Five Nuggets story lines to watch for this season
The 2012-13 Nuggets season has finally arrived. After pushing the Lakers to seven games in the first round of the NBA Playoffs last year and obtaining All-Star guard Andre Iguodala via trade this summer, fans are excited as they've ever been for the boys in blue and yellow -- and the Nuggets certainly have their fair share of story lines that could unfold well into spring. Here are five of the most crucial Nuggets narratives this season. 5. Prospect potential.
Andre Iguodala, left, Kenneth Faried and Ty Lawson.
The Nuggets have one of the youngest core groups of players in the NBA. Wilson Chandler, Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari, JaVale McGee and Kenneth Faried are all 25 or younger. Guys like Jordan Hamilton, Kosta Koufos and Anthony Randolph, who could very well see expanded roles this year, are no older than 23. Andre Iguodala, whom many perceive to be one of the team's veterans, is 28. In fact, the only player on the entire roster over thirty is Andre Miller, who's actual closer to forty.
Although the Nuggets are a young team, most of its best players have been in the league for three to four years and are just realizing their potential. Gallinari was on pace to contend for an All-Star spot last year before succumbing to a series of injuries. Many believe Lawson could do the same this year -- minus the injuries, of course. Even though he belongs on the NBA's Mount Rushmore of Knuckleheads, you could make a case McGee has the most raw, untapped potential of anybody on the entire roster.
The fact is, this Nuggets squad is oozing with promising young talent. Whether it can collectively unleash its best qualities and squeeze out a high number of wins in the process will be one of the more telling developments of the team's overall success this season.
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4. The wild, wild West.
If the Nuggets played in the NBA's Eastern Conference, they'd probably have three times the amount of success they've had over the last handful of years in the playoffs. But, that's the way the nugget crumbles, so to speak.
For the past decade, the NBA's Western Conference has been one of the toughest in all of sports. The Lakers, Mavericks and Spurs have won ten of the fourteen NBA titles since 1999, and during that span, only one other team -- last year's Oklahoma City Thunder -- has even represented the West in the NBA Finals. Of those four teams, only the Mavericks appear on pace to take a slight step backwards this year, while the Thunder and Spurs should remain static. Meanwhile, the Lakers improved vastly, landing two of the best to ever lace them up at their respective positions in Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. And did I mention how the Clippers -- who finished with a better record than the Nuggets did last season -- also made huge moves this summer?
Unfortunately for the Nuggets, the West is brutal. While Denver will be greatly improved this season, almost everybody else in the conference will be, too. As bad as it sounds, Nuggets fans should be anonymously praying for a season-ending injury to one of their Western Conference foe's most talented players if they want the Nuggets to have a real chance at making a deep playoff run come May.
Ever since the infamous Carmelo Anthony trade in February 2011, the Nuggets have quietly accrued one of the best big-man crops in the NBA. But outside of Kenneth Faried, their roles have been relatively undefined. Even after seven full-length preseason games, head coach George Karl is still dubious about how minutes will be distributed to the members of his front-court rotation. Karl says, "There are options and a lot of time in our schedule," adding, "One is probably going to be ahead of the other until someone sells me."
Uncertainty regarding the roles of a team's players is fairly normal heading into the start of a new season. However, the Nuggets have an interesting caveat in the form of JaVale McGee's contract.
After being traded to the Nuggets last year McGee settled into a bench role. He still played the majority of the minutes at center, but came off pine nonetheless. But this past summer, McGee re-signed with the Nuggets for $44 million over four years... and he's still coming off the bench.
The biggest difference between last year and now is a man by the name of Kosta Koufos, who's averaged eight points and nearly nine rebounds in only twenty minutes of action throughout the preseason and is being projected to have a breakout year by members of the national media.
This season, McGee isn't simply going to be handed a majority of the minutes at center by default. He's going to have to earn his keep. And if he can't figure out how to maximize his skill-set while playing sound basketball, the Nuggets will have a $44-million man on the sidelines, which isn't exactly the recipe for small-market success in the NBA.
2. Trade winds.
Since being hired out of nowhere before the start of the 2010-11 NBA season, Nuggets general manager Masai Ujiri has done nothing but improve his roster one savvy move at a time. He was dealt an ostensibly rotten hand only a month after accepting his position with the Nuggets when Carmelo Anthony refused to sign an extension to remain in Denver. Yet he somehow parlayed his crummy situation into jackpot earnings by fleecing the Knicks for every last asset they ever had.
Two years later, Ujiri has entirely recovered from the "Melodrama." Through shrewd maneuvering he now has his own full deck of cards to work with. The only question is: What's next?
The Nuggets roster is completely stacked. The team goes a legitimate two deep at every position -- a rare occurrence in the NBA. Between players like Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari, Andre Iguodala and Kenneth Faried, Denver has the foundation of a potential championship contender. But without a superstar (i.e. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, etc.) to steer the ship, that's all the Nuggets really are -- a foundation.
At some point this season, look for Ujiri to make a move for a star -- not a superstar, but someone who will immediately take the reigns as Denver's best player and turn the Nuggets into a title contender this year.
One name to keep an eye on is the Atlanta Hawks' Josh Smith, who has been rumored to have wanted out of Atlanta for a long time and is in the final year of his contract, just as Carmelo Anthony was two years ago.
1. One and done? Again???
Of the four major sports teams in Denver, none has won on a more consistent basis than the Denver Nuggets have over the last decade. The Broncos, Avalanche and Rockies have all had a number of winning seasons followed by a few impressive playoff runs, but they've also missed the playoffs more often than not, resulting in a top three draft pick at least once. The Nuggets, meanwhile, have made the playoffs nine consecutive seasons, and it doesn't appear the trend is going to stop anytime soon.
This near decade-long streak of playoff appearances is the third longest of its kind currently running in the NBA, behind only the Spurs and Mavericks. The difference between the Nuggets and those two teams? Not only have the Spurs and Mavs advanced past the first round of the playoffs at least seven times each, but they've also made the Conference Finals three times or more, the NBA Finals a minimum of twice, and each has won an NBA title over that span. The Nuggets, on the other hand, have only made it past the first round on one occasion -- 2009, when they went to the Western Conference Finals.
Remove that magical run and the Nuggets have eight straight playoff appearances, followed by eight straight first-round exits. If things don't change this year, that number will increase to nine. That type of postseason failure is rare in sports. Usually you're making the playoffs and winning some games here and there or missing them entirely. But not the Nuggets. They've found a way to do just enough in order to declare their season a success without really achieving anything significant in the end.
At some point, first-round exits will not cut it. Eventually, the Nuggets' standards will be raised to the next level. Over the course of the last decade, Denver has been transformed from the laughingstock of the NBA to one of the most successful franchises in the league. Now, the time has arrived to raise the bar even higher. The talent is there; it just needs to evolve. If the Nuggets can finally overcome this first-round hump, it will be one of the most exciting story lines to unfold for the Denver Nuggets in quite some time.
More from our Sports archive: "Andre Iguodala trade improves the Nuggets -- and makes the Lakers even better."