He doesn’t even know The Manimal’s real name; he only knows that he likes him. But for most of the season, my brother-in-law, would give him the same, pat answer: “We’d better see if he’s going to be a Nugget for much longer.”
Buy the jersey now, dad; Kenneth Faried is here to stay – or at least he should be.
Faried makes up exactly one-fourth of the current Nuggets I’d like to see in Denver next year. That doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t want to see any of the others, but largely, I’m indifferent about the makeup of the Nuggets as they currently exist. Aside from “my four,” the Nuggets are the quintessential group of “just guys” – as in, they’re just a bunch of guys – not bad, not good, not anything.
With just two games remaining in the 2013-14 season, here is the foundation of this franchise in the process of rebuilding as I see (and, by the way, in this order).
Kenneth Faried – The aforementioned Manimal is, by and large, the only true fan-favorite on the current roster. His style of play is infectious. He is Chris Andersen with more tenacity, and Faried is no sideshow. The biggest knock on Faried coming out of college – and to some extent, coming into this year – was that he couldn’t create (or make) his own shot. That’s a notion of past. Now, at the conclusion of his third season as a pro, Faried has legitimate touch around the basket. He’s developed a signature move – call it a “power baby hook” – that can get him a good look at any time (see Golden State a week ago). Faried has averaged 20.25 points during the last 20 games of the season. Pair that with 11.3 rebounds during the same timeframe and you’ve got a double-double machine. He’ll always get the bulk of his points from being active, and the offense will likely never go “through” Faried, but the difference now is that the offense can go through him when necessary.
Timofey Mozgov – The second most-important pillar, you ask? That’s correct. Mozgov should be considered a necessary building block of the franchise at this point. That doesn’t mean he’s the second-best player – that’s not the case – but he is vital. During the past 13 games of the season, a sample size that reflects the Nuggets center situation without J.J. Hickson, who went out with a season-ending knee injury, Mozgov has been excellent. With consistency in terms of his role during that span, the big Russian has averaged 12.9 points and 12.9 rebounds. In truth, the last 13 games are the only 13 games in his entire career where Mozgov has been asked to carry the load as his team’s five. Translation? Nobody has ever really seen what Mozgov is capable of when given the chance, until right now. When playing a consistent role, Mozgov posted numbers in line with some of the league’s better big men (see Marc Gasol 15.7/7.8; Roy Hibbert 10.8/6.6; Andrew Bogut 7.3/10.0). Mozgov’s defense has improved and his play can be consistent when given the opportunity. In the modern NBA, a dominant, scoring big man isn’t a must. Good teams can survive without the likes of Shaquille O’Neal or Hakeem Olajuwon – they just have to have a competent big man who takes up a lot of space, having the the size and strength to play physical, playoff basketball. Mozgov can do that.
Ty Lawson – Without question, Lawson’s injury-plagued season was frustrating. At times, he looked like the superstar he should be. One of Brian Shaw’s biggest pushes going into the season was to get the most out of his best player. The coach was in the process of being successful, but injuries continuously threw the train off the tracks. Lawson is not one of the NBA’s elite yet, but he unquestionably has the ability to take over a game. One more (healthy) year with Shaw and I believe Lawson becomes the player he’s meant to be.
Evan Fournier – At 21 years of age and still with a relatively low number of NBA minutes played, Fournier is still somewhat of a project. But he can play – that’s been proven over the last month or so of the season. Like Mozgov, Fournier has never been given a truly consistent role. Fournier played 20 minutes or more in 33 different games. In 11 of them, he failed to reach the double-digit mark in scoring. On the season, he averaged just under 20 minutes per game, posting 8.3 points, 1.5 assists and a respectable 4.8 rebounds. He can certainly work on his defense, but he’s proven strong enough physically to play with the NBA’s bigger guards on both ends of the floor. What I like most about Fournier, however, is that he plays fearlessly. Like a lot of great scorers, he’s got little to no conscience regardless of the night he’s having. In the NBA, “upside” is a grossly overrated term, but in Fournier’s case – at just 21 years old – he’s still got some. And if I’m starting the Nuggets from scratch, I’m rolling the dice with the Frenchman.
And that’s it. Those are my four.
But, Ottewill, you need five to play, right? Correct, but that’s just my foundation. The rest? Just guys. Guys who are a dime a dozen. Guys who can be replaced. Guys who might very well be back, playing a nice role for Denver. But guys who aren’t a necessity by any means.
What about the glaring omissions? Danillo Galinari and JaVale McGee?
Sure. Either guy could be the best player in a Nuggets uniform next season, so I’m not suggesting that the Nuggets should trade them. But, if the interest surfaces, I’m not opposed to it either.
Let me ask you this: How confident are you in either player’s ability to return to form?
Ask the Chicago Bulls how they felt, or are feeling, about Derrick Rose. That’s about where I’m at with Gallinari. He could be a fantastic player if and when he returns – and other teams know that. But will he return healthy? That’s the $42 million question. Perhaps a team that’s on the cusp of an NBA title run (hint: that’s not Denver at the moment) would gamble that Gallinari is their missing piece. Perhaps not. Either way, Gallo is an interesting part of the Nuggets equation. He may not even be available to the Nuggets until the season is underway next fall. He may be excellent. He may be a question mark – nobody is certain. I’d be thrilled to have a healthy Gallinari back for the 2014-15 season, but I also wouldn’t be devastated (or shocked) if Tim Connelly is able to trade him for significant value. Only time will tell.
And McGee? I’ll ask this question: Do you believe McGee has the same work ethic as former Nuggets forward Kenyon Martin? Remember that it was Martin who suffered not one, but two, microfracture injuries, which is the same situation currently plaguing McGee. According to multiple team sources, Martin worked his tail off to overcome those injuries. And according to those same sources, that’s the only way to get past microfracture problems. Will McGee work that hard? I’m not sold on that. In fact, I’m not sold on the “work” he did last offseason, when he was expected to enter this year with a golden opportunity. Heck, whether or not I was sold doesn’t matter – Shaw wasn’t sold. In the five games that McGee played under the new regime, he averaged a paltry 15.8 minutes per game – that’s 2.3 fewer than he averaged under George Karl, who allegedly wasn’t allowing McGee’s game to blossom.
With two games remaining on the docket, the Nuggets are in unfamiliar territory. For the first time in 10 years, they’ve lost their identity and are in – or at least very close to – rebuilding mode.
The trick for Connelly and Co. will be not falling in love with the current roster. There are some excellent building blocks, but with fewer than 40 wins, the roster is made of a lot of “just guys.” The offseason should be interesting if nothing else.
Doug Ottewill is the Editor-In-Chief of Mile High Sports Magazine. He can be followed on Twitter @dottewill.