Time to let the young guns loose

The Denver Nuggets shouldn’t stop trying to win games. The thought of tanking is taboo in and around the Pepsi Center.

But despite the Denver’s impressive 114-85 win over the Memphis Grizzlies Saturday, a playoff berth is looking more and more elusive, and it’s probably past time the Nuggets took a different approach to rest of their season. Building for the future is all that makes sense at this point, because the present offers only the faint hope of playoff contention.

That means giving the young players on the roster free reign, regardless of the consequences. Denver has three rookies – Jusuf Nurkic, Gary Harris, and Erick Green – who have, at different times this season, shown promise. At this stage of the year, combined with the team’s record, that’s more than enough to earn them more time on the court.

That’s easier said than done of course. The Nuggets have plenty of veterans on the roster, and head coach Brian Shaw’s already had a hell of a time balancing the rotation. There’s a distinct possibility that, with the team slipping out of the playoff race, the Nuggets could look to trade some of their veteran assets, which would make freeing up playing time easier. Rumors have already been floating in regard to forward Wilson Chandler, who’s having a great season. Randy Foye, who hasn’t played in over a month, would also look attractive to a team in need of some perimeter shooting and veteran leadership. But he’ll have to prove he’s healthy in order to draw interest, and that means he’ll have to play whenever he comes back from his quad injury.

It’s a tightrope, but one Shaw should be familiar with walking by now. And the time is now to see what the rookies can do with substantial playing time.

Nurkic, at least, seems to have wedged himself into the rotation for the time being. Nurkic has looked good in each of his past three games, and with 11 points and ten rebounds against the Grizzlies is working on two straight double-doubles. He’s got a surprisingly advanced offensive game for someone who would be a sophomore in college right now, although his inexperience still shows – he tried to dribble through three defenders late in the fourth quarter against the Lakers early last week, only to have the ball quickly swiped. Still, the Nuggets have to love what they’ve seen out of him on both ends – he finished with 5 blocks against Memphis, including one in which got MVP-candidate Marc Gasol’s to take notice.

Perhaps just as encouraging was that in 23 minutes against Memphis he recorded only one foul after fouling just once against Chicago. Nurkic has been foul-prone all season, not surprising for a rookie still learning how to position himself in an NBA defense. Holding tough against the Grizzlies strong front-court was a promising step in the right direction. According to Shaw, if he keeps playing defense that way, he’ll become an even bigger part of the team’s game-plan.

“When he came in the game he was very, very physical, very focused. I think he finished the game with zero fouls, which is a miracle in itself. I’ve said that I like his physicality, I like his fearlessness,” said Shaw after Saturday’s win. “I think he’s starting to become a fan favorite because of the way he plays the game. He got more minutes tonight because he was able to stay on the floor without fouling. If he can do that he can play more minutes.”

Nurkic may be having the biggest impact on the floor, but Harris too has seen a bump in minutes over the team’s past couple games – partly due to Foye’s continued absence, and partly because Shaw has been searching for someone to give the team quality minutes off the bench. Harris still learning the difference between a shot that comes from the natural flow of the offense and one that doesn’t, although with Denver’s offense it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference. Still, his defensive tenacity is something the Nuggets need more of, and with more playing time, it stands to reason that his shot selection will improve. Combined with the production of Nurkic, the Nuggets look like they’ve gotten the best of their draft night trade with Chicago in which they shipped off the rights to Doug McDermott.

Green, unfortunately, hasn’t seen as much court time, a byproduct of the team’s crowded roster. He’s probably the biggest unknown among the team’s rookies right now, but it’s hard to see a reason why Nate Robinson should play over Green. That’s not a knock on Robinson as much as it is an acknowledgment that the Nuggets should see what can Green can do, because no matter how well Robinson plays, he’s unlikely to move the needle (and is a free agent at year’s end).

It’s all about managing expectations. This offseason, in a win-now move, the Nuggets traded away 22-year-old Evan Fournier in order to acquire Arron Afflalo. At the time, Denver thought they would bounce back from a down year, and Afflalo was seen as a savvy acquisition by most people, myself included.

It hasn’t worked out that way. Fournier is setting career highs for a bad Magic team and Afflalo has a player option to return to Denver or become a free agent at the end of the season. The Nuggets might have sacrificed the future for the present.

I don’t point this out to second-guess the move, only to show that Denver tried to make a run at contention and came up short. Now it’s time for the Nuggets to get realistic about where they are as a franchise. While publically they’ve said all the right things about still striving for a playoff berth, it would be much more benefical for the long-term health of the franchise if they let the young guns loose.

And if the team’s chance of getting a top-three lottery pick gets better because of it, nobody would complain.

Zach Marburger is a staff writer for Mile High Sports. He can be reached via email at [email protected] or on Twitter @BurchBurger.

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