The future of Nuggets basketball is a bright one.
The Denver Nuggets' 36th NBA season concluded on Saturday night with a heartbreaking Game 7 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, ending a season that gave us much to be proud of and much to be hopeful about for the future.
Before it began, the 2011-12 Denver Nuggets season was destined to be a peculiar one full or surprises, ups, downs and everything in-between. This, of course, was because the season started right after Christmas - nearly two full months later than an NBA season typically starts - thanks to a labor dispute between NBA owners and players that chopped the normal 82-game schedule down to 66. And those 66 games were to be played in a tight 120 days.
Kicking off the season, this Nuggets team appeared to be one of the few in the NBA that would actually benefit from the lockout-shortened season. After all, these Nuggets were young, healthy and could play big or small - depending on what their opponents threw at them. Opening the season, the Nuggets possess a roster that was 11 deep. The newly re-signed Arron Afflalo and Nene Hilario would anchor the starting shooting guard and power forward positions, respectively, with youngsters Timofey Mozgov (center), Ty Lawson (point guard) and Danilo Gallinari (small forward) rounding out the starting five. Off the bench, the Nuggets had arguably the best backup point guard in the NBA in Andre Miller (a reluctant backup, by the way), one of the best backup forwards in Al Harrington (who admirably worked his ass off in the off-season to get into great shape) and some energy guys: Rudy Fernandez, Kosta Koufos, Corey Brewer, Chris Andersen and rookie Kenneth Faried. None were superstars - heck, none were even All-Stars - but the Nuggets had the overall talent to overcome whatever the lockout-schedule was going to throw at them.
And overcome the scheduling and short training camp they did ... at least initially.
Nuggets head coach George Karl told us to judge him on his first 20 and his last 20 games. Well, Karl's Nuggets delivered an exciting 14-6 record through their first 20 games, beating the defending champion Mavericks (in Dallas!) to begin the season and besting the likes of the Lakers, Heat and Jazz in Denver. During that stretch, Karl's Nuggets did something that no Nuggets squad had ever done before: win five straight road games, including two overtime thrillers - at Philadelphia and at New York (a double-overtime game that featured the Nuggets first rematch with former Nugget Carmelo Anthony). Coming off that stellar road trip, Nuggets fans had visions of a Western Conference two-seed assuming that the aging Spurs, Lakers and Mavericks would fade into the background as the season went on.
As it turned out, the Nuggets' 14-6 start was a bit of fool's gold. For their "middle 26" games, the Nuggets went 11-15. Besieged by injuries (at one point, Afflalo, Lawson, Nene, Mozgov and Gallo all missed games), poor home play and a myriad of other issues, the Nuggets plummeted downward in the Western Conference standings and at times it seemed as though they might miss the playoffs altogether. Meanwhile, the Spurs blitzed their way to the top of the conference standings while the Lakers and Mavericks stayed afloat. As February ground on, it became painfully obvious that the Nuggets weren't going to take advantage of the lockout schedule and would have to fight just to make the playoffs at all.
Not knowing who he had to play for him on any given night, Karl continued to tinker with the rotation and just couldn't find the right formula to keep the Nuggets consistently winning. Especially at home. So with the mid-March trade deadline looming, Nuggets vice president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri decided to make a big change and pulled the trigger on a trade that most of us didn't see coming: the recently re-signed Nene was shipped to the lowly Washington Wizards for a quirky, 24 year old, seven-footer named JaVale McGee.
Nene had given the Nuggets 9 1/2 solid seasons, but after being rewarded with a five-year, $67 million contract Nene didn't repay the favor, allowing minor injuries to keep him out of games and not playing hard when playing in games. Knowing that Nene's contract would quickly become a bad one, Ujiri gambled and brought in the oft-troubled McGee (a restricted free agent to be) and simultaneously brought back Wilson Chandler, who had been playing professionally in China. With McGee and Chandler on board, the Nuggets had even more depth and versatility going into those final 20 games that Karl asked to be judged on.
The Nuggets didn't get much from Chandler as he injured his hip after just 7 games and had to get it surgically repaired. A month earlier, Fernandez was lost for the season due to needing back surgery. And somewhere along the way, Andersen was just lost and was routinely DNP-CD'd by Karl. So Karl's 11-deep rotation was now down to 10: Lawson, Afflalo, Mozgov, Gallinari, Faried, Koufos, McGee, Miller, Harrington and Brewer.
If there was one silver lining to the injuries to Nene, Mozgov and Gallinari it was that Karl was forced to give Faried playing time. And unlike Nene, Faried immediately rewarded Karl for the playing time ... and then some. The 22nd overall pick in the draft, Faried - appropriately nicknamed "The Manimal" - had 11 double-doubles and re-energized the team with his relentless energy, enthusiasm and hustle. On every possession. Faried was so good so fast, that most NBA pundits regarded him as the second best rookie in the NBA (behind the great Kyrie Irving) and, simply put, the Nuggets don't make the 2012 playoffs without Faried's nightly effort.
With McGee on-board, Faried learning and Afflalo improving, the Nuggets finished up the season's final 20 games with 13 wins, including 8 of their last 10. As we've seen with many Karl-coached Nuggets teams these past 8 years, the Nuggets were one of the hottest teams heading into the post-season as a sixth-seed.
Having advanced past the first round just once in seven tries as head coach in Denver, Karl faced another up hill battle by drawing the favored Lakers in Round 1. And when the Lakers beat the Nuggets in Game 4 at Denver to take a 3-1 series lead, it seemed as though Karl and the Nuggets were doomed to another 4-1 exit . But not this year. Somehow, someway Karl found the right formula to deliver a thrilling Game 5 Nuggets victory at Los Angeles, and followed that up a blowout Nuggets victory in Game 6 at Denver two nights later. With a Game 7 looming, Nuggets Nation was getting nostalgic with memories of the 1967-77, 1977-78, 1982-83, 1984-85, 1985-86, 1987-88, 1993-94 and 2008-09 Nuggets dancing in their heads - i.e. previous Nuggets teams who had a chance to advance far in the playoffs.
But, alas, it wasn't meant to be.
Despite coming back from a 16-point deficit in Game 7 to take a fourth quarter lead, the Nuggets didn't have the rebounding acumen to defeat the Lakers for a third consecutive time and dropped their final game 96-87. As we had seen all season long, when the Nuggets don't break 100 points they don't win games. And 87 points - especially in a Game 7 playoff game - wasn't going to cut it.
But even with that heartbreaking loss fresh in our minds, there was much to be proud of and positive about this season. And just by taking the Lakers to seven games, the 2011-12 Nuggets leaped into the "favorite Nugget teams of all time" conversation, alongside those late-70s, mid-80s, 1993-94 and 2008-09 teams. Even better, with much of the 2011-12 roster under contract and due to come back next season, the future of Nuggets basketball is bright. The Nuggets core of Lawson, Afflalo, Gallinari, Faried, McGee and Chandler is a great starting place to build from or trade from, two scenarios that I'm sure Ujiri is looking at. Melo who?
I know we'll be spending the next few months pontificating about what the Nuggets "need to do" in the off-season. And it's a conversation I eagerly welcome. But for now, let's look back at the 2011-12 Nuggets and applaud management, the coaching staff and the players for delivering a fine season and post-season. The good guys - yet again - didn't finish first. But they put up a hell of a fight trying to.