DENVER — The Denver Nuggets aren’t accustomed to cleaning out their lockers in April.
The Nuggets are headed to the NBA draft lottery instead of the postseason party for the first time since 2002-03, when their 65-loss season landed them Carmelo Anthony and ushered in a decade of annual playoff appearances.
Of course, only once in that span did Denver advance out of the first round, one reason coach George Karl was fired last summer after a franchise-record 57-win campaign and an NBA Coach of the Year award and was replaced by Brian Shaw, whose rookie season was beset by injuries and unrest.
After finishing 36-46, Denver will have either its own pick in the draft in June or the New York Knicks’ selection, whichever is better.
“I just told the guys that this is the last time that we want to end our season on the last game of the regular season,” Shaw said after Denver’s 116-112 loss to Golden State on Wednesday. “And I encouraged them to watch a lot of playoff basketball so that they can see the things that we didn’t do.”
Like stay healthy.
The Nuggets were short-handed most of the season because Danilo Gallinari never made it back from his ACL injury after forgoing traditional surgery, JaVale McGee (leg) played only a handful of games, J.J. Hickson and Nate Robinson tore ACLs and Ty Lawson, Wilson Chandler and Anthony Randolph were in and out of the lineup.
Then there was the Andre Miller saga.
The veteran point guard got into a shouting match with Shaw at a New Year’s Day game and was suspended with pay, never playing another minute for the Nuggets before they finally dealt him to the Washington Wizards on Feb. 20.
During one stretch during those seven weeks, Lawson and Robinson were both hurt and the Nuggets had no point guards. Miller said the Nuggets asked him at that point if he wanted to return to the team and he said no.
By April, the Nuggets often had only seven or eight players available for games, yet they played competitively and their signature win was a 100-99 masterpiece at Golden State on April 10 in which Kenneth Faried had his first game-winning buzzer-beater to deny the Warriors a chance to clinch a playoff berth at their expense.
Several players capitalized on all the extra playing time to hone their skills, expand their repertoire, find a niche and earn Shaw’s respect and gratitude, notably center Timofey Mozgov, shooting guard Randy Foye and Faried.
“At the end of the day, we’ve been down in numbers all year,” Foye said. “We continued to fight. We continued to believe. And looking at that Eastern Conference, we were better than most of the teams over there. If we were over there, we would have been in the playoffs, but we’re in the West.”
They didn’t cave in to the crush of injuries or tank it when all hope of a playoff berth was lost early on, and that provided Shaw and their fans a glimmer of hope for next season.
“There is no checking out,” Foye said. “Even though we’re not in the playoffs, there’s teaching points every single game.”
Mozgov’s growth was particularly impressive, to the point that McGee, halfway through a four-year, $44 million deal, won’t automatically return next season as the starter, Shaw said.
Even before McGee had season-ending surgery just after the trade deadline in February, Shaw said he told him, “Timo’s coming for you.’ I said, ‘You being out has given Timo a chance to play and show what he can do. And so it’s not a given that anything is going to be handed to you when you come back.’
“And you know, I mean Timo’s had his struggles, he’s had his bright moments during the season but he continues to work and he continues to improve and JaVale is still a question mark. So, it’ll be a very interesting competition next season once everyone comes back healthy.”