There are a lot of really good teams in the Western Conference, which makes it very hard for those second-tier teams — right below the established Thunder, Spurs and Clippers to name a few — to jump up into contending status.
The Denver Nuggets are one of those second-tier teams.
The Nuggets were bad last season in coach Brian Shaw‘s first year at the helm, winning just 36 games and coming in 11th place in the West. Defense (rather a lack of it) did Denver in, as the Nuggets allowed the third most points in the NBA (106.5 ppg). They were ninth in scoring, but when you give up as many points as they did, it is hard to win.
Additionally, injuries to a bunch of top players really limited how good the Nuggets could be and kept them well short of their 11th straight Playoff appearance.
Danilo Gallinari, who averaged 16.2 points in the 2012-13 season, did not play a single game last year due to a debilitating knee injury that required surgery. The former Knick was expected to be one of the best Nuggets, if not the most important one, especially on offense.
Center JaVale McGee was limited to just five games, Nate Robinson to 44 and even starting point guard Ty Lawson missed one-fourth of the season. Injuries are commonplace in the NBA, but Denver suffered them at an absurd rate, most notably with how Gallinari and McGee’s seasons were basically total wash-outs.
Off the bat, as long as injuries do not get out of hand again, multiple crucial players for Denver will be able to be on the court much, much more than they were last year.
Also, Arron Afflalo — who was a Nugget earlier in the decade — came back to Denver in a trade with the Magic for Evan Fournier and a draft pick (56th overall selection Roy Devyn Marble). The move was a coup for general manager Tim Connelly, who got an arguable All-Star for the inconsistent Fournier and a pick.
When you add their good draft — in which they got Michigan State’s Gary Harris, Bosnia’s Jusuf Nurkic and Serbia’s Nikola Jokic — to the mix, the Nuggets look like a pretty talented team.
Kenneth Faried has developed into a defensive star, Ty Lawson is a burgeoning stud and there are young and athletic wing players and big men across the board.
That is why Shaw thinks his team is going to improve a lot in his sophomore season, even on the defensive end. He is still planning on utilizing a fast-paced offense but expects defense to get better for a team that has never been known as a lockdown unit on that side of the ball. The return of Gallinari should not help too much in that regard, but getting McGee back certainly will.
The fact is the Nuggets face a brutal conference to fight through to return to the playoffs. The top West teams are still really good and the conference as a whole is still really deep. It is not going to be easy for Denver, but the team now has all of its best players healthy and ready to go. Those players are just starting to enter their primes.
The issue is if Shaw’s fast offense can mesh with his goal of a solid defense, when those two phrases normally do not go together very well. The players are there, but the health and execution needs to be as well if the Nuggets can be as good as their coach thinks they can be.