Are the Nuggets Stuck in Basketball Purgatory?

Since I am living in Cleveland at the moment I decided to make a deal with Jesse. I’m jumping on the Cleveland Cavaliers bandwagon until either A. I move away from Cleveland or B. The Denver Nuggets make the playoffs. Since I’m only planning on staying in Cleveland for 2 years it looks like the former option will come first.

Why such a gloom analysis of a young Nuggets team? It’s simple really, the Nuggets have been stuck in purgatory. No, not the place where everyone hung out in season 6 of LOST (spoilers?) and not the place your Catholic Priest says dead babies go to. No, they are stuck in basketball purgatory which is the worst place to be in the NBA.

You see in basketball, unlike other some other sports, you are only as good as your best player (unless your team is coached by George Karl and your best player is Ty Lawson (!!) and you somehow manage to beat the franchise record for most wins in a season but even then your team decides to clean house and start over because…reasons??) Rarely does a team sustain success without a (or three) star player.

Don’t believe me? Why don’t we turn to the best player in the NBA over the last 13 seasons, LeBron James. For years this dude dragged some terrible basketball teams to the playoffs, one year he even dragged them to the Finals! Eventually he saw the rival Boston Celtics gather three superstars on their way to two Finals appearances. James decided this was a good idea and found himself some superstar teammates in Miami.

If the greatest player since Michael Jordan decides he needs more superstars in order to be successful in the NBA then it stands to reason that is the best path for any team right?

Now this is where it gets tricky. To get a superstar you have three options: hope your team either wins the NBA Draft Lottery, woos a superstar in free agency or trades for one.

And how do you win the Lottery? You play really, really bad and get a little lucky. Don’t want to tank? Well then you better hope you have a superstar on your roster in order to attract that other superstar to your team because he is not signing without one or two. Don’t have a superstar and you don’t want to tank? Well I hope you have accumulated a ton of assets. Even that’s probably not enough. You also need a superstar somewhere in the league that is upset with his current situation (like how Melo was upset that Denver wasn’t New York).

So there you have it. It’s easy right? If you don’t have at least one superstar, get one, and then get some more. And there are many avenues to do that right? It’s so simple. Except it’s not. Sometimes teams get stuck in the middle. They aren’t any good and have no shot at competing for a championship. But they also aren’t incredibly bad either. This middle ground is pretty infuriating as a basketball fan. You want your team to make moves to get better but those moves come with a lot of risk. You feel destined to forever be the team that easily miss the playoffs but not quite bad enough to have a real shot at the lottery. You start feeling jealous of teams that are tanking. You look at their 12 win season and you imagine what it must be like to have hope for your future. It’s a dark place really.

Which leads me to where the Nuggets have been the last few seasons. Purgatory. They haven’t been bad enough to tank a season (and were too stubborn to do so under Brian Shaw). They haven’t had a superstar built in to attract another to sign here. And while they’ve had some attractive assets thanks to the Melo trade there hasn’t been a good opportunity to trade for a superstar.

As we go into the offseason I can’t help but wonder, are the people in charge of the Nuggets ready to take this team to the next level? Or are they happy moving sideways in purgatory?

Thanks for the intro, Kevin! Enjoy the rest of your day. Now you’re probably wondering what compelled us to co-write a Nuggets column when we never, ever have anything about basketball on Pegboards. We don’t even have a subcategory for the Nuggets because, well it would just be sad and empty. Kind of like the Brian Shaw era! Lately though, I’ve been pestering Kevin about how basketball in Denver may finally be on the upswing after years of mediocrity and futility. This hit a head yesterday, when I unleashed a barrage of text messages about all things Nuggets on him. Turns out there was enough material for a column and here we are.

As you saw above, Kevin’s not entirely convinced the Nuggets are going to be relevant again anytime soon, and for good reason. Without a superstar, they can’t recruit other blue chip players via trade or in free agency. They were screwed in the lottery once again and have no hope of landing one of the top two players in this year’s draft. Basically, they have no chance of escaping purgatory and we should all start rooting for the Cavs, right?

Well, not so fast. I don’t blame Kevin for hopping on Cleveland’s bandwagon. If Lebron James played in the town I was living in, I would do the same thing. I’m simply stating that it’s not all doom and gloom for the Nuggets. Despite the fact that on paper they seemingly have no prayer at landing a superstar, that doesn’t mean that one of the guys already on the roster can’t blossom into something closely resembling one. Let’s examine the candidates.

Leading off are the three mainstays: Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and the Manimal, Kenneth Faried. Let’s not kid ourselves that these guys are or ever will be superstars. If they were, the Nuggets would’ve broken out of purgatory by now. That doesn’t mean they are bad players by any means, in fact I’d say all three of them are solid pieces. They’ve contributed on some good Nuggets teams and have been little help on some bad Nuggets teams. Suffice to say, they are useful in the right situation but don’t represent the whole solution. Part of that has to do with injuries, as both Gallo and Chandler are oft-injured players who never seem to make it through a full season. Faried’s temperament can also be a detriment at times, as he just don’t always appear motivated to play at a high level. A lot of that has to do with who his coach is, which is why he completely checked out on Brian Shaw and seemed to bounce back under Michael Malone.

Now a lot of people have floated the idea of trading one or two of them as part of a package to move up in the draft or land a superstar. I’m not a huge fan of this idea, and not just because this isn’t the strongest draft and other teams don’t just give away their best players for complimentary pieces. Now if a guy like Demarcus Cousins was on the table, then maybe that’s something worth exploring. Otherwise I’m not so sure. Gallo and Chandler both resigned here last summer rather than look elsewhere for more money or a better situation. That’s partly due to them signing off on the hiring of Malone, but mostly because they love living and playing in Denver and didn’t really want to leave. You don’t often see that kind of loyalty among pro athletes and it doesn’t send a good message to the rest of the team if the Nuggets tried to trade them just one year later. I also don’t believe any of them would net much value in return. Who’s going to part with a superstar for a couple guys who miss a lot of games, don’t always play hard and are solid, but not spectacular? Throw in some draft picks and maybe things change, but I really don’t see Tim Connelly making a move like that.

With my luck at predicting transactions, the Nuggets will dump all of them a month from now, but we’ll see. There are some other intriguing names on the roster, such as Gary Harris and Will Barton. Those two were a big reason why the Nuggets were more competitive this season and since it is relatively early in both of their careers (Harris is 21 and Barton is 25), there’s still room for improvement. But will any of that unrealized potential eventually translate into either of them becoming a star? I’m not overly hopeful that would happen, or that they could even be as good as a guy like Klay Thompson. While Harris is an excellent defender and solid two-way player in general, his shot still has a ways to go and Barton seemed to cool off mid-way through the season after a torrid start. I have no doubts that they’ll improve, but like Gallo, Chandler and Faried, they are probably more suited for supporting roles.

That leaves three rather interesting names: Jusuf Nurkic, Nikola Jokic and Emmanuel Mudiay. Each of these players is incredibly young (Nurkic and Jokic are 21, Mudiay is 20) and they probably have the highest ceilings of any of the Nuggets’ assets. Nurkic’s season was a bit of a lost cause, as he missed time early on to injuries and never seemed to get in a groove. There were games where he flashed what he was capable of; blocking shots and being a force at the rim and in the paint. However, those moments were fleeting and not very consistent. Some fans think the Nuggets should move on from him, but that would be rather premature. Give him the offseason to get healthy and work more closely with Malone and see what happens. Jokic finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting, but in my opinion he was better than any rookie not named Karl-Anthony Towns. The Serbian Sensation was impressively efficient finding different ways to score and was probably the best overall player on the team. He schooled Kristaps Porzingis, who was voted the league’s second best rookie, when the Nuggets played the Knicks toward the end of the season. And then there’s Mudiay, last year’s top draft pick and the biggest reason for hope in the Mile High City (for basketball, anyway).

I’m not going to lie. At the beginning of the year, Mudiay’s shot was pretty ugly. Opponents would clog lanes on screens and force him to take three-pointers, because they knew how much he struggled from beyond the arc. His natural passing ability and high basketball IQ were on display as well, but in some ways Mudiay hurt the team since he wasn’t that big of a threat to score. That changed near the end of the season, as the First Son of Congo (I should patent these nicknames) started to get a feel for his shot and hit his jumpers with much more efficiency. He also developed a nice rapport with Jokic that should carry into next season. The kid was only 19 for most of the season and last played in China before being drafted a year ago. It took him awhile to adjust to the nuances and rigors of the pro game, but once he did you could see his confidence start to grow and that his teammates started to trust him more.

Now just because Mudiay and Jokic weren’t lottery picks doesn’t mean they can’t become players who will change the Nuggets’ fortunes. Stephen Curry and Draymond Green weren’t either and there’s no debating how huge those two have been for the Warriors. And while it’s easy to forget now, they didn’t suddenly become studs overnight. Golden State had to patiently develop the two of them while they overcame some adversity early in their careers. That patience paid off royally and now the Warriors get to reap the rewards of not panicking when things didn’t immediately get better. I think Mudiay and Jokic are the most likely pair to approach the level of play the Nuggets need to ascend out of basketball purgatory, but that doesn’t mean the Nuggets will be as successful as the Warriors in a few years solely because of that. They need more scoring and better rim protection and perimeter defense if they want to contend in the Western Conference and the potentially brutal Northwest Division.

I won’t pretend that the Nuggets have a chance at signing Kevin Durant or convincing Lebron to bring his talents to Denver (if I did, this column would’ve been entirely pointless). Kevin would be the first to tell you that I’ve been banging the drum for the Nuggets to pursue Bismack Biyombo. Anyone who does the Dikembe Mutombo finger wag needs to play in Denver for at least part of their career. It’s a rule, I’m sure. Biyombo may not be a star, but he’s only 23 and there’s a lot of untapped potential that Malone could cultivate along with the rest of his roster. Besides, anyone who blocks one of Lebron’s dunks absolutely embodies rim protection. As for the draft, nabbing Buddy Hield would be a coup, in my opinion, even if he doesn’t maintain his insane level of production from Oklahoma. The Nuggets desperately need better shooters and Hield is probably the best shooter in the draft. He may not fall to the no. 7 pick, but the Nuggets have several first-round picks that they can use to move up if they want to.

There are a lot of ways the Nuggets can improve their roster beyond adding Hield or Biyombo, I’m sure. The main thing to take away is that in the desperate search of a star that can lift the Nuggets out of purgatory, what a lot of people may not realize is that those guys may already be on the team. If Jokic and Mudiay can continue to harness their talent and Malone proves to be the right man for the job, then ultimately I believe the Nuggets will benefit from it in the same way that Golden State did from Steph Curry and Draymond Green.

As long as Jokic doesn’t kick anyone in the nuts during a game. That’s never a good idea.

One thought on “Are the Nuggets Stuck in Basketball Purgatory?

  1. Pingback: Nuggets Are Primed to Shock the Basketball World (And Probably You) | Pegboards

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