(SportsNetwork.com) - Last season for the Denver Nuggets was derailed by injuries and they were left out of the postseason for the first in a decade.
With some healthy bodies back and a few fresh faces in the Rocky Mountains, the Nuggets are hoping to ride high in 2014-15.
The Nuggets had lofty expectations for last season after a 57-win campaign the one before. However, center JaVale McGee played in only five games, small forward Danilo Gallinari didn't play at all and top point guard Ty Lawson missed 20 games. Guard Nate Robinson and forwards J.J. Hickson and Wilson Chandler were dealt with injuries as well.
Denver's decimated roster put first-year head coach Brian Shaw in a tough predicament and at times he appeared to have lost the locker room. Lawson said Shaw didn't have a full team with people down and his coach wasn't sure who would be healthy enough to play on any given night. But Lawson feels Shaw will have a gauge on what the Nuggets will see on a regular basis with everyone healthy.
"I'm just really looking forward to the depth that this team will have with everybody healthy and available to play," Shaw said. "We're hopeful that by the first game of the season (10/29 vs. Detroit) that we'll have everybody available and ready to go."
McGee said it was unfair for Shaw to have to deal with all the issues last season and feels this season will be a test for the coach and the players to compete at a high level. The Nuggets weren't overly active in free agency, but guard Arron Afflalo is back in the fold and the team can finally see what a deep roster can do.
Adding Afflalo to play alongside Lawson and the one known as "Manimal" (Kenneth Faried) should easily improve the offense. The Nuggets acquired Afflalo from Orlando in exchange for guard Evan Fournier and a draft pick, and he played for the Nuggets from 2009-2012 before being traded to the Magic.
Afflalo is coming off a career season in which he averaged 18.2 points, 3.6 rebounds and 3.4 assists in 73 games.
Lawson averaged 17.6 points and 8.8 assists in only 62 games last season, while Faried (13.7 ppg), Chandler (13.6 ppg) and guard Randy Foye (13.2 ppg) rounded out the other tops scorers. In order to compete in a Northwest Division with powerhouse Oklahoma City and rising Portland, the Nuggets must stay out of the trainer's room and perform consistently.
For how injury stricken and inconsistent the Nuggets performed last season, they were still battling toward the end. This campaign could be the same story as far as missing out on the playoffs in a loaded Western Conference.
"I believe in us ... a lot of other people probably don't," Robinson said. "Last year was disappointing just because we had so many injuries and we still we're right there in the hunt. I really believe that this year's going to be an extremely challenging year but it's going to be fun and we're going to shock a lot of people."
2013-14 Results: 36-46, 4th in Northwest, Missed playoffs
ADDITIONS: G Arron Afflalo, G/F Alonzo Gee, G Gary Harris, G Erick Green, C Jusuf Nurkic
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:
PG- Ty Lawson SG- Arron Afflalo SF- Danilo Gallinari PF- Kenneth Faried C - JaVale McGee
KEY RESERVES: G/F Alonzo Gee, C Timofey Mozgov, PF J.J. Hickson, SF Wilson Chandler, G Randy Foye, G Gary Harris, G Nate Robinson, F Darrell Arthur
FRONTCOURT: Will this be the year Faried emerges on an All-Star level? He had a terrific summer winning a gold medal with Team USA in the FIBA World Cup and averaged 13.7 points and 8.6 rebounds. Faried is highly energetic and plays well on defense. He recently signed a contract extension worth a reported $50 million over four years, proving that the Nuggets are committed to one of their best players.
"We value the energy and excitement that Kenneth brings night-in and night-out and we are thrilled to have reached an agreement on a contract extension," said Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly. "We are truly looking forward to watching Kenneth continue to grow as a player and leader for the Denver Nuggets."
The Nuggets hope Faried, who averaged 18.8 points and 10.1 rebounds in the second half of last season, can carry his productive summer into a long season and push the team to another level. That is a strong possibility with McGee back at center. An inside presence on both ends of the floor, McGee will make Faried a much better player as long as he stays healthy. McGee's rebounding can improve, but his shot blocking is always a problem for opponents.
Perhaps the biggest "addition" to Denver's roster is the healthy return of Gallinari. Gallinari needed two surgeries to repair his knee and said during media day he feels strong. The only issue for him is gaining back the confidence he once had in the knee. A scorer from all areas of the floor and great in transition, Gallinari hooking up with Lawson again brings back promising memories.
"The knee is stronger than before. Once you come back from the injury, the mental part is the one that you have to recover from," Gallinari said.
Gallinari has the potential to average 20 points a night, something he has come close to once in his career (16.2 ppg in 2012-13). Mix in similar results for Lawson and the Nuggets have a legitimate chance to crack the top eight in the West.
BACKCOURT: Like Faried, Lawson is trying to become an All-Star. He has the ability to do that as long as he stays on the floor. Lawson has played more than 70 games only once in the past three years. He is one of the top point guards in the conference behind the likes of Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. Those players will most likely keep him from making an All-Star squad.
Lawson is a creator in transition and should have an easier time this season with Gallinari and Afflalo to work with. Afflalo is a key piece to this Denver backcourt and brings veteran leadership to the locker room. He ran the floor quite well with the Magic, which is why the Nuggets acquired his services and gave up on Fournier. He will only help Lawson maximize his ability.
BENCH: With many players walking without a limp, the Nuggets' bench should be one of the deepest and most talented in the NBA. Just take a look at the reserves: Robinson, Chandler, Darrell Arthur, Foye, Timofey Mozgov, Hickson and Alonzo Gee. As long as the players understand and buy in on Shaw's coaching technique, Denver's reserves could lead the league in points.
Most of the reserves could start somewhere else, especially Foye with his 3- point shooting. The well-traveled Villanova product made 38.0 percent of his 3-point shots last season and has buried that many in each of the past three seasons. Foye averaged 13.2 points in 81 games in 2013-14.
Robinson is another guard who can find a rhythm and carry the team. He is confident the Nuggets will get it together and make a run toward the playoffs, and sometimes gets an itchy trigger finger. Chandler, Hickson and Mozgov are all vital pieces to the bench's frontcourt.
Denver's bench outscored opponents in 53 of its 82 games last season and scored 50-or-more points 15 times (10-5 in those games). Finding minutes for the reserves will be another task for Shaw.
COACHING: This should actually be considered Shaw's first season as head coach and deserves a mulligan for 2013-14. He will have his work cut out for him in trying to develop chemistry and finding the right rotations with added depth. As previously stated, getting minutes doled out fairly is another task. And so is improving the half-court game.
Shaw won't be shorthanded like he was last season. That will help in his approach to running teams out of the arena by using pace and energy. If only he could intravenously use some of Faried's energy and inject it into the rest of the team. Denver should be better on both ends with Gallinari scoring and McGee inside.
The Nuggets, and Shaw's job, will be in trouble if injuries occur again.
OUTLOOK: Defense and staying healthy are key to Denver's chances of making a run to the playoffs. Odds are the Nuggets will make it as high as the 10th seed due to the fact they play in a jumbled Western Conference. All the pieces have to fall in place in order for the success rate to climb in Denver and that means everyone has to be on the same page. The Nuggets are optimistic and convinced that with a healthy squad good things will come.
It only took Dallas 49 wins last season to capture the eighth spot, so anything's possible. Even if the Nuggets squeak into the playoffs, it will be difficult to move on, thus bringing more optimism for 2015-16.