A few years ago, I bought NBA 2K13 and Kevin and I started an Association Mode with his brother-in-law Josh. We wanted to play as the Denver Nuggets, but even more importantly wanted to have a star player on the team. Unable to swing a trade in the game without the computer completely pilfering all of our talent, I simply changed the rosters so that James Harden was on the Nuggets (2K13 came out just after Harden was dealt to Houston and before the whole world found out that he doesn’t play defense). We embarked on an odyssey that saw our team claim four straight championships and establish a modern day dynasty. Alright, maybe we didn’t change the difficulty until year two or three, but that’s beside the point.
If all of that sounds rather corny, then it was the best kind of corny. When your favorite team doesn’t have a star or even a clue in real life, you know that you’re never going to see them hoist Larry O’Brien. You’re still intrigued by the drama of the playoffs and admire from afar when Lebron James finally gets Cleveland to the promised land, but it’s not your team basking in the champagne and the confetti. It’s just not the same. That’s why playing out the fantasy of the Nuggets actually being relevant in the landscape of the NBA was so satisfying. More than any of my teams, I want them to be the next one to break through that glass ceiling.
And I honestly can’t tell you why I care so much about the Nuggets. Sure, they’ve been around for 50 years but have never even advanced to the NBA Finals. Denver isn’t a particularly lucrative basketball market and the last time it had a star, Carmelo Anthony wanted to leave so bad he was willing to fade into obscurity with the Knicks just so he could get away. Most importantly, to say that I personally lack game is an understatement. The bricks that I put up when I’m foolish enough to take shots are an insult to actual bricks. Much like dating, there is often no rational reason for why you fall in love with a certain team. It just happens.
The point of all this is that the Nuggets start their 2016-17 season tonight and I’m here to make you a promise. Maybe I’m losing my mind (always a possibility) or maybe I have my blinders on, but here it is: I promise that the Nuggets will be back in the playoffs this season. Not only will they be back, but they’ll be well-equipped to be a real nuisance once they get there. You read that right. If you don’t think I’m a complete lunatic, hit the jump and I’ll explain.
Now hear me out. If you are at best a casual Nuggets fan, then you probably haven’t been paying much attention to them since George Karl was shown the door. After the brief and disastrous Brian Shaw era, I bet you’re shaking your head since I’m even saying “Nuggets” and “playoffs” in the same sentence, unless that sentence is, “Here are some things that will happen before the Nuggets make the playoffs again.” You’d have a point, but look at it this way: Donald Trump is a couple of weeks away from potentially becoming President. We really aren’t that far away from some seriously improbable shit actually transpiring. But I swear that I have a legitimate reason for making such a bold prediction.
I truly believe that the 2016-17 Nuggets are a case of right coach with the right team at the right time. Mike Malone is everything that Brian Shaw wasn’t. He challenges his team to play harder and be more disciplined, but he doesn’t throw his players under the bus to the media when things go bad. Like every coach, Malone has certain strategies that he wants to implement (for instance, playing good defense, which would never work on Harden’s team), but he’s also been willing to embrace the tradition of playing fast in transition at altitude. On top of that, Malone took a team that was lazy and disinterested and woke them the hell up. Under Shaw, the Nuggets were counting down the weeks until the end of the season. With Malone at the helm, the Nuggets appeared to actually give a shit last year even though they were never much of a factor in the Western Conference. That’s an important thing in life, no? Truly giving a shit when you don’t have much of a reason to.
Professional athletes struggle with this because they can be spoiled and hard to motivate. Basketball players are even worse. They slog their way through an 82-game season in a league where only three or four teams have a realistic shot at winning the finals every year (and that was before Kevin Durant sold his soul to Golden State and made it a two-team race). When they don’t feel that they have the support of their coach and their team is no where close to being competitive, there’s not much incentive for them to look out for anyone but themselves. This is especially true following the recent surge in the NBA’s salary cap, so now pretty much everyone is rich and overpaid. That being said, no matter how far out of it the Nuggets seemed at points last season, I never got the impression that they had thrown in the towel. It takes a coach who really cares about his players and not just the bottom line to pull that off. While Malone’s resume doesn’t guarantee that he’ll be able to build and guide a winner, his ability to connect with his roster is off the charts.
But simply giving maximum effort won’t be enough to get the Nuggets back in the playoffs. That’s going to take talent, and the best kept secret in the NBA is how ridiculously deep the Nuggets’ roster has become. I’ve spent my fair share of time raving about Nikola Jokic, Emmanuel Mudiay and Jusuf Nurkic, but now there’s new kids on the block in Jamal Murray, Juan Hernangomez and Malik Beasley. Darrell Arthur ignored more lucrative overtures in order to resign here. Gary Harris and Will “The Thrill” Barton provide plenty of excitement at shooting guard and last but not least, rounding out the lineup are Danillo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler (remember him?) and Kenneth Faried. Some of those names you’ve heard, some you haven’t, but there’s enough versatility available for Malone to truly mix and match depending on how other teams try and attack him. If it turns into a game of small ball (which is more and more common in today’s NBA), the Nuggets have the pieces to play that style OR they can stay big and punish those teams on the glass. That’s an option when you have athletic bigs like Jokic and Nurkic.
And yet, there isn’t a single name I’ve mentioned that jumps out at you or commands your attention. Sure, most people know Gallo and the Manimal and the other players are oozing potential, but not one of those guys is a star that even a casual fan will recognize. There’s a reason that Zach Lowe called the Nuggets the least watchable team in the league, a reason why they finished dead last in attendance last year and a reason behind this article that Kevin and I wrote. When you don’t have a star or the lottery pick required to go and draft a star, as Imagine Dragons say, “You’re stuck in the middle of all irrelevance.” That’s been a problem the Nuggets have been trying to solve since Melo held them hostage, but the good news is that there’s two ways that it could be resolved as early as this year. 1) One or two of those 25-and-under guys realizes his potential and becomes one of the league’s most exciting young players. The most obvious candidates are Jokic and Mudiay, but I wouldn’t sleep on Nurkic and Murray. The Bosnian Beast arrived at camp in great shape and proceeded to establish his dominance during the preseason, while the Blue Arrow is capable of scoring in bunches so long as his defense keeps him off the bench. If nothing else, these guys have fun nicknames.
2) If the Nuggets explode out of the gate and get a little antsy, there’s always the temptation to pull the trigger on a trade. Faried is perpetually linked to any and all trade rumors and the Nuggets did look into a deal for Blake Griffin last year. They also tried to lure in Dwayne Wade during free agency and if Sacremento made DeMarcus Cousins available, you can bet that Tim Connelly would be holding on line one. Make no mistake, the Nuggets’ front office is as hungry for a star as anyone else and depending on how the season is going, they may not be willing to wait for one to develop organically. Seeing as the Nuggets are currently under the salary floor and have to be there by next spring, a deal is definitely coming at some point. The only question is what the size and scope of that trade will be. While acquiring Griffin or Boogie Cousins would be more than enough to nudge the Nuggets into the playoffs and fill up the Pepsi Center, the costs and risk involved make me nervous. There are plenty of assets on the roster to spare, but we aren’t quite sure yet which ones the Nuggets would like to keep and which ones they can’t live without. You don’t want to deal away ones you can’t live without and then watch Griffin or Boogie bolt to another team when their contracts expire.
My personal preference would be to let Malone cultivate all of the young talent and wait and see if a star emerges from within. When it comes time to swing a deal, aim for a smaller one that gets the Nuggets to the floor but doesn’t blow up the core. Be patient with the kids and get as much as you can out of Gallo and Chandler. If that happens, I think you’ll find that what surprises you the most isn’t that I kept my promise and the Nuggets made the playoffs. What will really surprise you is that they got good again without anyone really noticing, and that they didn’t have to shirk the rules in a video game to do it.
As for when they’ll win their first championship? Well, we’ll talk about that next year.