One year after George Karl led the Denver Nuggets to the third seed in the Western Conference, but to an early playoff exit that ultimately doomed Karl, the team fell flat last season and missed out on post-season play under new coach Brian Shaw.
The Nuggets' recipe in 2013-14 remained largely the same as in past campaigns. That is to say, Denver had little problem scoring (104 points per game) but had major issues with stopping opponents (106 ppg). The loss of Andre Iguodala to the Golden State Warriors hurt a squad that eschews a defensive mentality in favor of a high-octane offense in the Mile High City.
It was no secret that Karl's firing was not well-met with the Denver faithful. Now in his second year, Shaw must deliver wins or fans will be clambering for his removal. He will attempt do so with a roster that has been somewhat revamped for a playoff run. Most importantly, guard Arron Afflalo is back for his second stint with the Nuggets after Denver picked him up from Orlando on a draft day trade that sent Evan Fournier and a later draft pick to the Magic.
Afflalo, a player much in the mold of Iguodala, will bring experience, defensive prowess, and a newly-developed scoring touch to the Mile High City. Alongside Afflalo will be veteran point guard Ty Lawson and slick shooting guard Randy Foye, who led the team in minutes played last season.
Also returning are center JaVale McGee, small forward Danilo Gallinari, and power forwards J.J. Hickson, and Wilson Chandler. Backing up McGee will be either Timofey Mozgov or recently drafted Jusuf Nurkic. However, odds are the 19-year-old Nurkic will remain in Europe for another season or two of experience before making the leap to the NBA, although he is planning on playing for Denver's summer league team in Las Vegas.
Rounding out the rotation will be Nate Robinson, if he returns from injury as expected, and Gary Harris, a rookie draft pick out of Michigan State.
Loose ends for the Nuggets include extending the contract of Kenneth Faried, a wildly popular and talented player who is effective both in the post and in the open court. Without an extension in place, "The Manimal" will seek a huge payday as an unrestricted costless agent next summer. Forward Darrell Arthur also has one year left on his rookie contract, but he might become expendable with the depth Denver has in the post. He could become trade bait for another guard in case Robinson does not recover fully from injury.
The competition in the Western Conference was stiff last season and figures to be even greater with the improvements already made in Golden State and Dallas, and those potentially going to happen in Los Angeles (Clippers and Lakers both), Houston, and Oklahoma City. And of course, San Antonio returns virtually every piece of its championship roster. Winning a playoff spot away from the aforementioned teams, and also the likes of Portland and Phoenix, will be no small task.
Shaw has a year with his charges to set the stage for the 2014-15 campaign. He approaches the summer months and subsequent training camp with optimism.
“In terms of our team, I think we got better yesterday,” Shaw said during a post draft press conference. "In terms of the depth of our team [last season] we wanted to wear them down with the first unit and wear them out with the second unit. We never got an opportunity to get to that because of the injuries. If everybody is healthy and available, then I think we’re good."
These are strong words originating from a team that won just 36 games last season. However, as with all new starts, hope springs eternal. Indeed, this coming fall, the Nuggets will renew their efforts to make a return to the playoffs. Such a trip will go a long way towards keeping the current core of players together for years to come.