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The NBA playoffs started this past weekend, and for the first time in years, they’re absent a powder blue-and-gold tint. The Nuggets wound up 36-46—light years shy of last season’s record-setting squad—and although they weren’t officially eliminated from playoff contention until early April, we could all see it coming around Christmastime.
So what went wrong? In a word: everything. Let’s start with the team’s overall health. Players and coaches in all sports maintain strict rules against blaming injuries for their struggles, but we fans are under no such limitations. Yes, all teams have to deal with this, but the Nuggets were uncommonly hampered this year. Javale McGee missed all but five games, and Danilo Gallinari never set foot on the court. Bench sparkplug Nate Robinson and lunchpail guy J.J. Hickson each blew out a knee, costing them 38 and 13 games, respectively. The perpetually dinged-up Wilson Chandler missed 20 games—which was actually his lowest total in five years—and although Ty Lawson played like an all star when healthy, he also lost 20 games to injury.
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If you’re keeping score at home, six of the Nuggets’ top nine expected rotation players when the year began were unavailable for about one-quarter or more of the season. Good luck overcoming that sort of misfortune in the brutal Western Conference. (As feeble as their record was, it would’ve left them only two games out of a playoff spot in the even feebler East.)
In addition to the injuries, the team endured the growing pains of first-year coach Brian Shaw, who seemed to have trouble settling on a regular rotation early on and then publicly feuded with veteran guard Andre Miller before the front office sent Miller packing to Washington. Kenneth Faried played with his customary energy and athleticism but didn’t make the third-year “leap” to the next level we were hoping for. And Evan Fournier upped his numbers in some categories but stagnated in others.
There were some encouraging signs. Lawson established himself as one of the league’s most valuable and exciting point guards. Randy Foye brought his expected toughness. And big man Timofey Mozgov closed out the last few weeks with some of his best games as a pro and began to establish himself as the kind of low-post presence Shaw covets.
Looking ahead, the Nuggets will draft around number 11, or possibly higher if they get lucky in the lottery. Either way, the deep draft should bring them someone who can contribute soon. Shaw will begin his second season on the bench still regarded as one of the league’s bright young coaching minds. (He’s considered a long shot to be poached by his mentor, Phil Jackson, to coach the Knicks, primarily because New York would have to compensate the Nuggets for breaking his contract, and they have little to offer.) But after making a series of deals last summer that most analysts panned, the team’s front office will once again be heavily scrutinized for any trades or signings it pursues. Hopefully they have some innovative ideas in mind, because in the NBA, there’s no worse place to be than the middle.
—Image courtesy of Shutterstock