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Moore: The Denver Nuggets Have Finally Arrived

Credit:

Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Denver Nuggets guard Will Barton (5), guard Jamal Murray (27), center Paul Millsap (4).

  • To the average NBA observer, the rise of the Denver Nuggets may seem sudden based on their recent past.
  • But to those in the know, this team has been quietly building itself up and is now a force in the Western Conference.
  • So how in the world did the Nuggets get here?

It took one loss.

Three seasons of frustration and hope, of setbacks and progress, two steps forward, one step back, a Black Swan center from the Balkans who loves horse racing and video games, a patient and careful rebuild, a new identity, a gradual shift towards momentum, injuries, trades and self-doubt … and it really took only one loss.

April 11, 2018: Minnesota Timberwolves 112, Denver Nuggets 106.

That was the night the 2019 Denver Nuggets made the playoffs.

The Nuggets lost that night almost a year ago in heartbreaking fashion and failed to make the postseason for the fifth straight season. They had been almost out of it with three weeks to go before a furious rally brought them back. They needed to win one road game to complete the run.

They lost in overtime.

Emotional losses like that can leave scars and cost jobs. Instead, it sparked defiance in Denver. The Nuggets, by their own admission, knew they were better than that. They knew they belonged in the playoffs, not at home. They knew they let too many games vs. worse opponents slip through their fingers.

Denver entered training camp with a renewed sense of purpose and a determination that this time there would be no standings watching, no hoping for other teams to lose.

Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Denver Nuggets guard Will Barton (5).

As Will Barton told reporters, “Just told myself, ‘We’re not doing that.’ We had a meeting. The first day of training camp (in San Diego), the night before, we all met. We talked to each other about our roles and what we wanted to accomplish this year.”

That loss stung Barton most of all, but along with Gary Harris, it also helped ignite the determination Denver needed in its mindset going into this season. You can get a sense for where teams are in preseason: whether they’re going through the motions, uncertain of how unstable chemistry will fare, or excited about a fresh start. It was apparent from the get-go that the Nuggets understood one thing: this was a good team.

That’s important. The Nuggets, like a calf trying to steady itself on its legs, had danced around success for two seasons. They were good … at times. They could play well. But then they would lay a disastrous egg.

Coach Michael Malone would leave a bench unit in too long at the end of games. The starters would zone out vs. inferior teams, leaving Malone flabbergasted at the lack of effort. They’d struggle to close.

Much is made of a team’s signature wins vs. great teams, but it is most often the consistency of beating teams you should that determines whether you reach the postseason. Denver was 23-10 against teams under .500 (70% win rate) in 2017-18. In 2018-19, with nine games to go, they are 29-8 (78.4%). That is how to make the playoffs, even as they struggle down the stretch with losses like Sunday’s bizarre meltdown vs. the Wizards.

Denver has a top-five offense, a top-10 defense and the fifth-best Net Rating in the NBA. They have a good chance at a top-two seed in the brutal Western Conference, all with a core mostly built around guys under 25 years old.

But to figure out how they got here, you have to go back to the worst years of a mostly forgotten franchise.

THE CHANGE OF COURSE

The Nuggets were, without question, lost heading into the summer of 2015.

A still-green front office had whiffed badly on its first coaching hire of Brian Shaw and its first series of free agency signings. The team was in the worst spot it had been since the early 2000s. They had attempted to “keep one toe in and one toe out,” as President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly described it, trying to make the playoffs while rebuilding for the future.

It was a disaster on multiple fronts. The players didn’t fit or play for one another. The coach was completely lost: Brian Shaw is a good man who may very well make a great head coach someday, but he had a box to collect cell phones and once rapped a scouting report. He was so lost at connecting with his young players.

Ty Lawson’s DUI issues spiraled out of control. Danilo Gallinari took nearly 18 months to recover from a knee injury that resulted in botched operations.

Shaw was fired in the early part of the new year. That summer, the front office made a dramatic re-orientation of their approach. They brought in Malone, fired by the Kings after an encouraging start to the season amid front-office drama, to reshape the team’s culture.

They struck out with their first-round pick in Emmanuel Mudiay, but their 2014 second-rounder, Nikola Jokic, came over and by the end of the year had already shown great promise.

“When I first got here, I don’t know if we were building a championship-level team,” Connelly told The Action Network this week. “And that’s my fault. There was talent there, but the collective did not look like one that could matriculate to a championship-level team.

“I think when you make the change, it’s a good time to take inventory of where you are. We just thought the best chance was to look for and acquire as many like-minded guys as we could find. Versatile, self-motivated guys who love to play who would enjoy not just the team but the city and see if we could win with those kinds of guys.”

The process was slow, and the change was gradual. By the end of the 2016-17 season, the culture had been rehabbed for the most part. NBA veteran Mike Miller helped with veteran leadership and guidance for Jokic. Harris blossomed with actual playing time and a role that he built on. Jamal Murray flashed the kind of potential you want to see, and Jokic became a full-blown star. Denver had excised the locker room issues and strengthened the good parts.

There were mistakes, though, as the front office will openly admit. Without listing them specifically, the team knows moving both center Rudy Gobert and guard Donovan Mitchell to a division rival in the Utah Jazz were big misses. They simply accept that you’re not going to get every move right.

“I think there are so many unbelievably smart people in the league, smarter than I am. But we’re pretty proud of our work ethic, and we’re pretty proud that we’re willing and able to say, ‘We tried, but we missed the mark there.’

“If you’re so paralyzed by fear that you’re unable or incapable to make quick decisions and trust your gut, it’s a miserable league to be in. It’s liberating, too, honestly, to be able to say, ‘Man, we missed the mark there.'”

But overall, Denver managed to recover from so many early mistakes and re-orient itself fully to a full young rebuild. If we want to cry out for teams to use their draft picks and cap space wisely to rebuild, it’s hard not to find the Nuggets’ rebuild to be almost perfect.

They rebuilt around three young studs in Jokic, Murray and Harris, added a veteran value player in Barton who believed in the team, added All-Star fill-in-the-blanks forward Paul Millsap and developed guys like Malik Beasley, Torrey Craig, Juancho Hernangomez and Monte Morris into valuable role players. You can’t find weak spots on this roster or in how they play with and for one another.

Denver built an impressive roster, but what’s maybe more impressive is how their whole is greater than the sum of their parts. And that’s where Malone comes in.


THE FIRE

Malone is fighting himself, more than anything.

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