After tough season, Nuggets seek good health in 2014-15

Injuries from Day 1 too much for Denver to overcome in West
by Aaron Lopez

When Brian Shaw conducted his first practice as Nuggets coach on Oct. 1, he had one player on the daily injury report.

By the time the second practice was over, Denver forward Wilson Chandler had joined teammate Danilo Gallinari on the list.

Five games into the season, starting center JaVale McGee pushed the number of injured players to three.

And by the time the season ended, there were nearly as many players wearing suits on the bench as there were healthy players in uniforms. As a team, the Nuggets missed 293 games to injury or illness.

“We keep using the word ‘health,’ but that kind of dictated everything this year,” Shaw said as he evaluated the season on Thursday. “There were a lot of things we weren’t able to find out.”

In all, four projected rotation players – Gallinari (torn ACL), McGee (stress fracture, left tibia), J.J. Hickson (torn ACL) and Nate Robinson (torn ACL) – underwent season-ending operations, while Chandler (hamstring/groin/hip), Darrell Arthur (hip/knee) and Ty Lawson (rib/ankle) missed significant time as well.

Though the Nuggets refused to blame injuries for their 36-46 record, it was hard to ignore their impact. After sitting at 14-9 on Dec. 9, Denver could not keep pace in the talented Western Conference while trying to make the transition to a new coach and system with a patchwork lineup.

“I think we have all the reason to be optimistic for next year,” Gallinari said. “Once this team is healthy, I think we can do something special.”

Gallinari, Denver’s second leading scorer in 2012-13, had hoped to play this season but was ruled out for the year after having knee surgery on Jan. 21. He said he is ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation and has his sights firmly set on the start of training camp.

“The trainers are doing a great job,” he said. “I have the whole summer to work on my knee and work on my strength in general, so I can’t wait until training camp starts. I’ve been able to run and jump already. The guys have to hold me back. I have to take my time with these kinds of injuries, but I’ll be ready for training camp.”

The Nuggets also are optimistic about McGee being ready by October, while Hickson and Robinson shouldn’t be too far behind.

“I’m still excited about the fact that if we are healthy and we have a full complement of players, we’re in the mix (to make) the playoffs,” Shaw said. “I don’t know if there needs to be full-scale changes made (in the offseason), other than seeing what we can do with a healthy roster.”

The injuries spawned opportunities for young players such as Evan Fournier, Quincy Miller and Timofey Mozgov. All three averaged career highs in nearly every statistical category.

In addition, Lawson continued to emerge as a top-10 point guard in the NBA despite missing 20 games due to injury. He averaged 17.6 points and 8.8 assists (good for third in the league).

Kenneth Faried, meanwhile, stormed to the finish line, averaging 19.8 points and 10.8 rebounds over his final 25 games. He expanded his game by developing a soft touch in the paint and handling the ball in transition.

Despite the personal growth, Faried lamented that it wasn’t enough to prevent the Nuggets from missing the playoffs for the first time since 2003.

“No matter how much better I’ve gotten or how much I’ve developed, we still didn’t make the playoffs, so it’s depressing,” he said. “I’m going to go home and think about what I need to do better next year and focus on that.”

Shaw and his coaching staff planned to do the same over the next several weeks and months.

Though the season didn’t go as he envisioned, Shaw was able to keep the players engaged right up to the final game of the season despite being short-handed and out of playoff contention.

“Unbelievable coach, man,” Nuggets guard Randy Foye said. “A players’ coach (and) really smart when it comes to drawing up plays. He knows how to motivate you. He did a great job this year with the things we had to overcome.”

The Nuggets just hope that there are fewer obstacles to overcome in 2014-15.