Last offseason, the Denver Nuggets lost their best defender (Andre Iguodala), and bought in three players with historically poor defense (Randy Foye, Nate Robinson and J.J. Hickson). The best defensive player they brought in, Darrell Arthur, was brought in at the expense of Kosta Koufos, a better defender, and indeed a better all-around player. After losing Masai Ujiri and replacing George Karl with the supposedly defensively orientated Brian Shaw, it appeared Denver were moving away from Karl's unique, high scoring slashing style towards a unit predicated on halfcourt defense. But then the players brought in did not fit this.
It is perhaps no surprise, then, that the roster is a confused and jumbled one. Not helped at all by the injury to Danilo Gallinari that has cost him the entire season, nor the injury to JaVale McGee that looks to have cost him all but 79 minutes of play, the Nuggets have struggled to find a rhythm on either end. They have endured occasional hot streaks and significant skids on the way to a record that sees them currently four games under .500 yet many, many games out of the playoff picture, a perfect representation of their helter-skelter season to date. This is a transitional period, and transitional periods generally mean buying and selling. Yet even with that in mind, the task is greater than anticipated. The Nuggets have both a lot to trade and a lot of needs.
Denver is one of the better jumpshooting teams in the league, hitting 36% from that range. However streaky they may be, Robinson shot 38% from three before his season ending ACL injury, and Foye 36%, while Evan Fournier is in the midst of a transition from slasher who cannot shoot into shooter who will not slash, shooting 40% on the three point shots which now make up more than half of his overall attempts. Denver arguably take too many jumpshots, and certainly too many contested ones, yet considering their strengths at it, the outside shot is becoming an identity.
The improved floor game and penetrate-and-kick offense of Ty Lawson is partly why. Lawson is essentially charged with running the Nuggets offense single handedly - the injuries to Robinson and Andre Miller, and Miller's continued decline, have left the Nuggets so short of creators outside of Lawson that even Evan Fournier has had to take a turn at point guard. Miller wants out, and will surely be moved at the deadline, albeit perhaps for cents on the dollar. (Two seasons ago, the Nuggets had multiple offers of a first round pick for Miller, yet declined them in favour of keeping him to help with a playoff push. The offers surely will not be that good again.)
Any deal with Miller will nevertheless worsen what is already a problem for the Nuggets, namely the reliance on Lawson, who is performing admirably in this excessively large role but who just has not the talent to be the sole playmaker and a primary scoring option for 40 minutes a night. Lawson struggles with his consistency at times, surely a by-product of being such a defensive focus. For all the good role players Denver have, they need stars to play roles next to. And if they cannot get them, they need to reposition so that they can get them in the future.
The transitional period Denver is in is further evidenced by how much everybody plays. Assisted by injury, Denver nevertheless sees all 12 healthy players get a decent amount of floor time, even down to Quincy Miller’s 11.8 minutes per game. The change in philosophy, though, has not seen much of an improvement in the defense, which remains a big concern for the Nuggets and a problem for many of their best players. The productive but ultimately underwhelming J.J. Hickson is a poor post defender and perimeter switcher, despite his athleticism, as is Kenneth Faried. Both are regularly exposed on the pick and roll - Hickson constantly looks like he wants to be out there far too much and overexposes himself, while Faried would rather not be there and lets himself be burned. The post defense from the two is similarly underwhelming when physical tools suggest that it really ought not be.
Hickson's rebounding numbers are as consistently high as ever, as are Faried's per minute, yet Hickson's penchant for getting the easy ones and not getting the difficult ones clouds this issue. Behind them, the little used Anthony Randolph continues his career-long trend for mixing up impressive athletic plays with long disappearing stretches bury him down the rotation, talented but unreliable. Arthur and the breaking-out Mozgov are therefore charged to provide all the interior defense, yet due in part to Arthur's startling offensive inefficiency (almost exclusively taking mid-range jumpers these days, shooting only 39% from the field and never getting to the foul line), Shaw prefers to trust Hickson at the center spot in crunch time due to his offensive capabilities.
He and Faried – who has a knack for getting open off cuts for drop-off passes –certainly produce in their own ways. But the rise of Mozgov has, or should, render one of them obsolete as a pairing. Faried seems the more likely candidate, although his trade value is none too high at the moment.
In the backcourt, the Lawson and Foye pairing is so small as to be easy enough to shoot over, or hung up on any screen, while Wilson Chandler has somehow earned a reputation as a defender that he does not seem to earn. Chandler is certainly a solid two-way role player for a competitive price, yet he excels at no one facet. In light of the nature of the Nuggets roster, this makes him a valid trade candidate by default – whilst every team needs quality role players at market value prices, Denver might be the team in the league that needs them the least. All the niceties on the team rather make them moribund.
Denver has rather choked up their own salary flexibility with these players. Only Jordan Hamilton, a streaky shooter on whom they have perhaps given up too early, will certainly be a free agent this season - Arthur and Robinson have player options, while the two Millers are both sporting unguaranteed contracts. There are no albatross or unduly bad contracts - rather, Denver's salary picture reflects their on-court picture, with plenty of useful pieces, but nothing substantive, too much superfluousness.
Ultimately, Denver still needs the rebrand and the big infusion of talent that they needed when winning 57 games under George Karl. Lawson is the team's best player, but this is not necessarily a good thing - as good as he is offensively, Lawson is not nearly as effective defensively, and is still prone to disappearing. There exists no obvious chance of star power developing from within the roster - Fournier, Quincy Miller and perhaps Jordan Hamilton have the ability to develop into "nice" players, yet this is something of which the Nuggets have long had an abundance.
The Karl-era Nuggets did not so much underachieve with their playoff record as overachieve with their regular season ones, and the current Nuggets roster is in no danger of doing so again. Out of the playoff picture and short of flexibility going forward, Denver is barely one step along the reloading process.
It was already known this was to be a transitional era, yet the job has barely begun. Denver, then, surely must be active in the market.