With just three seconds left on the game clock and the Nuggets down a point, Ian Clark nailed a three-pointer off of a well-designed inbound play to give the Nuggets the win in Las Vegas. As the shot went in, I immediately looked over to my left where a few feet away, the entire Nuggets staff was seated. Tim Connelly, Josh Kroenke, Mike Malone, and a dozen other front office members all leapt to their feet, huge smiles across their faces, as they exchanged high fives. Even ‘Silent Stan’ Kroenke, notorious for his stoic demeanor, shared a moment of unbridled excitement.
It was a neat moment and something indicative of the turning point the organization has made over the last month. Despite the game only being of the meaningless, summer league variety, the Nuggets staff must’ve felt a great relief to finally have something to celebrate. Just three months ago, after one of the most tumultuous seasons in team history, a moment like this wouldn’t have elicited such a light and joyful response from anyone inside the Nuggets organization.
A year removed from the not-so-amicable breakup with head coach George Karl, the 2015 season was filled with adversity from all angles. In addition to a poor record, several embarrassing home blowout losses, and a downright team mutiny, the Nuggets front office got hit with a public relations nightmare when ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz published a scathing article on the Nuggets’ alleged dysfunction and incompetence. The details of that article were disputed by some media members in Denver but regardless of how accurate the portrayal is of the front office, perception can be more important than reality and after the article hit, the Nuggets’ approval rating fell to an all-time low.
Once the article riled the Nuggets fan base, the front office went to the mattresses. It was a critical moment for Josh and Tim, probably their largest test to date and their first response to the adversity was to create radio silence. For months nothing from inside the organization leaked to the media. No rumors about who the team was hiring to replace Brian Shaw, no rumors on who they would draft or who they might be looking to trade. Nearly five months have passed since that silence began and for the first time, Nuggets fans are starting to see the vision that the front office has been working toward in their Pepsi Center bunkers.
Gone is Ty Lawson, the Nuggets most talented player who has dealt with off-court issues that seemed to boil over this season. Instead, the team will be built around the extremely promising young point guard, Emmanuel Mudiay. He will be under the tutelage of two talented Denver veterans in Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler. Kenneth Faried will also move from rising star to locker room veteran, and he will be given an opportunity to both anchor the team and develop as a team leader. Most of the roster will be filed with young, mostly foreign prospects who are eager and excited to be a part of the Nuggets rebuild. Will Barton, Jusuf Nurkic, and Gary Harris have all embraced the city, and the opportunity to grow with the Nuggets; both Joffrey Lauvergne and Nikola Jokic are quickly becoming a part of the team's future as well. Lastly, the front office found a young head coach in Michael Malone who might be the perfect guy to build a lasting culture of success with such an inexperienced team.
Throughout Summer League, one mantra was repeated over and over amongst NBA writers and fans: rookies always struggle. The NBA is an environment that can’t be replicated by the NCAA, by the Chinese Basketball Association, the Adriatic league, Summer League or any other league, for that matter. And while that mantra has become accepted and understood about players, the same can be said for NBA coaches and front office personnel. Very few coaches, general managers, or owners experience immediate success. There is almost always a learning curve.
It’s very early in the process, but it appears as though the Nuggets front office has learned something from their mistakes. This is only a first step and it will likely be a long time before the Nuggets are ready to compete for a championship. There will be many more crossroads ahead for the front office, coaching staff, and players and it will take a great amount of tact and luck to move from a promising young team to a competitive team and ultimately to a championship team.
But for the first time in at least two seasons, it feels like the Nuggets have planted something that actually has a chance to grow.