Offseason Grades: Denver Nuggets
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.