One of the great joys of writing for Denver Stiffs from Los Angeles this past season has been a re-attachment to the Denver sports scene, especially my favorite team, the Denver Nuggets. A recent DS thread had fellow Stiff-and-Angeleno (Stiffgelino?), John Kobbeman bemoaning the state of being an L.A.-based sports fan - Los Angeles being the home of bandwagon-jumpers and fair-weather-fandom. Those factors, a transient population like no other, and a bevy of literal fair-weather options make L.A. a truly unique town to watch sports in. Every sports bar you walk into will have fans from nearly every city and country, with allegiances running the gamut (the World Cup has been sensational here amongst the international melting pot). It's maddening and amazing all at once, and unless you are a Lakers or Dodgers fan, expect competition for your barstool in this town. One of the many things I miss about living in sports-rabid and local-loyal Denver.
Denver is truly a magnificent sports town, holding the distinction of being the least-populated city in the country to be a five-sport city (counting the Rapids), with a loyal fan base for every team. At the top of the heap, and with no one a close second, are the Denver Broncos. As big a Broncos fan as I am, I'm a Nuggets guy first, a rarity I'm guessing several DS readers "enjoy" amongst their friends. I always found it funny, the rare moments that Broncos and Nuggets news would overlap in the Denver papers, and the treatment of the same. Their news cycles don't overlap all that much, blessedly, but I'd swear the Nuggets could make the playoffs as a one seed, and if Peyton Manning had suffered a gas bubble the previous day, the first three pages of the local sports section would revolve around stomach issues, farting at altitude and Peyton's record before and after burping.
Locally and nationally, the Nuggets battle for relevance has always been predicated on two factors - success and star power. When the Nuggets have a "star" in the fold, many things are simpler for Team Kroenke. Attendance, headlines and jersey sales all spike (as do a few salaries), and suddenly our Nugs hold a more prominent place in conversation around town.
Without that star, the Nuggets have to gain their relevance-foothold the hard way, in the wins column. Even so, I'm not sure the Nuggets record-setting, 57-win season of 2012-2013 garnered the attention and press of any season of Carmelo Anthony's tenure (although I believe they set a home-attendance record that year, no?). Being an L.A. resident at that point, the post-Melo national coverage was a trickle compared to Anthony's stay.
Star power is exactly that in today's NBA - power. While the Nuggets have been an exciting and dynamic team for the better part of the post-Melo era, the glitter has certainly been knocked off the disco ball for many of Denver's fringe-dwelling fans, as well as the national media.
The desire to return to that relevance has fueled fervent conversations amongst the Nuggets faithful about the rental of Kevin Love or Carmelo's (not so) imminent return. Historically, NBA stars' trajectories tend to carry them past the Rocky Mountains and the Nuggets. Denver Post columnist Benjamin Hochman recently wrote an excellent-but-sobering piece bemoaning the odds of the Nuggets ever ascending Basketball's Everest, whether with a star or not.
Adding insult to injury, the one Colorado-grown NBA star of the last few decades, Chauncey Billups, was swept away in the Melo-drama trade with the Knicks... A sad way to end a relationship with the one star in decades who badly wanted to retire a Nugget. One is left to wonder when the next "Nugget-for-Life" candidate might come down the pipe. (some of you might debate Chauncey's "star" player status - but his Finals MVP and carriage of the Nuggets to the Western Conference finals are good enough for this Stiff)
Free Agency is upon us, my friends, and this year our Nuggets look to be primarily on the outside looking in. Most mid-market teams who have ascended or nearly-ascended those NBA-playoff heights have done so with a bona fide star in place. Denver doesn't look to be a player in this year's Free Agency merry-go-round, and the few prizes out there are settling into decisions daily. Even given Mr. Hochman's well-thought-yet-depressing article, the Nuggets have another campaign to mount, and I'm hopeful our team doesn't enter the season with Benji's Bleak Outlook. Even against tough odds, the excitement (and excrement) comes from trying.
So... Star? No star? What's the recipe that gets our Denver Nuggets through that barrier? And how long will that plan take?
Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.
- Andy Dufresne, The Shawshank Redemption
Happy Thursday, Nuggets Nation. Tell me how we're going to do this thing.