At 14-23 the Denver Nuggets are roughly halfway through the 2016-17 NBA campaign and needless to say it hasn't exactly turned out the way most fans originally predicted.
Though capricious lineups, injuries and inexperience have been labeled the primary source of Denver's struggles, a recent five-game losing streak in which the Nuggets surrendered at least 120 points in each contest has highlighted an entirely new set of worries that appear more systematic than structural.
With the trade deadline and season midway point steadily approaching Tim Connelly and Josh Kroenke are now poised to answer some of the most difficult questions of their respective careers, as outlined below, which will reverberate for years to come...
Who are the franchise cornerstones?
The only verifiable answer to this question at the moment is Nikola Jokic. Though some may argue Jamal Murray deserves to be in the conversation as well, his age (19) and body of work (37 games) make it difficult to assess just how valuable he'll be moving forward. If he were the deal breaker in a trade to bring Jimmy Butler or John Wall to Denver, for example, I imagine the Nuggets might roll the dice on letting him go, which I'm not sure you could say about Jokic.
Point being, the Nuggets have a tremendous amount of flexibility heading into the trade deadline and it would behoove them to sit down and delineate who they want to move, who they want to keep for now and who they want to build their franchise around for years to come.
Considering age, potential, current production and contractual status, I'd argue Jokic, Murray, Gary Harris, Malik Beasley, Juancho Hernangomez, Will Barton and Wilson Chandler give the Nuggets the most talented core at the most affordable price moving forward. This means more than half the roster (at least!) should be placed on the trading block and that outside of a few select players the Nuggets should be more than willing to entertain any trade offer that comes their way.
To tank or not to tank?
Prior to any trades, the Nuggets must decide what type of team they wish to be for the latter half of the season and beyond. With six players age 22 or younger the Nuggets are still largely in the experimental stage of their development, yet thanks to an increasingly depleted Western Conference they remain only 1.5 games out of the playoffs at the time of this writing.
Whether they choose to upgrade their roster with another veteran or ship some of their more disgruntled talent in exchange for draft picks, what's absolutely clear at this point is that a path must be chosen. The Nuggets cannot continue their pattern of accumulating assets, sitting on those assets and watching as those same assets, once highly prized, diminish in value due to lack of on-court exposure.
The Nuggets very well may have overvalued their assets for quite some time. Need proof? Look no further than Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried (who should have been traded years ago) and their current overall record. Though trading for a veteran may get the Nuggets into the playoffs (and ultimately destroyed by the Warriors) this year, no available veteran on the Nuggets' radar will transform a 14-23 team into a perennial playoff threat capable of making deep runs in the postseason.
If by some crazy chance a player like Klay Thompson were to become available, then by all means, the Nuggets should pursue him to world's end, but barring this unlikely scenario the Nuggets are much better off attempting to move a vast chunk of their roster for first-round draft picks or additional youth to pair with their own.
There is perhaps no riskier quality an NBA decision maker can possess than alarmism. On one hand, being able to read the tea leaves can result in opaque leverage and preventative long-term tumult; on the other hand, it can result in ill-advised emotional gambling that can burn you to the tune of a potential firing.
Time and time again General Managers give up on young players only to see them thrive in different circumstances, which of course begs the question: At what point is it OK to cut ties with a high draft pick -- or any draft pick for that matter -- if they don't produce?
Though only 20-years-old and with almost exactly 100 games under his belt, it's become quite clear Mudiay might not be the player Connelly and fans originally thought several summers back when first drafted. For the second season in a row, he's shooting under 37 percent from the floor and barely over 30 percent from downtown. In addition, despite being Denver's starting point guard for most of the season and averaging 28 minutes per game, he's dishing less than four assists per game and averaging only one more assist than turnover per contest.
He also ranks 96th in assist percentage, 329th in player impact estimate (PIE), 363rd in true shooting percentage, 407th in defensive rating, 403rd in defensive win shares, 442nd in offensive win shares, 419th in opponent's field goal percentage and 334th in player efficiency rating (PER) in the entire league according to NBA and Basketball-Reference.com.
To put it bluntly, Mudiay has been one of the worst players in the NBA this season with regard to minutes played. Though he still averages starter minutes and brings the ball up the floor after each possession, Mudiay is one of the least efficient, least productive, least defensively motivated players in the entire league.
Whether this is a result of coaching or talent only Connelly and Kroenke will decide, but no matter the case it's imperative Nuggets brass does a thorough appraisal of Mudiay sooner rather than later to avoid a similar fate as the one bestowed upon them by previous point guard Ty Lawson. Mudiay has to start showing some progress.
Is Michael Malone the right coach for this team
Though mired in dysfunction and disconnect (most will remember his brief foray into rapping the scouting report) it might surprise fans to know Shaw actually had a slightly better winning percentage (40 percent) in his 141 games with the Nuggets than Malone currently has (39 percent) in his 119 games.
Through 37 games this season the Nuggets are on pace to win less than they did last year -- this despite a better and more mature roster. Granted the year is still young, but the Nuggets have not looked the part of a winning basketball squad through much of the 2016-17 campaign and appear to be playing perhaps their worst defense in Malone's entire tenure.
Add the team's numerous inexplicable late-game collapses, stunted growth (if there was ever any growth at all) from the team's youth, a mass exodus of assistants just prior to the season getting underway and of course the ongoing Wheel-of-Fortune lineup changes and there's suddenly pressure mounting on Malone and the Nuggets to start piling up wins.
It's well documented Nuggets fans love Danilo Gallinari. Aside from being a solid all-around ball player, he's also outwardly proclaimed his satisfaction with the city of Denver many times over, been willing to stick with the Nuggets through their rebuilding efforts and of course he's an incredibly tall version of a young Val Kilmer which never hurts either. And though Gallinari has been a main fixture on the Nuggets for the majority of his eight-year career he's also approaching 30-years-old and will likely be looking to win wherever it is he signs his next contract.
If Connelly and Kroenke get word from Gallinari that he's either going to re-sign or is heavily leaning towards re-signing then it makes sense to ride the season out and engage in contractual negotiations this summer. Unfortunately, this scenario seems highly unlikely given Denver's current record and struggles over the last 3.5 years. In short, barring unwavering loyalty it would appear Gallinari has every logical reason to forgo re-signing with the Nuggets and move on to greener pastures come July 2017.
The good news for the Nuggets is Wilson Chandler is playing the best basketball of his career and is locked down through 2018 with a player option that following season, so small forward should be the least of their worries. Knowing this, the Nuggets would be more than wise to strongly consider moving Gallinari prior to the deadline to ensure they at least get something for his services rather than seeing him walk for nothing in the offseason.
Teams like the Celtics, Raptors and Clippers, each of which have championship aspirations and a void at small forward, would make near perfect sense as viable trade partners heading into the February trade deadline.
There's still over half a season remaining this year, but things have to change in Denver, and they have to change quickly, or else the decisions the Nuggets' front office will have to make over the course of this season and this summer get harder by the day.