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What the Nuggets should do when the lockout ends…

Sep 16, 2011, 12:19 PM EDT

Nuggets guard Smith celebrates a three-point shot in their NBA basketball game against the Timberwolves in Denver

This is the next installment of PBT’s series of “What your team should do when the lockout ends.” Today it’s the Denver Nuggets. You can also read up on the LakersTimberwolves and Mavericks as we start to work our way through all 30 NBA teams.

 

Last Season: Well that was no fun, then it was kind of fun, then it was not fun, again. The Nuggets finished 50-32 which is close to a freaking miracle considering everything they went through. The first half of the season was hijacked by the Melo trade drama, and the second half was spent trying to figure out an abundance of talent without a superstar. It finished with a disappointing loss to the Thunder in which Oklahoma City ran out to a big series lead and never really looked back. It was supposed to be a huge matchup, and instead it felt empty. But the Nuggets should be proud of what they accomplished, and how they stuck together despite all the distractions, and having to figure out what was essentially a whole new team after the trade.

Changes since we last saw the Nuggets: Well, half of them are in China now. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but J.R. Smith, Kenyon Martin, and Wilson Chandler all seem set to head to China without an NBA-out clause. All three are free agents, and their return to Denver was questionable-to-doubtful to begin with. But without them, there are some interesting shifts if they stay in China. Smith’s spot is actually the most expendable. Danilo Gallinari can play shooting guard for certain rotations, and Denver is almost certain to re-sign Aaron Afflalo, one of the most efficient shooters in the league, from restricted free agency. Chandler’s minutes will be soaked up by Galinari and Al Harrington if the Nuggets go big, and Harrington likewise would take the minutes of Kenyon Martin. Harrington was God-awful-to-hey-pretty-good last season (there was a lot of variation within the Nuggets season if you can’t tell). The Nuggets also tinkered a bit at the draft, trading Raymond Felton for Andre Miller and a pick which became Jordan Hamilton to go along with Kenneth Faried. The big question will be Nene who will be an unrestricted free agent. Will he return to Denver or go chase a ring? Will the Nuggets have enough room under the new cap? Will we continue to ask annoying theoretical rhetoricals?

When the lockout ends, the Nuggets need to: Spend a year evaluating. If they re-sign Nene, their window is decidedly smaller, and they need to shift accordingly. But next year’s team will be driven to discover if Ty Lawson is ready to become a star in this league, if Danilo Gallinari is ready for another step forward, if George Karl can pull a young team together and make it greater than the sum of its parts without a true superstar, and what Masai Ujiri will do with the flexibility and assets afforded him. They’re not a young team all over, they’re not a veteran team all over, but they are an exceedingly talented team all over. The future’s bright for the Nuggets, but they have to hit the ground running.

They’ve got depth, with Andre Miller backing up Lawson, Gallinari’s versatility at positions, Al Harrington as a bench scorer, rookies who can contribute immediately, and capable defenders like Chris Anderson (or at least guys that can foul). But if Nene doesn’t re-sign, everything changes. They will have a gaping hole at center they’ll have to address, and the drop-off will be significant. How they’ll hande that will determine whether next season is a rebuilding year for Denver or a continuation of trying to make lightning in a bottle come together for an unlikely championship run.

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