teaming them and game-planning specifically for the strengths you bring to the floor. He has to learn how to negotiate through that."
To complement Lawson and Faried, Denver traded for Orlando shooting guard Arron Afflalo, who made 42.7 percent from 3-point range last season to rank sixth in the league.
"We played at a fast pace last year," Shaw said. "We'll play an even faster pace this year."
The Nuggets will present an immediate challenge to Detroit (29-53), which ranked 27th in the NBA last season with 104.7 points allowed per game.
The Pistons added Caron Butler, Jodie Meeks and D.J. Augustin in the offseason, but enter 2014-15 with largely the same core group. Detroit's top three scorers in Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Brandon Jennings return, as does Andre Drummond, second in the league with 13.2 rebounds per game last season.
Monroe will miss the first two games due to a suspension stemming from a DUI arrest in February.
Detroit's most notable addition is Stan Van Gundy, who takes over as coach and president. He's posted a 371-208 record in nine seasons with Miami and the Magic.
"We can win," Van Gundy said. "We can, but we have to do the things that it takes to win every night.
"It's not easy and sometimes we don't do those things and we give too many possessions away just from not competing hard enough or playing tough enough. There are habits to change. When you've lost for a long time, you get into losing habits."
Van Gundy and his .641 winning percentage provide hope for a Pistons franchise that has posted back-to-back 29-win seasons.
"This is the most important decision we have made as an organization," owner Tom Gores said. "Not only did we hire a coach and president of basketball, we are resetting the culture of the franchise. I'm so confident that this is going to work."
The Pistons have lost seven of eight matchups with the Nuggets, including five in a row in Denver.