Why JaVale McGee Is Entering a Make-or-Break 2013-14 Season with Denver Nuggets

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 13, 2013

DENVER, CO - MARCH 07:  JaVale McGee #34 of the Denver Nuggets celebrates a play against the Los Angeles Clippers at the Pepsi Center on March 7, 2013 in Denver, Colorado. The Nuggets defeated the Clippers 107-92. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Everyone loves JaVale McGee of the Denver Nuggets.

I mean, each and every one of his tweets gets retweeted! Although I suppose that's what happens when you format your tweets so that all of them appear as you retweeting yourself...

But still, everyone really does love him. 

However, there's a problem. 

Loving McGee is not the same as viewing him as a productive basketball player. Once thought of as the next great center, McGee has steadfastly failed to meet the expectations levied upon him. His career has been a disappointment, showing up on SportsCenter for negative reasons far more often than positive ones and becoming a mainstay on "Shaqtin A Fool" segments. 

Going into the 2013-14 season with the Denver Nuggets, McGee has reached the point at which we can refer to his upcoming campaign as a "make-or-break" one.

This year will determine the rest of his career. 


The Last Chance to Live Up to the Expectations

Does McGee want to become the next Anthony Randolph or the next Roy Hibbert

At this stage of the 7-footer's basketball life, he's met the fork in the road. And, much to the chagrin of Yogi Berra, he can't just take it. He has to choose one route or the other. 

Coming into the NBA, McGee was viewed as the next great developmental big man. Here's part of DraftExpress' scouting report from 2008: 

Rare physical specimen—has an almost unprecedented combination of size, length (7-6), athleticism and fluidity, packed on a frame that should easily be able to fill out nicely. Has excellent hands, runs the floor exceptionally well, and is extremely reactive off his feet. Has an intriguing variety of skills too—the ability to knock down 3-pointers, put the ball on the floor, and execute some incredibly smooth pivot moves in the paint, finishing elegantly off the glass with excellent extension and touch. Gets off the ground impressively and can really be a factor as a shot-blocker or on the offensive glass. A late bloomer who barely played in high school and averaged just 10 minutes a game as a freshman—the sky is clearly the limit on his upside.

Although the next paragraph tempered the expectations by talking about how long it would take him to reach his potential—if he ever did—it was still a glowing report. And that was the majority opinion a half-decade ago. 

The Washington Wizards picked McGee out of Nevada at No. 18, viewing him as a long-term prospect who could eventually become the next great big man in the NBA. After just a few seasons, he was traded to the Nuggets for Nene Hilario, an aging center without much elite upside. 

Think about that for a second. 

The talent-deficient Wizards traded a young big man with remarkable potential for Nene just because they couldn't deal with his antics anymore. He was too frustrating, and a culture change was necessary in the nation's capital. 

With the Nuggets, things didn't go much differently. 

McGee couldn't ever earn George Karl's trust because of his infuriating tendencies and inability to grasp fundamental basketball concepts. Plays like these just didn't help his case:

Now the big man has lost his biggest supporter in the organization: Masai Ujiri.

The general manager was the one who both traded for McGee and signed him to an extravagant four-year, $44 million deal. But now Ujiri is with the Toronto Raptors, and the new regime won't put up with McGee's inconsistency or failure to live up to his lofty potential.  

That, in a nutshell, explains why it's a make-or-break season for McGee. 

He's being granted a starting role, and the Nuggets have to find out whether or not he can thrive in such a big spot, as reported by NBA.com's Jeff Caplan

In a real sense, the transitioning Nuggets, who awarded McGee a $44 million extension last year, chose McGee’s potential over Karl’s success. The revamped front office traded Karl’s favorite starting center, Kosta Koufos, and still doesn’t know if McGee will mesh with starting power forward Kenneth Faried (a Karl concern) or if McGee can thrive playing 30-plus minutes a night.

They just know they’ve got 44 million reasons to find out.

“I’m definitely getting that feeling from the coaches that I’m going to be more of an impact and getting more minutes,” said McGee, who enters his sixth NBA season and second full season in Denver after 3.5 oddball years with Washington. “It’s really up to the coach as to how he wants to use me. It’s up to me to work and everything, and I’m going to do that. So if I work hard and I come prepared and in shape for training camp, there’s nothing that can stop me but the coach.”

Throughout his career, the big man has actually been getting better on a per-minute basis. You can see that reflected in the progression of his per-36-minute numbers and PER since he entered the league. 

The problem is the next graph. 

It's one thing to improve that per-minute efficiency. But it's another thing entirely to do so while playing more minutes. 

There's often a tradeoff between volume and efficiency in the NBA, and we'll get to see how it applies to McGee during the coming season. He must prove that he can play at a similarly high level while actually having more responsibility in the lineup. 

If he can't do that, nothing points toward him staying in a prominent role. With a new head coach and a new general manager, there are no ties to the front office.

He's the only one that has his back. 


The Nuggets Need Him More than Ever

Personal reasons aside, this is also a make-or-break year for McGee because the Nuggets need him more than ever. 

Kosta Koufos is gone, and Rotoworld now lists Timofey Mozgov and Joffrey Lauvergne as the primary backups at center. Quite frankly, I don't expect either of those players to be part of the active 12-man lineup throughout the 2013-14 season. Instead, it's J.J. Hickson who will function as the first center off the bench. 

Denver didn't exactly enjoy the most successful offseason, and the starting lineup is going to have to start creating points for itself now that Andre Iguodala has left for the Golden State Warriors. That means that Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried and McGee will all need to do more. 

For McGee, improving his post play is of paramount importance. 

Denver needs a consistent paint presence in order to maintain balance in their half-court sets and McGee is the best option. According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), he scored only 0.58 points per possession in post-up situations, the No. 161 mark in the league. While it's not the greatest number, it at least makes him a better option than Faried. 

The Morehead State product scored 0.61 points per possession, but he used post-up plays only 5.1 percent of the time, which is well shy of McGee's 17 percent. 

Given McGee's ridiculous wingspan and already lanky frame, his hook shot is just about impossible to block. He can get it over the outstretched fingertips of almost any defender, and he'll need to do so rather often for the Nuggets in 2013-14. 

As shown by Basketball-Reference, McGee made 25 of his 59 hook shots during the 2012-13 season, and he'll have to up both the percentage and volume now that he's in a more prominent role. 

Without more consistent production from the starting center (yes, the starting center), the Nuggets are going to take a major step backward in the difficult Western Conference. Even if the home record doesn't regress to the mean, the level of talent declined and a new head coach is pacing the sidelines.

Everything has to go right, and it all starts with McGee. Scary as the thought may be, he's the barometer by which you can measure Denver's season.

He'll either make it or break it, and the same goes for the overall course of his career.  


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