Amid a Conference of Bullies, Nuggets Out to Prove They Belong

You may not have known this, but the Nuggets are kicking off their 2017-18 season tonight. They’ll be wearing new uniforms and featuring a new star player, hoping that they actually register on the NBA’s radar this season. They are definitely already on mine.

For the second straight year, I’m predicting that the Nuggets will find themselves back in the playoffs for the first time since George Karl was roaming the Denver bench. But what does making the playoffs even mean in the NBA anymore? I suppose it’s all about perspective.

Oh, and yes that is Nikola Jokic messing around with Paul Millsap in the photo above. If that doesn’t get you excited for this season, I’m not sure anything I can say is going to do the trick. But I’ll try anyway.

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Paul Millsap is a Game-Changer for the Nuggets

As a kid, if you ever had dinner with your extended family on Thanksgiving or Christmas, then you know the drill. Adults and teens get to sit at the big table, while you get relegated to the kids table with maybe a sibling and a couple of your cousins. Not that there’s anything wrong with the kids table. It’s about your height and you don’t have a clue what those adults are talking about anyway, but it’s clear that you aren’t deemed ready to move up until the adults say you are.

Going after NBA free agents is kind of like that. Some teams have no intention of pursuing top players on the market, but the ones that do and are unsuccessful learn a harsh lesson very quickly: until those players take an interest in your team and are ready to sit down with you, there’s no way you’re moving up from the kids table. That’s the reality of doing business in a league where the stars run the show. 

That’s been the Nuggets’ reality for basically their entire existence, and an obstacle they’ve spent the last few years trying like hell to overcome. During an offseason where superstars believe that their manifest destiny is out west and are joining forces left and right, the Nuggets simply could not hope to compete if they struck out in free agency.

Which is why signing Paul Millsap is arguably the biggest acquisition in franchise history.

Millsap’s arrival in Denver was a homecoming of sorts. As a kid who grew up in Montbello, it was like the prodigal son had finally returned. And during his introductory pressconference at his old school, Millsap said all the right things and looked genuinely excited to be back. But it was a quote from Tim Connolly that grabbed my attention.

At one point, Connolly looked at Millsap and said, “Thank you for taking the leap of faith.”

To me, that speaks volumes. Not just because Millsap picked the Nuggets as his next team, but how Connolly acknowledged the rarity of this whole situation. He may as well have said, “Thanks for letting me have a seat at the big table, Paul. And can you please pass the turkey?”

Millsap saw something in the Nuggets, and he was willing to bet the last years of his prime on the Nuggets not just surviving the bloodbath that is the Western Conference, but on thriving. That isn’t lost on anyone. Not on the Nuggets and certainly not on the rest of the league. If Millsap’s presence turns the Nuggets into a playoff team on the rise, it won’t be the last time they are invited to the big table. 

And there’s no question that he will improve the Nuggets. Yes, they are still flawed. Yes, there are enough power forwards on the roster for the entire Northwest Division. Hopefully Connolly isn’t so starstruck by Millsap that he forgets to finish consolidating the roster, but regardless, the pride of Montbello has made the upcoming season an increasingly exciting one for Nuggets fans. And with any luck, our days of being stuck at the kids table are coming to an end.

So thanks, Paul. And hey, would you please pass the stuffing?

How the Nuggets Can Beat the Warriors in Three Years

If we learned anything from the NBA Finals, other than the fact that the Warriors won the championship the minute that Kevin Durant signed on the dotted line, it’s that the way that teams are constructed has fundamentally changed. After years of Lebron James recruiting his all-star friends to South Beach and Cleveland, and then the Warriors following suit, it’s pretty obvious that the era of the superteam is not going away anytime soon.

The top players in the NBA know that they can’t hope to take down Golden State without a star-studded supporting cast. That gives guys like Chris Paul a lot of leverage when they hit free agency, because the team they choose to sign with will look a lot more attractive down the line to future free agents.

And that’s tricky for the Nuggets, because they’ve always had a difficult time convincing marquee players to break bread with them. While the rumored meeting with Paul this summer and the actual meeting with Dwyane Wade last summer is a sign that things could be changing on that front, there’s no way the Nuggets will ever sell any big time free agents on Denver, right? Building a superteam here is a pipe dream. Or is it…

I’ve been pestering Kevin lately with a variety of ways that the Nuggets can do just that. And while some paths are more viable than others, I enjoy presenting him with as many of them as possible. If you can’t text your friend in the middle of the workday about your next idea for turning the Nuggets into a superpower, then why have friends or run a blog with one of them?

And it turns out we have enough material for a column. Take a look at all my clever plots, followed by Kevin’s reactions.

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Let’s Talk About LeBron James

Hello people of all genders, it’s that time of the year again, it’s the annual match-up between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors. No it’s not 2015, and 2016 is a year behind us, the year is 2017 and we are living in the NBA Twilight Zone!

The Cavs are hoping to defend The Land and the title and have reloaded their roster with…uh…Kyle Korver? Meanwhile the Warriors are attempting to erase the meme that was created after they blew a 3-1 lead by bringing in some guy named Kevin Durant who’s mother was once da real MVP.

This is an epic end to a trilogy of championships for the NBA. We all know the third one is always the best (like uh…Revenge of the Sith?) and we all fully expect the NBA to reboot this series next year (they might even make their own universe, I would love a JR Smith origin story). So Jesse and I are here to get you ready for this epic showdown by walking you through what LeBron James means to the city of Cleveland and to the game of basketball.

Jesse: So Kevin, you’re living in Cleveland right now. The Cavs are coming off of their first NBA Championship and are primed for their third straight finals appearance. LeBron is at the peak of his powers and is seemingly unstoppable. Is Cleveland ready to handle the prospect of back-to-back titles? And how many newborn babies do you know that are named LeBron?

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Time To Let the Nuggets Back Into Your Lives

More than any other sport, being a fan of a basketball team is a lot like being in a relationship. Relevance in the NBA is predicated upon individual star power, so if your team has a star you tend to grow a lot more attached to him than you would for a football or baseball player. Don’t believe me? Just look at how Lebron James turned the entire city of Cleveland into a legion of jealous ex-wives when he bolted for South Beach. They burned his jersey, cursed his name and only granted him visitation rights a couple of times a season (and only because that was out of their control). Ultimately, the pain wasn’t alleviated until Lebron wanted to come back, and Cleveland was more than ready to get back together with him. Oklahoma City may say they’ll never forgive Kevin Durant, but I bet they would too if given the chance.

It sounds weird, I know, but let’s look at Denver’s last basketball marriage. Carmelo Anthony broke all of our hearts very much in the same manner, except instead of chasing a title like Lebron did, Melo just wanted to be another rich guy in New York. I was texting Kevin yesterday and we found ourselves talking about this very subject (no, there’s nothing strange about that!), then he summed up our seven-year relationship with Melo in two sentences: “It was just a marriage with one sided love. We are still recovering from that.”

If you used to follow the Nuggets but have largely ignored them for the past few years, that’s probably why in a nutshell. When Melo packed up all his shit and left in the dead of night, we carried on as best we could afterward. Even had a couple of pretty entertaining seasons while we tried to forget about him. But things bottomed out. The Nuggets faded back into irrelevance and we looked on in envy at all the other happy cities with their own superstars. There hasn’t been much hope that we would ever truly recover.

Until now.

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Depleted Nuggets Can’t Get Out of their Own Way

About a month ago, I predicted that this would be the year that the Denver Nuggets made it back to the playoffs. That despite their stacked division and the absence of a star, this would be the year that Michael Malone started to make good on the promise of his talented young roster.

About a quarter of the way through the season, you would probably look at the Nuggets’ 8-13 record and guffaw. “Playoffs?! Don’t talk about playoffs, Jesse! Not when it comes to the Nuggets!”

I’ll admit, things haven’t started out as well as I’d hoped they would. Maybe I oversold the Nuggets’ chances or I’m just a supremely bad judge of the sort of components that comprise a winning basketball team (the latter could always be true). However, though the 2016-17 voyage has been rocky thus far for the hometown team, I believe that the flaws that are currently holding them down can be erased sooner rather than later. Let’s go over those and I’ll tell you why.

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Nuggets Are Primed to Shock the Basketball World (And Probably You)

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.

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