The old baseball axiom about the best teams having strength up the middle, that’s the first image that comes to mind with the (ahem) new-look Denver Nuggets.
The second image has more to do with a fishing pier and a filet knife, and someone methodical de-boning a flounder.
In the span of a single month, the Nuggets essentially have had the backbone of their organization removed. Masai Ujiri, George Karl and Andre Iguodala weren’t merely the catcher, middle infielders and centerfielder of a Denver team that won an NBA-era franchise record 57 games and earned its 10th consecutive postseason appearance. They were, respectively, the NBA’s Executive of the Year, its Coach of the Year and one of the league’s very best two-way players.
All assets, all gone, with nothing in return.
Ujiri headed back to Toronto a month ago, rejoining the team with which he got his start as the Raptors’ replacement for Bryan Colangelo. Karl was fired days later in an alleged dispute with team president Josh Kroenke over JaVale McGee‘s playing time, Karl’s desire for a contract extension, both or neither.
And now, with free agent Iguodala’s imminent departure to Golden State for a four-year, $48 million deal reported Friday, what’s left in Denver is less an overachieving ensemble cast than a doughnut team with no one filling the hole.
Last season, the Nuggets turned the absence of All-Stars or MVP candidates into a positive, becoming one of those whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts success stories that happen occasionally in this star-driven league. But another first-round ouster, its ninth in 10 years and at the hands of the sixth-seeded Warriors, apparently devalued what Karl and the team did to an extent that they came to be seen as replaceable.
“Very stupid,” Karl called it, in Kroenke’s presence, on his way out the door.
The quest already has begun, with Tim Connelly as the Nuggets’ new general manager and former Indiana lead assistant Brian Shaw, after years in waiting, as their new head coach. Now they can search for ways to plug the holes left in their performance by Iguodala’s departure, which won’t be easy. Monta Ellis? Carl Landry? Andrei Kirilenko? Good luck with that.
Consider: Denver allowed 100.5 points per 100 possessions with Iguodala on the floor, usually hounding the opposition’s best scorer. That would have tied for seventh best, in terms of defensive efficiency. When Iguodala sat down? The other guys averaged 105.3 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com’s stats site. That would have ranked 23rd.
So even if Iguodala frustrated some fans with his shooting (especially 31.7 percent from 3-point range), his effectiveness at the other end of the court frequently made up for it. And there was more, according to the Roundball Mining Company blog on ESPN’s True Hoop network:
What Iguodala did well was incredibly important for Denver as he finished a spectacular 76 percent of his 206 shots in the restricted area and finished third on the team in assist rate at 22.4, behind only Ty Lawson’s 30.2 and Andre Miller’s 32.2 marks.
The next highest mark for a player who played significant minutes was Danilo Gallinari’s 11.2 mark, followed by Wilson Chandler’s 8.3. The mark of Evan Fournier, someone now expected to see a dramatic increase in minutes, was a bit better at 15.5 but still fell well short of Iggy’s.
So now Denver must find someone to replace not only Iguodala’s finishing at the rim (for comparison Kenneth Faried, who many will probably point to, finished just 62 percent of his shots there), but also his passing.
Finally Denver will have to find a way to replace 2779 minutes, a number that led the team by 266 minutes over Lawson and ranked just outside of the top 20 in the league. Fournier will pick up some of those minutes but Iguodala also played a lot at small forward where Gallinari now will moss most of the season.
Yes Andre Iguodala did some things that hurt the Nuggets but his loss is a big one.
No one’s loss is big, particularly in the past 24-48 hours, compared to the headlines and wailing generated by Dwight Howard‘s defection from the Los Angeles to Houston. But one of the West’s most exciting teams from 2012-13 has gone through (and partly put itself through) a wringer. And the accompanying soundtrack this season could end up sounding like this.