The Denver Nuggets entered the 2013-2014 season with a decent-to-good outlook. Some clear challenges were present but optimism said the Nuggets could potentially grab a late playoff seed. Now with continued absence of Gallo and McGee, a more difficult schedule in the second half of the season, and many calling for change, how could we have foreseen this season differently? Can it be viewed differently?
Junior high is one of the few periods in life where you're asked to read works from notable authors that you come to truly care less for. The first two books in my required reading from Charles Dickens were a drag for me: Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities. When I was informed that in 8th grade I would be getting reacquainted with this Victorian English author through his Great Expectations, you can fathom my pessimistic stupor. Am I writing this to tell you about the experience? No. Well, not really. I do think, however, there is a lot we can learn from one Philip Pirrip or "Pip" as he goes by throughout the story, and the lesson isn't that 8th grade literature is leaps and bounds more exciting than it's 7th grade predecessor. No, rather, this is a reflection on expectations.
Pip (without giving the story away), spends the majority of the story learning how to manage his life's expectations, a "coming-of-age" story regarding wealth and status, told from the eyes of a curious boy-turned man bumbling about in England. It's actually a highly entertaining read, and had me laughing out loud in various places where you shouldn't, the quiet subway, the library, the coffee shop, watching a live surgery (kidding). What I've come to realize is that Pip's experiences aren't too different than our own with the 2013-2014 Nuggets: He saw himself with a good foundation, but pursued and expected higher status and value (among other plot/story elements).
The commentary trend over the last three to four weeks has naturally turned inward in a negative way. Often this can be associated with doubt, concern, a lack of clarity/direction, etc. We have had entire threads put together recently on the basis of "A lost season" "Time for the Nuggets to start over" "Tanking, and the consequences of being bad" and more. A similar fate awaits Pip at some point in the book (again, without giving up the plot), a struggle with identity and finding the right values.
One of our regulars, "The King of Thornton Jeffrey Morton" postured back in an October column "How to deal with a season in transition" the following:
The best way to approach this season would be with tempered expectations, understanding, and maybe a feeling that this will be a year of development and approach. This applies to the players as well as new head coach Brian Shaw. Everyone is feeling each other out, trying new things and seeing what fits. The Nuggets are taking a more deliberate approach to offense and it remains to be seen if they have the personnel to pull that off.
I want to extrapolate on this and then some, but first, a restating of important facts:
Prior to the beginning of the 2013-2014 season, the following happened, in a nutshell:
1) Highly respected GM Masai Ujiri, who firmly believed in Karl's vision of a fast paced high tempo offense, and who had built a roster that supported a decade of up-temp basketball, left for Toronto. 2) George Karl, the coach who brought us eight seasons of regular season home glory and one season of playoff success (much to Billups credit imho), and of whom continued the culture of fast-pace basketball in the Mile-High, was fired. 3) Andre Iguodala, our defensive "anchor", left the team in a controversial manner. 4) Several unit players K2, Brewer, among others, were traded in exchange for some pieces and some trial-and-error type guys. 5) We hired a first year head coach looking to change the way basketball was played in Denver. 6) A key player, Danilo Gallinari, a near all-star the year before, would be out for essentially the first half of the season, given that he would take a month or so to reattain his level of performance. 7) The Western conference was shaping up to be even better than it was the year before, especially with poor play coming from a majority of teams in the East.
Going into the season, and through the first half of the season, these were the cards we were handed and subsequently dealt:
1) We were playing our first season with a new FO. 2) We were playing with a first year head coach asked to bring a different "style" of basketball to Denver. 3) We were playing with a brand new roster (guys like Foye, Robinson, Hickson, Arthur, all new). 4) We were to play without two of our starters as McGee went out, and at times with other starters out for extended periods (Chandler, DA). 5) We were to learn that both of our absent starters (yes, I am aware that McGee wasn't by definition "starting" the game, but 40 million and starting the first few weeks this season says otherwise) were to be out for a majority of the season. 6) The schedule during the second half of the season was to be considerably more difficult than the first, and we were entering it at essentially .500
Why repeat everything that we already know? Why restate everything that has already played out?
On a stormy afternoon in Colorado a while ago someone close to me once asked: "Why are you telling me to be careful because it's raining out? It's not like I haven't seen rain and wind before" to which I replied, "so you don't get mad when you get wet."
There's something to be said of expectations, especially as they pertain to DenverStiffs and our collective community here. It could be that we thought our starters were nearly unstoppable at home. It could be that we are holding onto the hope that somehow the Shaw Company can find a way to get this battered roster into the post-season. Most of all, and personally, I think it's that for about a decade we've been acclimated to years of generally winning basketball, not necessarily championships and banners, but just winning. You don't expect to get wet when it rains because you yourself do everything you can do to stay dry, but you forget that other things around you are outside your control. This season has thrown us for some wet misery at many unexpected times, even when we prepared ourselves for victory. We did everything we did last year as fans, but for some reason we're getting soaked in losses and injuries.
When you step back from moments like last night's loss to the Charlotte Bobcats, when you step back from the win streaks and loss streaks, and when you step back from years of winning basketball and appreciate the immensity of what occurred during the 2013 offseason, then I think you'll be able to put forth realistic expectations. Can it really be one player or coach's fault that something is going wrong? In a season like this, do we even really know what "wrong" and "fault" are, other than a bad game or loss? Last season you could make a clear cut and rationale case that poor 3pt. shooting, Karl's playoff rotations/schemes, and the Warriors hot shooting were the "fault" and the "wrong", but that case can only be made because of the following: we knew who we were, we knew our limits, strengths, and weaknesses, and we knew what we had with Coach Karl and a set (emphasis on set) roster. We had nine years of experience that gave rationality to our expectations.
This season? That has all gone out the window. Take those key events listed above for prior and during the season, and rethink them over. Simply saying "see the bigger picture" probably isn't comforting enough for Stiffs to get through continued turmoil throughout the second half of the season, but it does have a lot of impact. Far too many of our thread conversations and analysis oversimplify things. We see Lawson not drive full speed into the lane and forget that it's exhausting to do that every game, we see this team go on streaks and forget that consistency comes with experience as a unit (would your own recreational team be consistent if you yourself were playing with new additions to the starting line-up? Throw out your close team friends and add some randoms in their place), but most of all we forget just how many variables guys like Connelly and Shaw are considering with their line-ups, we don't fathom each game's meaning for Shaw's rotations or Connelly's trade considerations. As fans, and as the nature of the "fan," we are relegated to simply cheering Ty when he is in the lane, scolding Shaw when he doesn't start Mozgov, or throwing a confused fit when we lose to Utah and then beat Golden State. These guys are lightyears ahead of us in terms of basketball thinking, and it's rather foolish to simply things with phrases like "dumb rotations" or "tank."
Instead of having a conversation about "ok, let's reset and play Nuggets basketball" or "ok, NOW it's time to get serious," let's in ourselves get serious by answering the following while thinking omnisciently:
Given hindsight and the teams' overarching situation, what can we realistically expect from the second half of the season? With that in mind, and more importantly, what are some actual signs of progress that aren't reflected in the W-L column that you are looking for with the remainder of the season?
Very cold but true to the point, I am optimistic despite the following expectations: The Nuggets will not make the playoffs, simply because the current playoff and other near-playoff teams in the West are going to play harder to get seeds while we succumb from injuries and lack of talent. I could care less about the playoffs. This isn't a "playoff season," this is the "season of development," and it's all about seeing game by game how good guys like Mozgov, Fournier, and Quincy can become while some of our regulars are out. Chalk one in there too for optimism for having Shaw as our coach, to be .500 in THIS conference with THIS team? Hell yeah. Those two parts to me are, among others, what is actually exciting about this season. It was Fournier's 19-6-5-3 night yesterday, not losing to the Bobcats in a season where we have zero chance to win in the post-season regardless. Winning is great today and tomorrow, but building a team for a trophy is what it's all about.
If not just wins wins wins, what are you looking for? What are your Great Expectations?
"Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day."
- Charles Dickens, Great Expectations