Flourishing after the trade of superstar Carmelo Anthony, they had posted an NBA franchise-record 57 wins, had both the Coach of the Year and Executive of the Year and were headed into the Western Conference playoffs as the third seed with a glistening 38-3 home record.
It is remarkable how quickly things change in the NBA. The Nuggets were upset in the first round by the Golden State Warriors, and team president Stan Kroenke decided an upheaval was in order. GM Masai Ujiri was allowed to leave for Toronto. Coach George Karl was fired. A string of 10 postseason trips came to an end.
In the two seasons since Ujiri and Karl left, the Nuggets have had zero playoff appearances, three coaches and 98 losses. GM Tim Connelly is in the midst of a complete rebuilding phase under new coach Michael Malone and rookie point guard Emmanuel Mudiay.
There is a growing collection of young talent, draft picks and salary cap space. But until some of the youngsters blossom and the picks become actual players, the Nuggets will be near the bottom of the West.
Here are five things to watch for in the Mile High City this season.
1. The growth of Emmanuel Mudiay
Emmanuel Mudiay slipped to the Nuggets at the seventh pick in this summer’s NBA draft. But make no mistake: The point guard – born in The Congo, raised in Dallas, experienced in China – is a potential superstar.
Along with eventual top-three picks Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell and Jahlil Okafor, Mudiay was considered among the top four prospects in some order for most of last season. I’m still not quite sure how Mudiay fell that low, but the Nuggets were fine with it.
The 19-year-old floor general chose to play professionally in China after high school instead of for Larry Brown at SMU in order to provide for his mother and possibly evade eligibility problems due to the history his high school had with such issues.
He injured his ankle early in his season with the Guangdong Southern Tigers but impressed in the 12 games he played, averaging 18.0 points, 6.3 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 1.6 steals.
A detailed rundown of Mudiay’s game can be found here, but he’s very similar to the Washington’s John Wall when he came out of Kentucky, in strengths, weaknesses and talent level.
Mudiay is truly being thrown into the fire as he will have to face elite point guards such as Stephen Curry, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook on a nightly basis in the Western Conference. He may commit a lot of turnovers and miss several outside shots to start, but look for growth throughout the season as he adjusts to the NBA.
2. Which of the Euro big men are keepers?
It is a bit too early to think about a trade, but the Nuggets have not one, not two but three promising young European big men.
Jusuf Nurkic was a rookie revelation last season, using his gigantic 7-foot, 280-pound frame to protect the rim with great success. The 21-year-old from Bosnia was also a force on the glass, with 12.5 rebounds per 36 minutes. He will need to tone down his aggression as he fouled his opponents 6.8 times in that same span, but great success looks to be headed his way.
Jokic, a 2014 second-round pick, is a 6-11, 250-pound big body from Serbia with finely tuned skills in the Marc Gasol mold. Through five exhibition games, the 20-year-old averaged 12.0 points and 4.8 rebounds in 18.6 minutes on 77.4 percent shooting. He is a super deep sleeper for a spot on the All-Rookie Team.
Lauvergne, on the other hand, is just a banger. The 24-year-old Frenchman has grabbed between eight and 12 rebounds every preseason game so far and is averaging 9.6 caroms in just 24.4 minutes. On offense, Lauvergne is aggressive in the paint and has scored 14.6 points on 61.7 percent shooting. He has looked much more confident than he did last season with the Nuggets.
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Nurkic is currently recovering from surgery for a torn patella tendon and may be out for the start of the season, per the Denver Post’s Chris Dempsey. That should push either Jokic or Lauvergne into the starting lineup and the other into a bigger role off the bench.
We should see a lot of all three guys this season. Hopefully, at least two turn into impact players for the Nuggets.
3. A culture change under Michael Malone
It was super obvious that the Nuggets needed a coaching change after last season. The Brian Shaw/Melvin Hunt era in Denver was an undisputed failure, as the team dropped from 57 wins to 36 in Shaw’s first season to 30 last season amid chaos and confrontation.
The Nuggets seemingly forgot that defense was an important part of winning. Lawson, who landed in alcohol rehab this summer, was the ringleader of a team that wasn’t united and didn’t play like it, either.
Malone, formerly the man on the sideline for the Sacramento Kings, is out to change the team’s culture by emphasizing defense and chemistry. He was accomplishing just that in Sacramento before he was unjustly fired last season. DeMarcus Cousins and Isaiah Thomas are just two of a handful of players who truly like Malone as a coach.
In fact, veteran forward Darrell Arthur said “[Malone’s] whole thing is defense and chemistry.” Malone has gone out of the way to mention defense in seemingly every press conference and has worked hard to get to know all of his players.
Even if the Nuggets aren’t a playoff team, this season will be a success if the squad is on the same page as Malone and shows potential for the future.
4. Danilo Gallinari as the top scoring option
The 27-year-old Italian forward missed the 2013 playoffs, the entire 2013-14 campaign and the first half of last season recovering from a torn ACL and was predictably rusty when he returned. It wasn’t until his 14th contest that he finally shot better than 50 percent from the field.
However, Gallo exploded down the stretch, averaging 22.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists with just 0.8 turnovers in April on a 52.3/46.3/89.3 shooting slash, including a 47-point outburst against Dallas.
After a full offseason to recover, I expect Gallinari to average around 20 points. He is a threat to score from anywhere in the halfcourt – both off the catch or the dribble – and his ballhandling is also superb for a 6-10 small forward. He will be a great perimeter outlet for Mudiay when the speedy rookie guard finds his way into the lane, which will happen a lot.
5. Should the Nuggets tank?
Let’s face it: A LOT would have to go right for the Nuggets to make the playoffs this season. The West is extremely tough, with the postseason floor usually between 45 and 50 wins. On paper, Denver doesn’t have enough talent to get there.
This goes along with the culture change under Malone, but it will be interesting to see if Denver tanks down the stretch of the 2015-16 season. For the Nuggets, that would mean playing the potential-filled young players tons of minutes with a focus on the future instead of just playing the rotation that is best for winning games.
Connelly has stressed that the team will not tank, but it’s a lot easier to say that before the season than in March, when a few extra losses could move you up several slots in the lottery.
The Nuggets could have as many as four first-round picks in the 2016 draft but more likely will have two – Houston’s lottery-protected pick and their own, which they can swap with New York if they choose. (They also have protected picks from Memphis and Portland that are rather unlikely to be conveyed.)
If I am Connelly or Malone, I don’t tank at all. This team is going to get a very juicy draft pick regardless – almost certainly a top-10, where they grabbed Mudiay – and there is no reason to show inconsistency in an all-business mindset just for a slightly better player in the draft.
But we’ll see.