2013--14 RECORD: 36--46 (4TH IN NORTHWEST) COACH: BRIAN SHAW (2ND SEASON WITH NUGGETS)
How integral is a back-line stopper? Each of the eight teams that regressed the most in defensive efficiency in 2013--14 lost a center from the previous season to injury, trade or free agency. That group includes the Nuggets, who wound up in the lottery for the first time in 11 years because of their deficiencies on D and injury woes. Denver didn't have two key centers: Kosta Koufos, who was traded to the Grizzlies, and JaVale McGee, who missed all but five games with a stress fracture in his left tibia. In their absence opponents shot 58.5% from inside five feet, up from 54.6% in 2012--13, when the Nuggets ranked second in interior defense.
Having a healthy McGee is essential; he has been limited by leg soreness during the preseason and is expected to split time with Timofey Mozgov. McGee is best known for his social-media antics and dunk-contest heroics, but the 7-footer with a 7'6" wingspan did finish among the league leaders in blocks for three consecutive seasons before his injury. He should turn to another 26-year-old from the 2008 draft, DeAndre Jordan, for his breakout blueprint: The Clippers' center has expanded his game beyond dunking and shot altering by defending with more discipline and fully committing to rebounding.
McGee must improve his awareness and positioning, and coach Brian Shaw has stressed the importance of playing under control. After six seasons of hijinks, it's time for McGee to take on the more substantial role of defensive centerpiece.
17.6 PPG; 8.8 APG; 1.6 SPG; 43.1 FG%
18.2 PPG; 3.6 RPG; 45.9 FG%; 42.7 3FG%
16.2 PPG; 5.2 RPG; 41.8 FG%; 37.3 3FG%
13.7 PPG; 8.6 RPG; 0.9 BPG; 54.5 FG%
9.4 PPG; 6.4 RPG; 1.2 BPG; 52.3 FG%
13.2 PPG; 3.5 APG; 41.3 FG%; 38.0 3FG%
13.6 PPG; 4.7 RPG; 41.6 FG%; 34.8 3FG%
A replenished roster gets better on both ends, restores its home edge and makes the playoffs.
Gallinari slumps in his return, and Shaw loses the locker room with his handling of a deep rotation.
A RIVAL SCOUT SIZES UP THE NUGGETS
Brian Shaw initially resisted playing an up-tempo style last season, but eventually he let his players run. That's what the Nuggets are built to do, especially with Ty Lawson at the one.... If they play fast, Lawson is a top 10 point guard; if they slow down, he drops a few notches. He has a different energy and confidence when they're taking advantage of his speed. With the ball, he's as quick as anyone.... Arron Afflalo will be comfortable playing alongside Lawson, who can drive-and-kick for open threes. Afflalo won't put up the same numbers as last season, when he was the go-to guy for Orlando, but he won't have to force as many shots with more talent around him.... They have the potential for a lot of shooting with Afflalo, Randy Foye, Nate Robinson and the return of Danilo Gallinari [who missed last season while recovering from two left knee surgeries]. A quick pace means more possessions and more shots to keep these guys happy.... Kenneth Faried brings it every night. He doesn't try to do what he can't do, and what he does do, he does well. He sprints the floor, scores around the basket and gets rebounds outside his area. Can he become a guy who makes 15-footers and handles the ball better? ... JaVale McGee is another player who fits the running game—he is not a big back-to-the-basket scorer. He doesn't always play smart, but he plays hard.... Timofey Mozgov is underrated. He has a better offensive game than McGee and makes fewer mistakes. I see those center minutes being divided pretty evenly.... Wilson Chandler has the versatility to play the four in small lineups.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
Lawson's speed fuels a fast attack.