After big strides in 2011-12, Nuggets look forward to future
Hefty bags, hugs and handshakes.
For nearly every NBA team, it’s a day that always comes too soon.
After a whirlwind five months that began with 11 players in training camp and ended with a memorable Game 7 showdown against the Los Angeles Lakers, the Denver Nuggets cleared their lockers and conducted exit interviews on Monday.
“It’s a little emotional,” point guard Ty Lawson said. “This is the last time you’re with all these guys at once. We have bonds and friendships. You remember the good times you had, the fights, the struggles. It was definitely a fun year.”
If the final six weeks of the regular season and playoffs are any indication, the fun is only beginning.
Lawson is one of 12 Nuggets under contract for 2012-13, meaning the young roster that grew together throughout the year most likely will remain intact next season. Denver also has strong interest in retaining free agents Rudy Fernandez (restricted), JaVale McGee (restricted) and Andre Miller (unrestricted).
The stability is welcome after a 15-month span that featured three trades that brought eight new players to Denver.
“Our face and our culture has changed to a higher standard,” Nuggets coach George Karl said. “The connection between players and coaches and the organization is the best it’s been in a long time. There’s an enthusiasm and an energy to (where) we think we can be better and I think we’ve moved ourselves into a good place.”
Out of playoff position in late March, the Nuggets moved themselves up to sixth place in the Western Conference by winning 11 of their final 15 games.
That earned them a first-round matchup against the third-seeded Lakers, who won three of the first four games of the series, only to see the Nuggets rally to force a deciding seventh game. Los Angeles advanced with a 96-87 victory that was closer than the final score.
“We have to consider (the playoff experience) as a beginning,” Denver forward Danilo Gallinari said. ”The series against the Lakers told us a lot of things. We can only get better. If you think about that series and you think that we can get better, it’s scary.”
The Game 7 loss to the Lakers was disappointing, but Gallinari took the defeat particularly hard. He missed 8 of 9 shots and scored just three points in the final game.
To his credit, Gallinari made no excuses for his performance and vowed to use it as motivation during the offseason and beyond.
“I’m still not sleeping,” he said. “I’m still mad, not talking to anybody. I’ve been playing pro since I was 16. I always played very good in all the big games I had in my life overseas. Having a bad Game 7 for me is very frustrating. I don’t want to have that happen again in my future career. I’m going to keep it as motivation, but right now it’s tough to digest.”
It’s important to remember that Gallinari is just 23 years old. In fact, every member of Denver’s starting lineup for Game 7 is 26 or younger.
The Nuggets coaching staff has a reputation for developing young players, and it will stay busy over the next several months. Rookies Kenneth Faried, Jordan Hamilton and Julyan Stone are scheduled to play in the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, and several players will work out regularly in Denver leading up to training camp in October.
With additional practice time, a full training camp and some better luck on the injury front, the Nuggets have their sights set on making more noise in the West in 2012-13.
“We went through a lot of adversity this year,” Lawson said. “We were hurt, went through trades and had a tough time getting everybody together (early on). It was a good year, though. We took the Lakers to Game 7 and we showed we can be one of the top teams in the league.”