Party like it’s 1859

This is the face of a man determined to win

The best shooting guard in the division plays in Denver – and he’s going to lead his team to 55 wins.

No, it’s not James Harden and his magical beard. It’s not Wesley Matthews and his touch from outside the arc. It’s not Gordon Hayward and his “aw-shucks” demeanor.

It’s Andre Iguodala, and his addition to the fleet of foot Denver Nuggets squad is going to earn the Nuggets the top spot in the Northwest Division.

This is the face of a man determined to win

Offseason Moves

Well, let’s start by the biggest move – signing Anthony Randolph to a 3-year, $5.25 million contract.

I’m kidding of course.

Acquiring Andre Iguodala from Philadelphia in a four-team blockbuster was the biggest trade by far of the summer – even bigger than Steve Nash to Los Angeles. While Nuggets fans bemoan the loss of Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington, the coaching staff and front office couldn’t be happier to welcome in the athletic, gold-medal winning, Iguodala. His combination of ballhandling, court vision and defense is expected to help keep the Nuggets on pace as one of the top regular season teams and then give them the necessary push to escape the first round of the playoffs and contend for a title.

Critics of the trade point to Iguodala’s inability to deliver when the game is winding down and the clock approaches zero, as well as his tendency to take jump shots – a shot he went to 81% of the time last year.

The numbers suggest that while Iguodala was mainly a jump shooter in the Philadelphia offense, he will repent of his ways and his shot-locations will improve in the Nuggets system. Iguodala wasn’t the only 76er to resort to jump shots – his 81% rate for jumpers wasn’t even the top percentage on his team! Lou Williams, Elton Brand, AND Jodie Meeks – who each played more than 50% of the available minutes last season – all had higher percentages of shots outside the paint than Iguodala. This suggests that although Iguodala was shooting jumpers at a high rate, most of the players on his team were being told to do the very same thing.

Now that Iguodala is in Denver, he will be asked to lower that number. Denver took an average of 17.6 shots from 10-23 feet last season – one of the lowest numbers in the league. In comparison, Philadelphia put up 36.3 shots from that distance per game – a difference of nearly 20 attempts! Is Iguodala going to shoot 20 times from inside the 3-point line and outside the paint? No, and he may not even take 15 (his career average is 11.6).

What Iguodala will do for Denver is provide another facilitator to the Denver offense. In an offense that will feature more than 50% dribble drive, as taught to the players by Vance Walberg and George Karl, Iguodala will be able to cut to the rim (an effective shot) or kick out to Danilo Gallinari or Ty Lawson on the perimeter or lob the ball up for Kenneth Faried or JaVale McGee. In case you were wondering, Iguodala can drive to the rim and finish.

Going back to Randolph, he was signed to provide depth behind Kenneth Faried. Randolph has been an inconsistent player for most of his career, and for this reason, I believe power forward is the weakest link in the Denver lineup. There is evidence that will show that George Karl will push for a small-ball rotation where Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari may play the four, but if injury befalls the Manimal, Denver will be a poor rebounding squad.

The second big name to sign with Denver is JaVale McGee. McGee may be the biggest question on the Nuggets roster. While he has shown the ability to dominate on the court – see the playoff series against Los Angeles – he has also shown a total lack of ability to perform well – see the playoff series against Los Angeles. Which McGee will show up?

I believe that George Karl will decide to bring McGee off the bench for a majority of the games during the first half of the season. Karl has spoken about how he prefers McGee playing alongside Andre Miller, who is a better passer than Ty Lawson. With time, I project that McGee will wrinkle out some of the inconsistencies in his game, and that the Nuggets coaching staff will put him on the path to being one of the top five centers in the league by 2014.

The Nuggets did draft two players, a young shooting guard from France, Evan Fournier, and a tall lanky small forward in Quincy Miller. George Karl doesn’t play rookies often, and with the plethora of players at the 2 and 3 already in Denver, these two rookies will only see the court in garbage time.

Outlook for 2013

Any concern over the Nuggets offense is nonsense. The Nuggets had a top offense last season – first in points per game, first in points in the paint, first in assists per game, and third in offensive efficiency. They managed to do that without Nene, Gallinari, or Wilson Chandler for a majority of those games. The offense, led by Ty Lawson and Andre Miller, is going to score. The question is if they can score enough points in the first 43 minutes so that the game isn’t close with less than five minutes left.

One possibility? Giving the ball to Ty Lawson when the game is on the line and letting his teammates get out of the way. Lawson is the best 3-point shooter on the roster, has the ability to get into the lane, and if his options run out, can kick the ball out for an open shot. Is it better to have your best player shoot when double-teamed or is it better to take a heavily contested shot? While the answer may come seconds after the ball passes through the net – or the sound of the ball hitting iron – the Nuggets will be able to provide more data to reach that conclusion.

While expecting Iguodala to instantaneously transform the worst 3-point defending team in the league – the Nuggets gave up a 37.8% mark – into the sixth best – what Philadelphia was last season – is a little rash, it can be expected that the Nuggets will improve. Kenneth Faried should improve his ability to defend at an NBA level, and a healthy Wilson Chandler should help Iguodala chase down shooters on the outside. The Nuggets rely on jumping passing lanes to get steals, which occasionally leads to easy baskets, but of all the teams that were ranked in the bottom five of opponent 3-point percentage, the Nuggets seem the most likely to move up into the teens.

Coach Karl will also need to figure out a way to manage his rotation. An impressive player in the preseason has been two wings who had small roles on the team in 2012 – Corey Brewer and Jordan Hamilton. Brewer and Hamilton have shot 50% from behind the arc, both going 6-12, with J-Ham playing in two games while Brewer has seen time in each game. While Brewer brings a huge energy boost off the bench, Hamilton is showing an ability to score and limit turnovers. The Nuggets, with Afflalo absent, are in need of a 3-point specialist, and Hamilton, in his second year, may be the answer to that problem. The Nuggets, although an athletic bunch, struggle to shoot the ball from distance, but Hamilton looks like he could be a talented scorer off the bench.

While there will be many questions of which players start for Denver, the most important question for Denver is who will be finishing? Depending on the situation, fans will see different lineups. The best projected lineup I could find, with a good mix of defense and offense, is this: Ty Lawson, Andre Iguodala, Wilson Chandler, 4 Danilo Gallinariand 5 Kosta Koufos. No Andre Miller, no Kenneth Faried, and no JaVale McGee. Iguodala, Chandler, and Koufos are solid defenders, Gallinari helps space the floor, and Lawson can attack the basket. While this “small ball” lineup features Gallinari playing power forward, the numbers show a minimal drop-off in production when he moves down into the post. Additionally, with the support from Chandler and Iguodala, Gallinari should be able to get a little help from his friends as he attempts to defend some excellent power forwards in the division (Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Paul Millsap). If JVMG is able to learn how to stay with his man and not give up offensive rebounds, he should replace Koufos, due to his ability to block shots and retrieve missed field goals on offense.

Season Prediction

I said earlier that I think the Nuggets can be the top team in the division. While I’m not alone in that projection, the path there will be very difficult. Gallinari will need to contribute at an All-star level again, similar to the beginning of the 2011-12 season. Ty Lawson will need to be more effective shooting the ball at the rim and behind the arc. The first month only has five home games, coming against Detroit, Utah, Miami, Golden State and New Orleans. The second month has five home games, coming against Toronto, Memphis, San Antonio, Charlotte and the Lakers. Denver could easily be 5-5 at home two months into the season! The other side of the coin, however, is 16 road games in the final four months of the season. If the Nuggets can play .500 ball through the first two months, they will be primed to make a strong run in the second half of the season towards the playoffs. This remarkably new team has new faces at many positions, and will need time to adjust to playing together. While the preseason and training camp will help cohesion, the Nuggets will need to try to bond over the many days spent on the road during November and December to grow accustomed to the new team.

The Nuggets may also be involved in trade rumors. Masai Ujiri has shown that he is not afraid to shake things up, dealing long-time Nugget Nene to Washington for McGee just before the trade deadline and acquiring Iguodala over the summer. Look for the Nuggets to be attached to rumors for Rudy Gay, Josh Smith, and Anderson Varejao, three players whose names always seem to be swirling around the rumor mill. The Nuggets have an attractive trade chip in Wilson Chandler, as well as the expiring contracts of Corey Brewer and Timofey Mozgov.

The Nuggets will try to extend Ty Lawson, who should get Mike Conley type money as his rookie contract comes to a close. He’s worth the money, and should provide an excellent return on the investment after he decides to take the extra money and guaranteed years that Denver can offer him. Timofey Mozgov may be phased out or he may be the starter – with George Karl, one can never be too certain.

Final record? 55-27, with the top seed in the northwest division and the third seed in the Western Conference, behind San Antonio and the Los Angeles Lakers.