DENVER — There are two versions of the Denver Nuggets. There’s the good Nuggets—a high flying, smooth cutting basketball team that passes the basketball with ease and puts up all-time great offensive efficiency ratings. We’ve seen this team in key wins against the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers.
Then, there are the bad Denver Nuggets.
Those guys are ugly. They don’t cut. They stand around. They take dumb long-range shots with more than 18 seconds on the shot clock. They’re a bad basketball team.
We saw them a few more times than most fans would like to remember. They showed up in bad losses to the New Orleans Pelicans and Charlotte Hornets, at times in tight wins, and basically anytime Nikola Jokic isn’t on the floor.
Worst of all, we saw them Tuesday night in a must-win game against the Portland Trailblazers.
The Nuggets and Blazers have spent the calendar year 2017 locked in a tight competition for the eighth and final seed in the Western Conference. Playing in Portland, the Nuggets needed a win desperately. They didn’t get it.
The Nuggets fell back into bad habits too many times during the game. They stood around, took bad shots, failed to work the offensive glass, and gave up points off the pick-and-roll at an alarming rate—ultimately losing 122-113.
After a loss like that, with so much on the line, it’s only natural for fans to lash out. That anger is only intensified by the performance of Blazer’s center Jusuf Nurkic. The Nuggets traded Nurkic to Portland earlier this season for Mason Plumlee. They also gave up a first round pick they help from Memphis.
Since that trade, Nurkic has turned himself into the player the Nuggets hoped he could be when they took him in the first round of the 2014 draft. He’s averaging an insane 14-points, 2-blocks, and 10-rebounds.
He ate his former team’s lunch last night. Nurkic went off, scoring a career high 33-points and a game leading 16 rebounds.
Now, the twitter hot takers can look at a game like that, a performance like that, and come away frustrated with this team. They certainly did on Tuesday night. That’s only natural. However, it’s important to put this game, and even this Nuggets’ season, into a context.
Nuggets fans need to be walked off the ledge.
Yes, the loss to Portland will likely mean that Denver will miss out on the postseason for the fourth consecutive season. That stings. It’s frustrating. However, here’s something fans should remind themselves of as often as possible even if they miss the playoffs: this season has been a resounding success. As of right now, the Nuggets are the best team in the city of Denver.
This team has essentially been what most optimists thought they could be. Denver has already won more games than the sharks in Vegas projected them to win and have been right at the precipice of the postseason all year. That’s progress for a team that won just 33 games last year.
For the Nuggets to even be at this point after going through the misery of the Brian Shaw era is something fans, players, coaches, and even the suits on the fourth floor of the Pepsi Center should be proud of.
Furthermore, Denver has used this season to identify cornerstone pieces that they will be able to build around for the next several years. Potentially, in the opinion of some, even pieces that could help them compete for a championship.
Of course, that list starts with center Nikola Jokic. Jokic’s rise to become one of the NBA’s most talked about players this season is the surprise the Nuggets desperately needed. Having a second round pick become a bonafide superstar in the making a mid-market city like Denver is kind of thing a general manager dreams about.
Additionally, the Nuggets found three rookie talents who can all be key parts of their future.
Jamal Murray, who Denver drafted with the No. 7 overall pick in June, looks to have the makings of a real-life NBA superstar and could already be starting for the Nuggets as early as next season. Juancho Hernangomez has shown himself capable of competing with any matchup he faces and, if Danilo Gallinari decides to opt out of his contract and leave Denver as expected, could become a starting forward next year. Late first round pick Malik Beasley has also added a tremendous chemistry boost in the locker room and has shown flashes of brilliance in limited opportunities on the court in regular season games.
Overall, these three players, in addition to the combination of Jokic and shooting guard Gary Harris, will make the Nuggets a competitive team in the West for the next several seasons.
It only helps that head coach Michael Malone has finally identified the players he wants to rely on. Early in the year, Malone struggled to find a rotation that worked. Now, however, he seems to have settled into a core group of players that have contributed enormously to wins.
Malone is uber competitive. Losing against Portland hurt his heart. It was obvious just by watching the post-game interview. However, Malone’s focus this season hasn’t always been on making the playoffs. In almost every single press conference he’s had this year he’s mentioned something about how excited he is for the future of this team. The Nuggets are unquestionably in a better position now under Malone than they were before he arrived in Denver. He deserves to be a key piece of that future.
Now, after a loss like Tuesday’s in Portland, it’s easy to see things through hindsight. After all, it is 20/20. The immediate complaint from fans came back to Nurkic. Why was he traded? Why did Denver give up a first pick? How could Connelly be so dumb? All of these questions flew across twitter like fists jabbing at air.
Simply put, Nurkic had to be traded. At the time that deal was made he had been essentially benched in favor of Jokic, who was (and still is) guiding the Nuggets to historic levels of offensive success. The Serbian proved to be a better player than the Bosnian. Nurkic didn’t like that.
In fact, he did more than pout. During one game, he left the bench, went to the locker room, changed clothes, got in his car, and left the Pepsi Center while the contest was still going on.
Nurkic gained a tremendous amount of weight. He stopped putting in effort during practices and looked sloppy in the limited amount of action he did get during games. He dodged the media, expect when he wanted to remind them how badly he wanted out of Denver.
He became an enormous distraction hellbent on disrupting the organization. He had to be traded.
Connelly and company found a willing trade partner in Portland. This is controversial now, of course. The Trailblazers are in the Nuggets’ division. Jusuf Nurkic, a player no one ever doubted has talent, now has the chance to wreck the hopes and dreams of Denver Nuggets fans for years to come. He certainly relished the opportunity Tuesday night.
However, it’s important to put yourself in the shoes of the general manager in this case.
The Nuggets had to trade Nurkic. They had identified Plumlee long ago as a player they had interest in. Connelly called him a “long-term piece” when the trade happened. The Blazers were willing to move him and take on the Nurkic mess. They pulled the trigger. It’s hard to blame them.
Now, why give up the first round pick?
This isn’t the NFL. First round picks, while certainly important, aren’t the commodities they are in football. Besides, the Nuggets owned two first rounders—their own and one from the Memphis Grizzlies. Denver traded the Memphis picks, which happens to be the lesser of the two. It remains a smart move for an already uber young Nuggets team that would probably be legally obligated to open a day care if they added two more 19-year-olds in the first round of the draft.
The trade worked for both teams. The Nuggets got rid of Nurkic and got a player they really like in Mason Plumee. Portland got an extremely gifted big man capable of playing at an extremely high level when he’s engaged. However, it’s tough to keep him interested. Few people who were around Nurkic in Denver would be shocked to see him run out of steam in Portland as soon as he faces adversity.
Tuesday’s loss hurts. However, as with most everything in life, context is the key. Contextually, the Nuggets remain in great shape long-term and this season, playoffs or not, has been a phenomenal success when it comes to building towards their long-term growth.
They’ve found cornerstones they can build a great team around, they’ve exceeded even the Vegas odds-makers expectations, and Michael Malone has found the players on this roster worth working with.
2016-17 has been a pivotal year for a Nuggets team still trying to fix past mistakes. This late season playoff push has shown just how close they are to returning to the top of the Western Conference. Besides, with eight games to play, there’s still plenty of basketball left in front of this team and still so much to be decided.