The Nuggets and Spurs are both small-market teams with different philosophies for building a successful team.
The Spurs, after lucking out in two NBA draft lotteries with generation-defining players, drafted unknown but budding international stars, then filled the rest of the roster with high-character role players.
The Nuggets, since drafting Carmelo Anthony in 2003, have acquired various pieces through various means, attempted various combinations of stars and depth players, and are considered now the deepest team in the league without a superstar.
The "Spurs way" has netted five titles in 17 years. Although success does breed success, and continuity helps as well, only a few other teams – the Pacers and the Bulls – have seriously attempted in recent years to emulate the Spurs in building its team through internal growth and a good system.
Build through the draft teams
Before this season, the Thunder was everybody's favorite model for building a team – suck for a few years, get lucky with your high draft picks that they all turn into superstars, have those players play together while they are still inexpensive and hope they don't get too expensive when they get really good – and it is a strategy that the 76ers are attempting by offloading everybody who doesn't have a chance to be a young superstar.
Build through free agency
Among the non-glamorous markets, the Hornets are quickly being talked about as a savvy small-market team using free agency to become a playoff team (in a weak conference) as it lures All-Star talent by overpaying for it.
The Hawks are the quintessential free agency team – with the cap space for top-level players, but who then settle for second- and third-tier players on short contracts, which allows them to get to the playoffs regularly (note again, in a weak conference).
Hoping for a big free agent
Many of the big-market teams use free agency as a way to accumulate more top-level talent. The Heat won a title this way. The Celtics also won a title this way, signing Ray Allen and fleecing the Timberwolves to get Kevin Garnett.
The Mavericks won their title despite failing at trying to win this way. Having set themselves up for big-ticket free agents, they failed, and instead spent money on second-tier talent to surround Dirk and a few other internal guys.
Nuggets' above-average collection of average players
The Nuggets made the playoffs for 10 straight years prior to this season, which at the time was the league's second longest active playoff streak – and the Western Conference was the more competitive conference the whole time.
The Nuggets have used a variety of methods – drafting well, trading well, signing good free agents – to acquire a collection of average and above-average players, who, collectively (and for 9 years with the help of a good coach), made the Nuggets slightly above-average.
This has actually been the most common approach by many good teams, especially those in non-major markets, including this year Memphis, Phoenix and Portland.
The Nuggets' three most successful draft picks (or draft-day acquired players) other than Carmelo Anthony were Nene, Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried, all who are solid contributors but borderline All-Stars.
Nuggets and the pot of gold
The Nuggets haven't signed any major free agents, and they are likely not to this summer. Whereas the Spurs were able to draft All-Stars, other than Carmelo Anthony the Nuggets have had to acquire them.
That's actually the most important aspect to remember: The Nuggets have acquired multiple good players.
Most notably Allen Iverson, Chauncy Billups and Andre Igoudala have all worn both Team USA and Nuggets uniforms.
In this regard, the Clippers may be the closest facsimile to the Nuggets, successfully adding a superstar via trade to an existing superstar that was picked in the draft, then surrounding them with multiple talented players and bringing in a good coach.
The Nuggets are always a factor in trading for a superstar, which is Kevin Love this year. The Nuggets have offered what has reportedly been the best option to get Love, so we shouldn't be surprised if the Nuggets do get Love, or they make a move later in the year for somebody else.
Any draft, trade or free agent signing is a risk. The Nuggets have taken risks over the last 10 years to become more than a good team – yet they have also been prudent to ensure that, other than an injury-plagued 2013-14 that was also a part-reset, they don't risk becoming less than good.
A footnote about the Nuggets and the playoffs
The Nuggets were always looked upon with scepticism for its fast pace that wouldn't succeed in the playoffs, while the 2012-13 team was doubly criticized for not having a superstar who would take a shot at the end of the game.
The Nuggets' playoff failures were largely in part due to a lack of skills and depth for most of those years, a poor experiment with two defense-weary superstars paired together and one of them on the declining side of his prime (Iverson), unfortunate circumstances when the team had its two-year window with Billups (end-of-game plays against the Lakers in the Conference Finals, then George Karl's cancer the next year), and a 2013 playoff matchup that exposed Denver's largest weakness (three-point defense).