The 2014-15 Denver Nuggets look like a legitimate playoff team. Unfortunately, that's something that can be said about all but a handful of franchises in the Western Conference.
The West, as always, is going to be a brutal struggle for any team outside of the San Antonio Spurs/Oklahoma City Thunder/Los Angeles Clippers trio. The Nuggets certainly have a shot at a playoff spot. But it's going to be an uphill climb to say the least, even in a Northwest Division weakened by Kevin Durant's injury.
Before making any predictions, let's take a quick look at Denver's biggest strength, biggest weakness and the one question that could determine if it makes the playoffs.
Biggest Strength: Offensive Versatility
If there's one thing the Nuggets have, it's depth.
Denver is bringing back eight of its top 10 leaders in minutes last year, and it added a rotation staple via trade in Arron Afflalo. On top of that, Danilo Gallinari and JaVale McGee are set to return from injury, and rookies Gary Harris and particularly Jusuf Nurkic have made strong cases for playing time.
Just take a look at the Denver roster. The Nuggets could end up having something like 13 (!!) rotation-caliber players this season. Obviously they won't be running a 13-man rotation, but they will likely explore a lot of different lineup options and should have a great deal of offensive flexibility.
That flexibility will go a long way toward fixing one of the Nuggets' biggest problems last season: half-court offense. Denver did a lot of damage in transition, but only scored at a league-average rate because its offense tended to stall out when the game slowed down.
Until Kenneth Faried started shredding teams in the post late in the year (more on that later), the Nuggets had few offensive options outside of running Ty Lawson or Nate Robinson through strings of pick-and-rolls. And the team's sub-average outside shooting took a lot of punch out of those sets.
That won't be the case this year. Gallinari and Afflalo are both excellent shooters, which in and of itself will give a big boost to Denver's offense. And Afflalo in particular is a terrific all-around offensive player who fits in well with what the Nuggets do.
Head coach Brian Shaw has talked at length about how he wants the Nuggets to play uptempo, inside-out ball, and Afflalo's strong post play should help in that regard.
Last season, Afflalo shot nearly 50 percent on post-ups, one of the top marks in the league per the now-defunct Synergy Sports Technology. Denver's pace of play creates a lot of confusion, particularly in semi-transition, when opponents haven't quite prepared their half-court defense. Afflalo should feast on the mismatches that creates, both in the post and on the wing for quick-trigger threes.
As mentioned earlier, Denver can also play a lot of varied lineups and might have some dynamite small-ball combinations on its hands. Playing Gallinari at the 4 has worked wonderfully in the past, per 82games.com, and the Nuggets could potentially put together lineups with five ball-handlers on the floor—something like Lawson-Afflalo-Wilson Chandler-Gallinari-Faried.
Good luck to any defense that has to face that.
Biggest Weakness: Defense
The Nuggets should have enough firepower to assemble something resembling a top-10 offense. That's not going to happen on the defensive end. Last season, Denver ranked 21st overall in total defense, and improving upon that mark could be difficult.
The Nuggets don't have a single great defender, and, to be honest, they don't have many good ones either. ESPN's real-plus minus system lists just one Nugget in its top 100 defenders (Darrell Arthur at No. 50) and only two more in its top 200 (Timofey Mozgov at No. 101 and Chandler at No. 196). That's bad.
Having Gallinari and McGee back will be helpful. Gallinari is a solid wing defender and McGee, despite all of his flaws, is a talented rim protector who can do stuff like this:
The five guys listed above are far from defensive building blocks, however. And Arthur, the team's best overall defender, is likely to see his minutes slashed now that Gallinari (who will soak up time at the 4) and McGee are available.
Worse still, Afflalo is a big defensive downgrade from Evan Fournier. Afflalo has a reputation for being a strong wing defender, but there's very little evidence to back that up. He's universally panned by advanced plus-minus metrics, and it's been five years since a team was better defensively with him on the floor, per 82games.com.
Internal improvement isn't out of the question. Maybe Faried and McGee grow into more nuanced pick-and-roll defenders or Afflalo ups his defense now that his offensive burden is partially lifted. It could happen. But even in the best-case scenario, this defense tops out at average.
That conclusion wouldn't be so frightening in the Eastern Conference, but the West boasted eight of the league's top 10 offenses last season. The Nuggets will need to score a lot of points to survive.
Biggest Question: Is Kenneth Faried's Offense For Real?
Faried, fresh off a four-year, $50 million extension, enters this season as one of the most intriguing players in the league.
At first glance, the deal looks like a clear overpay, at least through the lens of the current CBA. Faried's production last season hardly warrants over $12 million a year. But a closer look suggests that the Nuggets made a mild gamble that could pay huge dividends down the road.
Over roughly the last third of the 2013-14 season, the injury-wracked Nuggets turned their offense over to Faried, and he rewarded them with outstanding production.
In Denver's final 25 games, Faried averaged 20 points and 11 rebounds on 59 percent true shooting. That's a massive jump from his season averages of 13.7 points and 8.6 rebounds, and over the course of a full season it would put him in elite company among current players.
Faried obviously saw the ball more in those final games (his usage percentage rose six points), but the biggest change was simply how he was used. In April, Grantland's Zach Lowe noted that Faried's post touches nearly doubled after the All-Star break and wrote:
Best of all: Faried is shooting 56 percent on post-ups since the All-Star break. Look at that number again. Among all players who have recorded 75 post-ups this season, or about one per game, just one has shot better than that: Shaun Livingston.
It's unclear if Faried can duplicate that kind of success over the course of a full season, but if he can...watch out. As Lowe pointed out, Faried really only has one move on the low block, a righty hook that he shoots on either side of the basket. It's unorthodox to say the least, but he's terrific at creating space with his body and shooting over taller defenders, as he does against Anthony Davis below.
Defenses will eventually take away that move. But if Faried develops just one more offensive tool—a more polished left hand, a countermove to go along with his righty hook—there's no reason to think he can't sustain last year's post production moving forward.
It will also be interesting to see whether Faried will attempt to expand his game beyond the confines of the paint.
Barely 10 percent of his shots came from outside the paint last season, and even the ones he did take were typically forced attempts late in the shot clock. That makes sense: Faried isn't yet a very good shooter and having him wander away from the basket could negate his tremendous offensive rebounding.
Still, even just the semblance of a jumper would make Faried a scary off-the-bounce threat. He's not a particularly advanced ball-handler, but he's got serious straight-line speed and already had some success putting the ball on the floor last season.
Faried's late-year offensive explosion may have been an aberration, but if it wasn't the Nuggets have stumbled upon a legitimate star and a real weapon in the half court.
The Western Conference is murder. It took 49 wins to reach the postseason last year, and it'll take around that number to get there in 2014-15.
Denver will be competing with a glut of teams for the West's final few playoff spots, but even if everything breaks right for it the postseason is probably out of reach. The Nuggets' offense is going to be very good, but unless they take a mammoth leap forward on that end it won't be enough to prop up their subpar defense.
In the East, the Nuggets would have a legitimate shot at the No. 4 or even No. 3 seed. In reality, snagging the No. 8 seed would be a tremendous accomplishment. That's just life in the West.
Denver is on the rise. But it's not quite there yet.
Predicted Record: 45-37
Predicted Finish in Northwest Division: Third
Predicted Finish in Western Conference: 10th