The Denver Nuggets are cleaning house. It’s impossible for anyone to deny that. After their eighth first-round playoff exit in the last nine years under George Karl, Nuggets’ management is looking to go in a different direction. Karl, a coach who led Denver to a 423-257 record during his nine-year tenure, is gone. General manager Masai Ujiri, who somehow helped the Nuggets win the Carmelo Anthony AND Dwight Howard trades, is now in Toronto after Denver was unwilling to pay the price to keep (arguably) the league’s best GM around. Even the Nuggets vice president of basketball operations, Pete D’Alessandro, has moved on as Sacramento’s new GM after Denver gave the Kings permission to interview him.
But wait! It gets better. Not only are the Nuggets completely starting from square one from a front-office standpoint, but critical players in the Nuggets’ continuity this past season — Andre Iguodala and Corey Brewer — aren’t guaranteed to stick around unless Denver decides to spend some money. Iguodala has already said he will opt out of the final year of his contract, which is a no-brainer, since he’ll then be eligible for a five-year extension with the Nuggets. And although Brewer has said he wants to re-sign with the Nuggets, whether Denver chooses to pay up to keep him is another matter entirely.
Chief executive officer Josh Kroenke has already said that re-signing Iggy is the Nuggets’ top priority in the offseason, which should help Denver’s chances of keeping its best all-around player in the Mile High City. But the possibility of him choosing another team is still there. The chance that Brewer and the Nuggets can’t agree on a new contract is definitely still there. So with all this uncertainty and front office upheaval heading into the offseason, is it realistic to expect this team to contend next season?
“I don’t know yet” – Jesus Shuttlesworth voice …. How I answer my phone.
— Andre Iguodala (@andre) June 19, 2013
At this point in time, it’s hard to tell. The Nuggets don’t even have a new head coach yet. They just recently hired Tim Connelly as their new GM and still have some time to decide what they want to do with Iguodala and Brewer from a contract perspective. But with so much restructuring and so many new faces coming into the mix, I have to make a premature judgment call (pending major trades and offseason moves, of course) that the Nuggets will once again start poorly, eventually find their rhythm, make the playoffs and be eliminated in the first round.
There are several obvious and some not-so-obvious reasons behind that prediction. In a best-case scenario, let’s say the Nuggets find a way to re-sign Iguodala and Brewer and that they hire Brian Shaw or Lionel Hollins to replace Karl. The Nuggets’ roster remains intact and Denver gets one of the top three free-agent coaches on the market right now. Keep in mind, this is a best-case scenario. That means the Nuggets likely have a ton of money tied up and are stuck with this current roster. Not a bad set of players by any means, but don’t forget that sharp-shooter and underrated perimeter defender Danilo Gallinari will likely miss at least half the season. Now factor in that Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee have all been up and down over the last two seasons and need the right coach to foster their development correctly. For all their talent, they’re still young players in need of the proper instruction (and that’s putting it nicely in McGee’s case).
Don’t forget that it takes a lot longer than expected for even the most talented players to adjust to a new coach and his coaching style. Brian Shaw seems like the best fit for Denver’s fast-paced offense, but would he implement the triangle offense he learned under Phil Jackson‘s tutelage? And how long would it take this former assistant coach to come into his own as a head coach? I can’t say with certainty, but there’s no doubt in my mind that there will be a moderate adjustment period at the very least.
On the other hand, the Nuggets could hire Lionel Hollins, a coach who has proven his abilities leading a Rudy Gay-less Grizzlies team to the Western Conference Finals. His defensive mindset (particularly in the paint) would certainly be a bonus for Denver since that’s easily their biggest weakness. McGee, Faried and Kosta Koufos would definitely benefit from having a coach who’s experienced in working with talented bigs. But bringing Hollins in might require an even longer adjustment period, since it could result in Denver’s whole offensive focus being shifted to defense. Would Ty Lawson be as dynamic in a Lionel Hollins offense? And would Denver’s inconsistent perimeter shooters (sans Gallo) be able to knock down shots the way that Memphis’ offense would have liked? A lot of questions and not many reassuring answers, which is especially disconcerting since this is our best-case scenario.
In a worst-case scenario, Iggy signs somewhere else and the Nuggets can’t agree with their valuable glue guy who provides energy and chaos off the bench in Brewer. This is definitely a possibility, especially since Iguodala might not be feeling confident about his future in Denver with all this front office upheaval and George Karl being fired. So if he walks, that means the Nuggets have money to throw at somebody. But without Masai Ujiri, isn’t it possible that Connelly makes a less than stellar decision in his first move as GM? Like, say…a sign-and-trade for the athletic but somewhat overrated Josh Smith? It’s not out of the question.
Now for the not-so-obvious reason: the Western Conference is going to be just as tough next year, if not tougher. If you take a look at the landscape of the West, there are already clear favorites that aren’t the Denver Nuggets. The Oklahoma City Thunder will have a healthy Russell Westbrook and have several picks in this year’s draft. Assuming Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili aren’t retiring, the San Antonio Spurs will once again be a high seed in the West. The Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets are only going to get better as Stephen Curry and James Harden continue to emerge as superstars with upcoming talents like Klay Thompson and Chandler Parsons right behind them. Things are very uncertain for the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers, but barring a complete onslaught of stupid decisions, they’ll likely still be loaded with stars by the time the season starts. The Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trail Blazers will improve, the Memphis Grizzlies will probably find a way to regroup after losing Hollins and maybe the Minnesota Timberwolves will stay healthy for once. There’s not a lot of room for error in that group.
When Ujiri left, a lot of my Denver Nuggets friends expressed their immediate doubts about the future of their favorite franchise. Getting rid of a coach who could never lead his team past the first round after so many successful regular seasons is one thing, but Ujiri was the man who really made the Nuggets a contender while keeping Denver below the salary cap. The Nuggets have a host of young, developing talent that could definitely make some noise in the playoffs under the right coach. So I’m not ready to declare the Nuggets dead in the water just yet. But with so much uncertainty, a coaching change coming and not many opportunities to improve during this year’s free agency (Dwight Howard and Chris Paul aren’t going to Denver), I see the 2013-14 Nuggets finishing much like they did this year with a first-round playoff exit. Only this year, it probably won’t be as disappointing.
Topics: Andre Iguodala Free Agency, Can The Denver Nuggets Contend In The West In 2013-14, Corey Brewer Free Agency, Denver Nuggets 2013-14, Denver Nuggets Free Agency, Masai Ujiri Leaves Denver, Nuggets Fire George Karl