Check in anywhere they’re talking NBA and you’re likely to find the same tiresome question: Can the Nuggets contend for a championship with their current roster? For that matter, can any team contend without at least one all-star?
The latest national examination was full of numbers, which is the flavor of our time. We just can’t get enough numbers. Unfortunately, despite a plethora of advanced statistics, the verdict at the end is predictable: Not sure, but probably not.
The mystery is why no one pays any attention to what the team’s architect has to say on the subject. Masai Ujiri might be the only high-level executive of a playoff team in any sport — this would eliminate the Cubs’ Theo Epstein, who has been similarly candid — willing to answer the question in the negative.
“We’re not a contending team,” Ujiri told me recently on KOA. “We know (we’re) the third-youngest team in the NBA, so we have to give it room for growth. And you can’t continue making changes until you kind of know where you are.”
So, no, the Nuggets are not looking to acquire a veteran star at the trading deadline to improve their chances of playing for a championship this year. Rumors were plentiful as teams such as the Lakers and Celtics, loaded with such veterans, struggled early in the season. Was it time for them to rebuild? Would the Nuggets be interested in someone who could draw a double-team, a Pau Gasol or Paul Pierce perhaps?
Even then, the answer was no, but Gasol’s foot injury and the Celtics’ resurrection since Rajon Rondo went down have taken those particular options off the table anyway.
Over the past two years, Ujiri has overhauled much of the roster. There was the blockbuster trade of Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups to the Knicks two years ago, the exchange of Nene for JaVale McGee a year later, and the four-team deal that brought Andre Iguodala to Denver last summer.
All these moves left the Nuggets with two veterans — Iguodala and Andre Miller — surrounded by a cast of young, developing players characterized by length and athleticism.
After struggling through an early schedule that saw them play 17 of their first 23 games on the road, they were rewarded with a favorable home/road split in January and responded by winning 12 of 15, putting them in the hunt for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
“I don’t see any of our players getting worse; I can only see them getting better,” Ujiri said. “None of them are players that I think will lose value. So our goal here is to keep growing. We understood the schedule, we understood what it would do to make us mentally tougher. We’re still going to have some bumps. That’s just the way the NBA season is.
“But we’re happy with the growth of Ty Lawson, Gallo, Kosta (Koufos), JaVale. Iguodala is fitting in, Kenneth Faried in his second year, Wilson Chandler coming back and Corey Brewer is having a great year. The younger guys are doing well when they play and the times they’ve been in the D-league. Andre Miller is Andre Miller. He’s always going to be solid and we know who he is.
“Coach Karl has done a great job, I think. With all the changes we’ve made, I think it’s time for us to be patient a little bit. But we will listen, there’s no doubt about that.”
That, of course, is the caveat. The Nuggets have inserted themselves into multi-team swaps at the last minute under Ujiri, including the Iguodala deal, in which Dwight Howard to the Lakers was the headline. The deal was happening with or without the Nuggets, but when Ujiri saw a chance to add a premier perimeter defender to a roster that was defensively challenged, he hitched a ride.
This year, third-string center Timofey Mozgov is a hot topic around the league. Playing behind Koufos and McGee, Mozgov generally doesn’t get to play unless one of them is hurt. Ujiri isn’t looking to move him, but he will keep his phone turned on in case someone wants to make an offer he can’t refuse.
“We’re not afraid to ride it out till the end,” Ujiri said. “You never know what comes up at the draft. You never know what we could be able to do. Yes, we know there’s a logjam there a little bit because all of them are getting better and all of them want to play. But we love Timofey. We’re still looking at it like he’s on our team. McGee was hurt for a couple games and he stepped right in. He’s (a) restricted (free agent-to-be) and it’s not something we’re afraid of.
“When the trade deadline comes close, a lot of things start to fall into play and a lot of things come up. You never know where stuff will go, but he’s definitely the guy I think everybody’s looking at. Should he be playing? Yes. Is he good enough? Yes. Has he improved? Yes. I would say the majority of the calls are coming for Mozgov.”
In the never-ending debate over whether the Nuggets need a “go-to” scorer or can develop one from within, Danilo Gallinari remains the most promising candidate. In his fifth NBA season but still only 24 years old, Gallinari is averaging just more than 17 points a game, highest of his career so far. His shooting percentage remains an anemic .424, but his three-point percentage is up to .372, a key number on a team that ranks 28th in the league in three-ball accuracy. He’s also hitting just over 81 percent of his free throws, another crucial characteristic in a player who’s going to have the ball at the end of games.
“He’s stepping up,” Ujiri said. “He had a great month of January. He’s playing with a lot of confidence. I think he’s getting more comfortable. We’ve changed so much. He used to play with Nene and then we made the trade and we got JaVale. Faried did not play for the first 20 games of last season. We bring in Iguodala. Ty started the year slowly. All those things, I think that’s where we as a team, as an organization, we have to be a little bit patient, and I think it’s helped Gallo.
“The same way we are raving about him now, there were people screaming, ‘Man, what’s he doing?’ in December. That’s just the NBA. But in terms of overall growth, I think we can say since Gallinari came to the Denver Nuggets when we got him in the trade, he has gotten better and is getting better.
“He’s getting more comfortable. I think he’s becoming a more all-around player. He’s a very underrated defender. He’s doing everything for us and it’s molding him into that kind of a player. We knew that he’s young and it will take time, but he did have the potential and he does have the fire and he’s not afraid to take the big shot.
“It’s the same Gallo that shot an air ball against Miami and it’s the same Gallo that missed a layup against the Lakers last year. He could have lost confidence or been discouraged, but he’s stepped up. We’re really encouraged by all these guys and we have to be patient and let them grow.”
Maybe the biggest question mark about the Nuggets is the role of Wilson Chandler, who was obtained along with Gallinari, Mozgov and Raymond Felton in the Melo deal. Chandler is an accomplished three-point shooter, a rare trait among the Nuggets. He’s a solid free-throw shooter on a team that is still dead last in the association in that category. And he’s an above average defender and rebounder for a wing player.
Still, he’s been limited by injuries and by playing behind Iguodala and Gallinari at the swing spots. So I asked Ujiri if there’s room for Chandler to play a larger role, assuming he can stay healthy.
“There is, and I think the larger role will come as he gets to complete fitness,” the Nuggets GM said. “He’s already won us two games. I think he was the best player in Houston when we beat them over there (Jan. 23), and then we saw him against Portland, he came in and hit a couple big shots when we played them here. He helps in so many ways.
“It’s one way we want to build. We have to have those big athletic players that can play different positions because you never know. He’s fit right in. We sat him out for quite a while just because we wanted him to be completely right, to play with confidence
“People think, oh, we have Wilson Chandler because we’re holding him to trade him. We could have traded him at the draft. We could have traded him in the summer. Many times, we could have. No, that’s not what we’re looking at. We want to see him be productive and be a big part of this basketball team. He can play multiple positions — the two, the three, he could play a shooting four. He really rebounds well and he can score. I think you will see his time increase as he gets back into game shape.”
There’s plenty to like about the Nuggets’ development this year, but let’s get a timeout on the interminable debate about whether this cast can contend for a championship. When a team’s GM says it is not yet a contender, you might just want to believe him.