The Denver Nuggets’ Manimal: How Kenneth Faried Went From Olympian to Forgotten Man

Rewind to the summer of 2014. Coach Mike Krzyzewski just led the U.S. Olympic Men’s National Team to a gold medal in what was a year of transformation for the squad. This marked its first round of high-stakes international play without the marquee sure things like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade. In their place were the “stars of tomorrow”—Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, James Harden and Kyrie Irving, just to name a few.

Now for a little bit of trivia about the team that went unbeaten, winning each game by an average of 33 points: Who was its third-leading scorer? And who paced it in the rebounding department?

If your answer was 2017-18 backup forward for the Denver Nuggets Kenneth Faried, you would be correct.

Just 36 months ago, as a member of Team USA, Faried put up averages of 12.4 points and 7.8 rebounds on 63 percent shooting in 21.7 minutes per contest—the fourth-most of any player on the team. Coach K clearly saw something in Faried, and the big man played up to that potential. Watching him bulldoze international bigs and sprint up the court on every possession lofted him into a category comprised of the most sought-after post players in the world.

For some reason, he never delivered.

Whether due to injuries or stylistic changes in the league, Faried has seen his role diminish. Now, entering 2017-18, he stares down a possibility of deep reserve duty behind Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic. Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly has kept Faried’s name on the trade market for years but has been unable to find a suitor for the gold medalist. But his contract, hovering around $13 million annually, is far from an albatross.

So why does nobody want him?

Many critics overly focus on the negatives of his game while ignoring the positives. Little clues like considering players “tweeners” instead of “multi-positional” or “undersized” instead of “quick for their position” show a negative bias. Those who sour on the Manimal make it about what he can’t do or who he isn’t, not what he can or is. And that approach isn’t necessarily invalid. Investing in a 6’8″ post player who cannot score outside the paint means committing to an outmoded style whenever he’s on the floor—an undertaking nobody, not even the Nuggets, wants to take on.

Still, just last season, Faried continued to leave a statistical imprint on the game in one area at which he excels: rebounding. He was third in the league in offensive boards per 36 minutes, among qualifying players, all while sharing the floor with a center full-time. More than that, Faried plays with impalpable hustle.

Coaches can look at a box score and see value through production, but energy is more difficult to measure. Faried can go into a gang of hostiles and single-handedly win possessions. This rebound against the Rockets epitomizes his diligence in a nutshell:

How much does a play like this swing momentum, and how does that get adequately quantified? Back-breaking rebounds, rim-rattling slams, coast-to-coast beelines that trigger a timeout from the opposing coach—these plays are more valuable in reality than statistical analyses can likely illustrate. Someone, somewhere, has to value this at the NBA level, even if everything else about his game goes against the contemporary grain.

Faried is not particularly tall. He doesn’t shoot threes. He is not a quality rim-protector. He brings almost nothing to the table teams demand from their frontcourt staples these days.

This doesn’t mean Faried is barren of marketable skills. Few players thrive in open space more than him. He busts up the court every opportunity he gets, forever aiming to beat defenses before they get set. He’s best as a finisher on the break but can also do damage with the ball in his hands going to his right:

The premium now placed on oversized skill does not alleviate one longstanding concern for big men in the NBA: how quickly they move their feet in transition. Putting Faried at the 5 compounds his assets with the liabilities of opponents. Fast breaks become even more of an advantage, and while shooting is en vogue these days, scoring before the defense gets back will never go out of style.

But even when Faried doesn’t beat his counterpart down the floor, he can muscle his way to the front of the rim for those high-percentage buckets in semi-transition. He was once great at the early post, creating contact and clearing out space for an early dump-down and score. With spacing around him, and a more perimeter-oriented trailer as his partner, regaining this form isn’t out of the question.

Half-court sets are a different story. Free from the chaos of transition, Faried does his best damage when relegated to the baselines as a cutter and finisher. In what Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra once affectionately named the “dunk box” for Chris Andersen, Faried simply stands with his butt to the baseline, sliding within 10 feet of the rim in either direction. He’s close enough to make an effective read whenever his defender rotates to the ball. This “uphill” help—or toward the ball and away from the basket—plus Faried’s movement on the baseline amounts to a wide-open attempt at the rim:

The ferocity with which he completes these dunks is scary. And so is his accuracy in this area. Faried has shot well above 60 percent at the rim every season of his career, all while taking a solid 60 percent of his shots from the floor in that range, per Basketball-Reference. Translation: He only takes the right shots for him, and he makes them.

Watch the clips above, and you’ll see why it’s so necessary for Faried to play with a frontcourt partner who can stretch the floor and deliver the ball to him as a diver. These “short rolls,” where the ball pings from ball-handler to screener to another teammate, are incredibly important as defenses become more sophisticated tailoring their coverages to each active threat. When Faried is in the dunk box and his man is aware of it, that man can struggle to prevent a shot at the rim when choosing between the Manimal and the roller.

Excitement peaked last season upon seeing how Faried and Jokic could transform the Nuggets offense together. But head coach Michael Malone sought to find a better answer for defense and kept juggling the lineups. Though the buzz surrounding Jokic’s play rightfully overshadows any production Faried brings forth, the two were a potent pairing on one half of the court.

Faried frequently gets pushed aside thanks to fervor over the new Nuggets frontcourt. Barely a year ago, the space-constrained partnership between Jusuf Nurkic and himself screamed mediocrity. Neither was a solid defensive option, while both needed to take up the same spots on offense. Unearthing the all-world skills of Jokic, trading Nurkic to Portland for Mason Plumlee, drafting Tyler Lydon, trading for Trey Lyles and then signing a marquee free-agent like Millsap were all moves aimed at beefing up the roster. Few doubt the quality of Denver’s overall renovation, but the sum of the parts it took to get there leave a roster oversaturated with posts.

Denver’s brass has consistently held out of dealing Faried for a piddling return, opting to instead believe his value would increase as his contract diminished in length. But the right deal has yet to come along, so Connelly might need to swallow the two years left on Faried’s deal, keep him around as a pricey backup and find a way to cut corners elsewhere. The only alternative at this point would be taking pennies on the dollar.

Faried is one of many victims impacted by the NBA’s spacial revolution—someone left behind by a league hell-bent on utilizing the three-point line and removing rim protectors from the basket area. Three straight seasons of declining minutes totals and four consecutive years with a drop in field-goal attempts merely encapsulate the fall he has endured. Good, athletic forwards still have a spot in this league, and there’ll always be roles for talent.

Those roles are just changing.

Finding a trade partner willing to take on roughly $13 million in salary each of the next two seasons for such a player—one who has made just two career treys and shoots less than 40 percent in any zone outside three feet from the basket—is incredibly challenging. Denver doesn’t want to absorb dead weight, and its roster dictates Connelly unload a big man in exchange for a wing. And since most teams around the league are well-strapped in the frontcourt, few such suitors exist.

It’s a damn shame too, because Denver may be the best place for Faried. Retaining Plumlee would mean the Nuggets have two full-time centers who can operate away from the basket, giving him free reign over that coveted baseline. They run and like to attack in the full-court, and Faried’s green light to sprint the floor in the Mile High altitude is an advantage unto itself.

Denver’s defense last season explored detrimental levels of dysfunction. Millsap will help, but having so many plodding posts will hamstring its ability to contain the most mobile 4-men in the league. Jokic and Plumlee aren’t good enough rim protectors to solve those issues, and squeezing Faried in at center is tough when the team doesn’t have many minutes to spare.

Should the Nuggets find a suitor for the Morehead State alum, his usage and minutes will likely see an uptick. Teams like the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns could all use a boost up front and might have wings to deal. The Nuggets are more likely to swap out Plumlee if he agrees to his qualifying offer; their chances of retaining him next summer would be limited. Connelly could get more in return for Plumlee (a play-making center with size) than Faried, who has been the victim of a cool trade market for years.

Should he stay in Denver, Faried probably finds himself buried under the depth-chart pileup, waiting for injuries to create an opportunity. That said, he can share the court with Millsap, Jokic and Plumlee as a 4 or even headline super-small lineups at the 5 with Juancho Hernangomez or Wilson Chandler. And that’s the nice thing about Faried: He’s predictable. He consistently delivers open-court victories, great offensive rebounding and efficient shooting near the rim.

No matter where he ends up, though, his future appears to lie at the 5. His rebounding and bulk lets him survive against other centers inside, while his speed and athleticism suggest he can pressure sweet-shooting bigs away from the hoop—or even switch onto guards with success. Faried’s defensive play can be a weapon in some form, though he is a bit of a loose cannon on that end.

Remember: The issue is not that he has regressed since capturing a gold medal in 2014. The league is simply overriding his niche bag of tricks. The right team and right system can bring out the best in him once again, but production is only possible if Faried can see the floor.

And this isn’t just a Kenneth Faried problem. The Nuggets have issues on a grander scale, with too much talent and too many bodies concentrated in a small area. They’re undoubtedly working toward a fix, even if a good one isn’t readily apparent.

For Faried’s sake, here’s hoping they figure out a way to turn him loose, be it in Denver or as a member of another team.

Follow Adam on Twitter @Spinella14.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from NBA Math, Basketball Reference or NBA.com.

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