Posted August 25, 2013

Offseason Grades: Denver Nuggets

2013 Offseason Grades, Ben Golliver, Brian Shaw, Denver Nuggets, Josh Kroenke, Tim Connelly
(Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images)

Denver added new coach Brian Shaw (center) and new GM Tim Connelly (left) during a hectic summer.(Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Point Forward will grade every team’s offseason over the next few weeks. Click here for the complete archive.

Additions: Randy Foye, J.J. Hickson, Nate Robinson, Darrell Arthur, Brian Shaw (coach), Tim Connelly (general manager)

Losses: Andre Iguodala, Corey Brewer, Kosta Koufos, Julyan Stone, George Karl (coach), Masai Ujiri (GM)

Other Moves: Re-signed Timofey Mozgov, drafted Erick Green (No. 46 in the 2013 draft; expected to play overseas), traded for rights to Joffrey Lauvergne (No. 55 in 2013; expected to play overseas)

What Went Right: There’s no use burying the lede down in the next section: The Nuggets endured arguably the NBA’s most tumultuous summer, and they will likely feel the negative effects for years to come.

Before we dig into the specifics, let’s reinforce the big-picture impact of what went down over the last few months by comparing Denver to Indiana. Both teams finished with the No. 3 seed in their respective conferences. They both stockpiled their wins with distinct styles of play, possessed well-respected coaches and general managers and enjoyed their most successful regular seasons in years (Denver’s 57 wins represented a franchise high; Indiana’s 49 wins marked the first division title since 2004).

Once the playoffs began, the two teams diverged: Denver, without an injured Danilo Gallinari, caught a bad break by drawing a scorching-hot Warriors team and was eliminated in the first round. Indiana, with both Paul George and Roy Hibbert emerging at the right time, came within one win of the 2013 Finals.

With time to reflect on their respective seasons, both organizations should have reached the same conclusion: If we retain the key members of our rotation and make tweaks around the edges, last year’s success should be repeatable. Each team entered the summer with one major free agent to retain — Andre Iguodala for Denver and David West for Indiana — and a number of other starters already under contract for multiple seasons into the future.

While Indiana reached that conclusion without incident, smoothly re-signing West and making smart additions to fill out its bench, Denver watched much of its carefully laid house crumble. Karl, the NBA’s reigning Coach of the Year, departed in ugly fashion. Ujiri, the NBA’s reigning Executive of the Year, took the money and ran to Toronto. Iguodala, sensing the change in climate, opted to latch on with the Warriors rather than re-sign with the Nuggets, even though Denver reportedly offered him more money and president Josh Kroenke had labeled Iguodala the franchise’s top priority. Those moves caught other key returning players by surprise and they expressed that fact publicly. One day, all the ducks were in a row. The next day, the ducks were scattered across the country, and rookie replacements — coach Shaw and GM Connelly — were trying their best to fill in the gaps as heads spun around them.

On his way out, Karl stressed the importance of continuity and told the Denver Post that he informed Kroenke that he believed the change in course was “stupid.” He was right. Fifty-seven wins should not have been taken for granted or forgotten because of a rough postseason showing. Denver now braces for an unnecessary transition year after a banner season, which already stands as a depressing thought, and it’s only August.

To make matters worse, it’s a real stretch to find a silver lining in any of Denver’s additions. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising, given the chaotic atmosphere with which the Nuggets were dealing, but the fact remains that there are more nits to pick than moves to like. Their best play might very well have been landing Robinson, who was coming off of a strong year with Chicago, with their biannual exception ($4.1 million for two years). That’s a good price for a player who seemed like a likely candidate to be overpaid after a high-profile postseason run with the Bulls. It should go without saying that something is seriously wrong whenever Robinson is the shiniest diamond in your offseason jewelry box.

What Went Wrong: There’s so much to dislike that it’s difficult to know where to begin. Iguodala’s departure is a huge blow: Denver’s defensive rating was significantly better when he was on the court (100.5) compared to when he was off (105.3), and he helped the Nuggets improve from No. 19 in defensive efficiency in 2011-12 to No. 11 last season. Yes, Iguodala’s lack of range and poor free-throw shooting hold him back from being elite, but a lockdown-defending, turnover-generating, transition-finishing athletic wing is a very valuable commodity.

What’s more, two of Denver’s other best defenders also departed: Koufos and Brewer. Both will leave a mark, but the loss of Koufos is particularly galling, given that he was traded for Arthur, a player with similar per-minute raw statistics but different efficiency numbers. Koufos, who started at center last season, posted an exceptional shooting percentage, a rebounding rate that was significantly better than Arthur’s, a Player Efficiency Rating that was more than six points better than Arthur’s and an astonishing 122 offensive rating. He offered great value, tons of production and he didn’t need the ball. With a payroll creeping fairly close to the luxury-tax line, moving him for Arthur made zero sense, even if the development of JaVale McGee is a top organizational priority. Smart teams would kill for a Koufos, and the Nuggets simply handed him over.

Most of the incomers are problematic, too. Denver used its full mid-level on Hickson ($16.1 million over three years), a one-way player whose strengths are generally redundant with those of Kenneth Faried. The Nuggets didn’t drastically overpay Hickson, even though he signed a one-year deal worth $4 million in 2012, but it could prove difficult to get their money’s worth. Denver also re-signed Mozgov for $14 million over three years (including a team option on the final season), a fairly modest price for a big man, but one that makes less sense given that Koufos was a better, cheaper player.

As for Foye, his PER of 11.8 last season was comparable to the likes of Steve Blake, Courtney Lee and P.J. Tucker. He shot 41 percent from three-point range for a fairly average Jazz team, but had a meaningfully negative impact on Utah’s team defensive numbers. He somehow turned that unspectacular season into a fully guaranteed three-year, $9.1 million contract (via sign-and-trade), just one summer after he signed a one-year, $2.5 million deal. What?

In sum, Denver’s four key additions — Hickson, Foye, Robinson and Arthur — all made their respective teams worse defensively when they were on the court last season. Simultaneously, their three key losses — Iguodala, Koufos and Brewer — all made Denver better defensively last season. That, plus Gallinari’s early absence as he rehabilitates and a new coach, could make for a hard fall in the standings.

Grade: F. This grade is not given out lightly, and it’s aimed not only at this offseason’s individual moves but also the organization’s decision to not do whatever it took to keep things rolling. The “star-less” approach to contention only works with outstanding chemistry and a shared vision, and it seems both have been compromised beyond repair. Now, we all wait to see how far the Nuggets slide in the West’s packed playoff picture. 

20 comments
maxrh
maxrh

The main reason George Karl got fired is because he is a very stubborn coach.  He falls in love with "his guys" and fails to develop younger players who really need his coaching.  Just look at his history of hating rookies and putting people in his dog house for making mistakes.  At the same time he lets guys like Corey Brewer jack up threes all over the place and make as many mistakes as he wants.  Just look at Kenneth Faried, if it were not for injuries the manimal might never have been unleashed at all.  Reluctantly he started to play him a third of the way into his rookie year and to his amazement he was so good he could not find an excuse to bring him out of the rotation.

 George Karl has simply failed at bringing out the potential and developing players like Jordan Hamilton, Javale Mcgee, Timofey Mozgov, Evan Fournier, and Quincy Miller.  He is a good coach who knows how to squeeze  out 50 wins year but when his teams reach the playoffs they panic and his system falls apart.  If he is such an amazing coach like most of you seem to think then why is he still UNEMPLOYED?  It is pretty clear that NBA GMs and owners around the league don't seem to have such a high opinion on George as the experts on this site.

jsteppling
jsteppling

thank you ben golliver. F is too kind, actually, Josh Kroenke wasnt even born when Karl won his first game as a COACH in the NBA,. It was a stunningly arrogant and stupid move to let a hall of fame coach go. Then Ujiri goes. Had the money been close to the same Ujiri would have stayed, at least if Karl had stayed. The moves are stupid beyond stupid. Foye is a below average player, a marginal sort of roster guy who occasionally gets hot shooting. Cant defend anything. Koufus was wildly underrated. Karl played him Kroenke wanted javale. Well, maybe you should listen to karl, since he's a future hall of famer. Oh man, its sad. This is a lottery team for the next four years.

RetepAdam
RetepAdam

Just to put things into context...

-Masai Ujiri signed a 5 year, $15 million deal with the Toronto Raptors
-The Nuggets best offer to Ujiri was reportedly $1.2 million annually for an undisclosed number of years
-The average GM salary in 2009 was $1.5 million, according to the Mercury News

Not only did the Nuggets fail to even offer Ujiri, the reigning Executive of the Year and architect of the best regular season in the franchise's NBA history in only his third season as GM, half of what the Raptors gave him, but they didn't even offer him the reported average salary for his position.

ndolce
ndolce

I'm definitely in the minority but they made the right choice by letting Karl go. He led the Nugs into the playoffs 8 straight years and got out of the 1st round once. Sorry, that's not good enough. My favorite team, the Bulls, got to the second round this year with Rose, Hinrich, and Deng out (not to mention a virtually out Noah). It's about heart and the Nugs need someone to instill toughness and determination. And as far as Iguadola goes, I thought they never should have traded for him to begin with. He's not capable of leading a team as his years in Philly proved. Let Gallo, Law(less)son, and Faried lead. Nuggets will be okay. They can still run any team out of a gym on any given night...


P.S.- Don't diss Nate. I wish he was still with the Bulls. He's all heart, energy, and competitor. 

PaulSharpe
PaulSharpe

Sorry, but Nuggets scared NO ONE...  They had a nice little over-achieving Tebow season, meaning luck over talent, altitude / fast-break freak-show over talent & a home record WAY better than they deserve(d)...  Even if they didn't lose Iggy, they were do for a Massive 'Correction'...  Won't win 50...

OK
OK

Nugs surrendered size, defense, and defined role players in each move. 

Iguodala out, Foye in.

Koufos out, Hickson in.

Brewer out, Little Punk Nate in.

Hickson cannot defend the five. That's why the Jail Blazers let him walk.

Who are Foye and Little Punk Nate going to guard? The Thunder's junior-varsity squad? The Spurs' freshmen team?

Josh Kroenke's just another Spoiled Brat who rode the Nepotism Express to a decision-making gig in the public eye.

JeffreyHall1
JeffreyHall1

Don't see Denver making the playoffs this year if only because too many other teams have gotten better instead of worse. They still have some decent players, but it remains to be seen what Brian Shaw will bring to the team as a first time head coach and what type of chemistry they'll have. And as with all teams, how lucky (or not) they are with injuries. I don't like the thought of any team having to rely on Javale McGee for consistent play to do well despite his penchant for spectacular plays. Lawson is starting the season with off court distractions and Gallinari's injury and likely slow recovery to consistency (see: Dirk Nowitski) will further hamper the Nuggets possibilities.

jsteppling
jsteppling

@ndolce thats just silly. Karl is a hall of fame coach. The demand that somehow he had failed is just so beyond dumb that I dont know what to say. HE WON 57 GAMES.... he has never had a losing season. He had terrible luck last year on a team in a small market where they were really still rebuilding. Oh wait..........never mind.....i read the rest of your comment....sorry, never mind. Its hopeless.

Richard40
Richard40

@ndolce You are way off.   Karl is a very good coach.   He could have held the team together.

RetepAdam
RetepAdam

@ndolce Letting Karl go wasn't as egregious as letting Masai walk at the same time. When you lose your coach, your GM and one of your team captains (Iggy) in one fell swoop, your team's identity and internal culture is likely to take a tremendous hit. Their biggest asset last year was chemistry, and they threw that component away.

jsteppling
jsteppling

@PaulSharpe now they wont. They would have won fifty again and with gallo back, probably more. Its curious how the fans out there dont like karl or denver. Only the serious hoop people appreciate what he did.

EliCabelly
EliCabelly

@OK Jail Blazers ended when Jermaine O'Neal, Damon Stoudamire, Zach Randolph, Rasheed Wallace, Shawn Kemp, Ruben Patterson, and company left the team. Please try to join the 21st century. Oh, and you can put that massive phone down, cell phones have gotten much smaller now.

JoelSmith
JoelSmith

@OK We let him walk because he is too good to be a backup 4, and not good enough to be a starting 5. Defense was a big part of that. But "Jail Blazers?" I am not going to do the research to get numbers, but I'm from PDX, and the "Jail Blazer" era ended almost 10 years ago man. Do you still make Roger Clemens steroid jokes? Do you still say "You are the weakest link, goodbye?"

CrisMaddGeniusEastmond
CrisMaddGeniusEastmond

@RetepAdam @ndolce the nuggets greatest asset was the fact the media couldn't stop making love to them. they were a mediocre team playing in the most unfair of advantages in any north american sport. that team should go undefeated at home every year. and yet all we heard for the first half was their "unfair" schedule as if they weren't going to finish with the same amount of home and away games as every other club. Funny that when a player can't get out of the first round, its held against him forever as if its not a team game, but when a coach can't do it, its somehow ok. Oh yeah, forgot that coach happened to be a media darling. whatever. a guy who hasn't done much winning in the  league took less money to go somewhere, good for him. the nuggets will be fine.

PaulSharpe
PaulSharpe

@jsteppling @PaulSharpe Nuggets were like Broncos with Tebow: both had a nice little delusional, over-achieving season for a team that was doomed to come back to earth...

PaulSharpe
PaulSharpe

@EliCabelly @OK The stink / stain from those bozos didn't 'Instantly' go away....  Blazers rep was seriously damaged for years afterward...

PaulSharpe
PaulSharpe

@JoelSmith @OK  Well, Blazers stunk it up so bad that some foul-stenches last 10 years...  lol   And no, we don't talk about Clemens & his drug binges; we simply recall what a giant A-hole punk he was...  ;-)

OK
OK

@JoelSmith

Smitty,

I see Little Punk Nate will have his own personal rooting section when he heads to the Land of the Jail Blazers.

PaulSharpe
PaulSharpe

@CrisMaddGeniusEastmond @RetepAdam @ndolce   Most Nuggets aren't bonafide starters; more like 1.5's than true 1's...  Only Lawson is true starter material...  Gallo is one-dimension, at best, McGee should come off the bench, Chandler is a nice 6th man, and their bench is a mess.... they can run, but that's it. Not much skill there...  Fast-break b-ball is like football in the mud, it gives poorer teams a chance to compete...  LMAO

JoeCabot
JoeCabot

@CrisMaddGeniusEastmond The most unfair advantage in sports?  They should go undefeated at home every year?   Is this about playing at a higher altitude than most teams?   If so, I gotta say that you folks never cease to amaze with your wacky theories.