Every year for the last 9 seasons, the words guarded optimism describe my emotions for my beloved Nuggets entering the post season. A team with great potential and talent, but with one exception (2009 mostly), seems to get swallowed up by the big stage and makes the small mistakes that cost them crucial wins. Will we see a different team this year?
2004 was great. Carmelo was coming off a sensational rookie year, the arrival of Andre Miller solidified a weak back court, and an emerging Nene gave Nuggets fans much to be excited for, but you knew they didn't stand a chance against a solid Timberwolves team that year and they were simply happy to be in the playoffs after a 9 year hiatus.
2005 was a roller coaster year, the Nuggets got off to a 17-25 start with Jeff Bzdelik getting the axe and Michael Cooper filling in on a mediocre basis. Along comes George Karl, who brought in a new level of experience and professionalism missing since the Doug Moe era. They were the best team in the NBA after the All-Star break going 25-8 to finish the year. Unfortunately, the San Antonio Spurs were in they way. After a thrilling game one victory in San Antonio (Andre Miller playing out of his mind that game!), the Nuggets proceeded to get blown out in game two and lose two close games at home and running out of steam in Game 5 in San Antonio. I was so disappointed for how well they played in the regular season, the reality of them being a young team with no perimeter offense or defense was exposed. Remember acquiring the corpse of Wesley Person to help with bench perimeter scoring?
2006 the Nuggets dealt with an ailing Kenyon Martin attempting to play on his surgically repaired knee (microfracture), massive me-first personality issues, showing an utter lack of maturity and finishing the season with some terrible losses (the home finale against Houston blowing an 18 point 4th quarter lead and losing the game at home!). The temporarily resurgent Clippers (who tanked the last few games in order to match an unsettled Nuggets squad) feasted on this team (except for Reggie Evans, who had a thing for Chris Kaman's testicles) in the first round while George Karl and Kenyon Martin bickered. That was really frustrating because the Nuggets should have beaten that team had they wanted to be there. I was mad after this one! It was the year I thought to myself if this team really underachieved, and questioned whether they really wanted to be in the playoffs or if they did was it just to extend the season a week and brag to all your friends in the media you made the playoffs?
2007 was preceded by one of the most bizarre regular seasons in memory. The hot start, the explosive offense all came to a halt in December of 2006 at Madison Square Garden. The suspensions and the desperate trade for Allen Iverson shortly followed. The melding of two scorers who hold onto the basketball like a jealous boyfriend in Iverson and Anthony, which led to a modest finish and a re-match with the Spurs. Like two years earlier, the Nuggets stole game one and home-court from the Spurs with Anthony and Iverson playing great games. However, that was the extent of their success as the vastly superior and unselfish Spurs used solid team defense and feasted on some terrible mistakes by one JR Smith in Game 4 to quickly finish off the Nuggets. It was then that I started wondering whether the Allen Iverson experiment actually made this team better. Maybe they just needed a full season and training camp together to improve.
In 2007-2008, a full season of Anthony and Iverson was sky high with expectations. Who would be able to stop two 30 ppg starters at the same time? Not many could. However, when your two best players don't play any team defense, it doesn't matter whether you score 120 a night or not, but if you give up the same amount of points, what's the value? In spite of this imbalance, and Nene missing the majority of the season due to cancer treatment, the Nuggets won 50 games for the first time in nearly two decades in a tough Western Conference, qualifying as the 8 seed against the hated Lakers. The Nuggets did not show up. My high school varsity team would have put up a better fight than the Nuggets and they were promptly swept. Ugh, I was furious and done with that team as it was composed. Time for a change.
Thank you Chauncey Billups! 2008-09 will always be a great memory. They won more playoffs games in this postseason as they won in the previous 5 years combined. Their utter dominance of the Hornets (who everyone thought would easily beat the Nuggets in the national media), the 3 pointer in Game 4 against the Mavericks by Anthony with 3 seconds left, and then the tough battle with the Lakers in the WCF. If two poor inbound passes by Anthony Carter in two games were erased, the Nuggets probably win in 5 and go on to meet the Magic in the finals. I was so excited for the following year.
2009-10 the Nuggets by the end of January were arguably the team to beat in the west, nipping on the "slumping" Lakers for the top seed in the west, then at the worst time for many reasons, George Karl announces he will be out the rest of the season to undergo more cancer treatment. The Nuggets still won 53 games but they were not the same team they were before that announcement. They missed George's leadership and experience and suffered at the hand of the hated Jazz in 6 games. You had a feeling coming out of this whether the Nuggets will have another chance like they did this year for a championship again.
The 'Melo Drama of 2010 and the hiring of a new front office brought a year of distraction and frustration as the rumors of Carmelo's desire to play for his beloved Knicks hit the news every day for 6 months. Finally he's traded away for a bunch of young, yet talented players (and losing Chauncey in the process). I became a big Masai Ujiri fan after this trade. A first time GM absolutely fleecing the Knicks deserved executive of the year. An 18-7 finish and 50 win season indicated a team that wasn't necessarily rebuilding but retooling. Even though the Nuggets lost to a talented young and arrogant Thunder squad, I felt good about their chances going forward.
That brings us to this season. I was so excited to see this team of "no-names" start 14-5 and absolutely destroying the likes of the Miami Heat and the Dallas Mavericks in the early going. Then the injuries and reality set in. I think with the way they finished last year and started this year, we were too optimistic about this team and forgot how young and inexperienced they really are. However, one of the biggest disappearing acts in clutch situations, Nene is now scheduling his off-season plans with the Washington Wizards (I still want to call them the Bullets, does that make me old?) and the Nuggets have seemingly gelled with the addition of JaVale McGee (who mostly has played well) and the pleasant surprised of Kenneth Faried. Kenneth as a rookie is already putting up numbers and had games that Nene will never have as a professional. Ty Lawson and the return of Andre Miller shore up a back court that now has a good combination of depth, talent AND experience missing from previous years.
I'm guardedly optimistic once again. Do I think the Nuggets WILL win? If I was betting my life on them, I wouldn't feel good about my chances, but would I be totally surprised if they challenge or even beat the Lakers? No, I wouldn't. So that's where my optimistic outlook lies. Like any loyal Nuggets fan, I will be rooting them on and hoping for their success but realize that their youth might rear its head at an unfortunate moment. This is a team worth rooting for, and the nucleus of players gives the Nuggets a very optimistic outlook for the future.