Nuggets preview: Denver's place in the NBA's middle ground

USA TODAY Sports

After flirting with contention last season, the Nuggets are likely to fall back in the West's hierarchy in 2013-14, but they still should be pretty good. Are Nuggets fans going to be OK with "pretty good?"

Weird things happened in Denver over the offseason. The reigning Executive of the Year, Masai Ujiri, left for the Raptors due to some combination of compensation and fit. Then Nuggets owner Josh Kroenke sent well-respected veteran coach George Karl packing a year before the end of his contract in order to avoid a lame duck season. (They couldn't reach an extension deal.) To top it off, Andre Iguodala, perhaps Denver's best player, left in free agency for a rival West contender without the Nuggets putting up much of a fight.

The Nuggets, however, are still quite good. With Danilo Gallinari, Ty Lawson, Andre Miller, JaVale McGee, Kenneth Faried, Wilson Chandler and free agents Nate Robinson and Randy Foye, it's a team that will win some games. They also have prospects like Evan Fournier, Jordan Hamilton and Quincy Miller, and added big man depth with J.J. Hickson and Darrell Arthur. It's a talented roster, and it will be led by rookie head coach Brian Shaw, who drew rave reviews as a top assistant under both Phil Jackson and Frank Vogel.

But this isn't a championship roster in all likelihood. Denver finished strong in 2012-13 and ended the season No. 5 in offense and No. 11 in defense, boasting the No. 5 margin of victory in the league at over five points per game. They landed the No. 3 seed in the West, but were blasted out of the postseason by the Warriors. And then, the offseason happened.

Karl showed a keen understanding of how to best use a deep, talented roster, and Shaw will have to catch up quickly unless new GM Tim Connelly sets about reforming it quickly. In free agency, instead of tearing down the structure Ujiri built, Connelly added to it. The Robinson and Foye signings and Arthur trade seemed like moves Ujiri would have done with this squad, too.

The loss of Iguodala is potentially crushing, though. He was not only one of the league's best defenders (Denver was 4.8 points per 100 possessions better on defense when he was on the floor, per NBA.com), but a versatile offensive player who allowed Gallinari and especially Lawson to attack or spot up as they pleased. That's the benefit of Iguodala and a guy like Andre Miller when they share the court with a scoring point guard: pressure is relieved. Now, to get that effect, Shaw will have to use Miller and Lawson together. That's tricky, given the team's poor depth at point guard. An injury to either means long stretches of Foye or Robinson at the position. Both are good, valuable players ... and shooting guards. They are both shooting guards, no matter their height.

So what are we left with? A good team that should probably make the playoffs, maybe easily. (This is, however, the West. Nothing is truly easy.) But few would consider the Nuggets post-Iguodala to be a serious title contender, especially considering that the team that knocked out Denver last year added Iguodala. In addition to the Warriors, the Rockets, Thunder, Clippers and Grizzlies look imposing. And if you can find ways around all of that, the Heat, Pacers, Knicks, Nets and Bulls loom in the East. So, this Nuggets team is in all likelihood not a title contender.

But Connelly isn't breaking up the team, either, despite many of these players having good value. So for the foreseeable future, Denver's going to have one of those good, non-contending teams that get so maligned. Frankly, Denver should be used to this: Karl had this team in this position since 2004, although there were high expectations in Carmelo Anthony's heyday. The question is whether Kroenke, a young and ambitious owner, will remain comfortable with positive records and first- or second-round exits over the next few years, or whether he'll lead an effort to stack up a few draft picks to aim higher.

There's honor (and skill) in being solid consistently. Here's to hoping Denver's OK with that, fans included.

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