Denver Nuggets 2015-16 Season Preview
2014-15 Record : 30-52, No. 4 NW Division, No. 12 Western Conference
Roster Additions: Nick Johnson, Nikola Jokic, Emmanuel Mudiay (rookie, no. 7)
Roster Subtractions: Ian Clark, Ty Lawson
SBN Affiliate: Denver Stiffs
After a 2013-14 season filled with injury and frustration, Nuggets head coach Brian Shaw was ready to compete with a full roster of talent. Denver had some nice pieces in Kenneth Faried, Ty Lawson, and the newly (re)acquired Arron Afflalo, to go with supporting cast players such as J.J. Hickson and returning small forward Danilo Gallinari.
The Nuggets started the season off as a transition team, with Lawson doing serious damage pushing the pace. The Nuggets were the fourth fastest team in the league, in terms of pace. Unfortunately, the players seemed to tune Shaw out early in the season, and they never managed to be competitive, suffering through four separate losing streaks of at least six games.
As the losses mounted up, Denver GM Tim Connelly decided he had seen enough. First, Timofey Mozgov was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers for two protected first round picks on January 7. Then on Feb. 19, starting shooting guard Arron Afflalo and small forward Alonzo Gee were traded to the Portland Trailblazers for Thomas Robinson, Victor Claver, and Will Barton. The Nuggets also received a protected first round pick. The same day, enigmatic center JaVale McGee was sent off to the Philadelphia 76ers.
Two weeks later, Shaw was mercifully fired. Assistant coach Melvin Hunt took over head coaching duties on an interim basis for the rest of the season as the team played out the string.
While there wasn't a lot of roster shakeup in the offseason, the changes that took place were major ones. On June 15, Mike Malone was announced as the Nuggets' new head coach. After years around the league as an assistant, and a head coaching gig with the Sacramento Kings, Malone is highly regarded as a defensive-minded coach. His teams tend to play a middling pace, so it will be interesting to see if he is willing to push the tempo and try to wear out the opposition in the mile-high city.
The Nuggets possessed the no. 7 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, and used it to select Emmanuel Mudiay, widely considered the best point guard in the draft. Originally from the Congo, Mudiay attended several prep schools in Texas before deciding to forgo college altogether and play overseas, joining the Guangdong Southern Tigers of the Chinese Basketball Association.
Mudiay's season was cut short by an ankle injury after only 10 games, but he was able to further demonstrate that he is physically ready for the NBA. Mudiay has an explosive first step, and is able to finish above the rim. Additionally, Mudiay excelled in transition, and showed promise running the pick and roll. Because of his long arms and willingness to put in the effort, Mudiay is projected to eventually be a plus defender, though he can be inconsistent.
Mudiay's biggest opportunities lie in improving his outside shot and limiting his turnovers. Traditionally, these are elements that would keep a rookie point guard from seeing heavy minutes, but after Ty Lawson was arrested on suspicion of DUI for the second time in six months (and fourth time overall) on July 14, it was clear that the Nuggets would be looking to make a change. One week later, Lawson was traded to the Rockets for Nick Johnson, Joey Dorsey, Pablo Prigioni, and Kostas Papanikolaou. Only combo guard Nick Johnson stuck with the team (Papanikolaou is technically still on Denver's roster, but is going through the waiver process at the time of this writing).
With new personnel filling the head coach and point guard roles, it is difficult to predict how changes to the team's style will affect performance, or even what those changes will be. Unless he's a miracle worker, I don't see Malone able to teach Gallinari, Faried, and Chandler to be good defenders. Faried, in particular, has been called out for his porous defense over the years. Nurkic, just 20 years old, has shown flashes of the ability to be a plus-level paint defender, but is still likely two or three years away from doing it with consistency.
Can Danilo Gallinari return to his preinjury form? The 6 foot 10 sweet shooting small forward has been in recovery mode since tearing his ACL on April 5, 2013, missing the entire 2013-14 season. Last year Gallinari was worked back into the rotation, predominately coming off the bench until Arron Afflalo was traded. Naturally, Gallinari saw a reduction in his shot attempts and points per game but, more troublingly, his field goal percentage fell to .401 as he relied increasingly on his 3-pointer. Gallinari shot 5.1 3-pointers for the second straight season, but on three fewer shot attempts per game.
Still only 27, the Nuggets are counting on Gallinari to fully return to his 2012-13 this season where, according to basketball-reference.com, he averaged 7.2 win shares. With coach Malone and a rookie point guard likely slowing the pace down this season, look for Gallinari to get a lot of looks in the halfcourt.
A projected starting lineup of Mudiay, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, and Jusuf Nurkic won't strike fear into the hearts of very many opponents. The Nuggets are a team hoping to rebuild with only moderate young talent. Mudiay is projected to be a player, and Nurkic was a nice surprise in his lone season, averaging 6.9 points and 6 rebounds per game. Beyond that, however, the Nuggets don't have the same level of high-upside young talent that (likely fellow lottery bound) Northwest Division rivals Utah, Minnesota, and Portland do. So unless all of their starters have career years (highly doubtful) and Mudiay puts together a Rookie of the Year like season (possible), the Nuggets will be languishing toward the bottom third of the Western Conference for a third consecutive season.
The people's champ, Will Barton, is going to have a surprisingly effective season. Athletic, energetic, and just as likely to make a spectacular play as a boneheaded one, Barton is going to see enough consistent minutes off of the bench (and get enough consistent yelling from coach Malone in practice) to make the leap to productivity. We're not predicting anything resembling All-Star performance, or even starter's minutes competing with Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, and Randy Foye, but Barton will make the most of his time while continuing to harness his reckless tendencies.