Perhaps it was an admission of defeat which came two years too late that caused the Denver Nuggets to hit the reset button. Or maybe it was the concession that the Golden State Warriors would be unbeatable for the next couple of years. Or maybe it was just dumb luck. Who really knows? Either way, in 2015 the Denver Nuggets looked at their situation and decided it was time to enter a full-on rebuild.
The team started parting ways with their high-profile veteran players including Arron Afflalo, JaVale McGee, Ty Lawson, and Timofey Mozgov, and cut ties with their fairly newly acquired coach, Brian Shaw. Nearly all of those guys were either brought on in 2013 or left over from the 57-win team in the belief that the team was only one or two moves away from competing in the western conference.
The team's calculations were wrong and after two seasons of disappointment, ownership and the front office set course on what appears to be a multi-year rebuild. The team had already drafted Jusuf Nurkic, Gary Harris, and Nikola Jokic in 2014 and throughout the course of the 2014-15 season, the team acquired a handful of talented young players. Emmanuel Mudiay fell to them in the draft, Will Barton joined them via trade, Joffrey Lauvergne came over from Europe, and a handful of future draft picks became a major part of the team's foundation.
As a result, the Nuggets have absolutely nailed step one of a proper rebuild. The team has found a very respectable coach that very well may grow into an elite coach in years to come. They've cast a wide net in search of young talent and have put themselves in position to be patient and see which players will develop to fit their long-term goals. And even Josh Kroenke himself has rewarded the front office with an extension, providing much needed stability, as our own Jeff Morton has pointed out. Fans may be impatient and expect their team to compete for a championship every single season, but the Nuggets have hit a home run in 2015-16 by creating a solid foundation for a long-term plan.
But as difficult as it was to figure out step one, the next steps will get harder and harder.
In as quickly as the next three weeks, the Nuggets front office will be forced to walk the tight line between remaining patient and not waiting too long to make a move. In the same way that avocados seem to go from unripe to rotten overnight, the value of young prospects can go from "tremendous upside" to "low ceiling" before you know it. The window to make a call on which direction a team should go can often open and close in the blink of an eye. And it's not just a player's skill in a vacuum. Some players on the roster will develop fairly well but still won't fit with the direction of the team.
JJ Hickson's name has come up in rumors as a player the Nuggets are looking to move but his contract expires this season. Will the Nuggets be willing to move him if it brings back a longer deal? The Nuggets have a handful of draft picks owed to them over the next few years, should they include one of those picks in a move to acquire a current player? Or do they move one of their rotational veterans to acquire an additional pick? Is Kenneth Faried part of the long-term plan of the Nuggets? And if not, how long before the front office looks to move him? And for what type of player in return?
Head coach Michael Malone himself will face more difficult questions in the coming months and years. This season he's had the luxury of low expectations and the opportunity to figure out the strengths and weaknesses of a roster full of young players. As time goes by, Malone will face more and more pressure to figure out what type of system fits his roster's strengths and how to develop the young players to play the way that he expects them to play. Will the offense be primarily built around a Mudiay/Nurkic pick-and-roll or will the team prefer to play through Jokic at the elbows? Will the Nuggets look to get out in the open court or slow it down and be more of a half-court team?
Several teams through smart planning and/or dumb luck, pass step one of a rebuild with flying colors. Fewer teams continue to grow into perennial playoff teams. Fewer still become serious contenders and even fewer ever win a championship. Each step along the route becomes more and more difficult. Just this week the Cleveland Cavaliers fired head coach David Blatt despite owning the second best record in the league. Right or wrong, the Cavs are seeing first-hand what it's like to be stuck in the second-to-last phase en route to a championship and that the last leap is the most difficult.
The Denver Nuggets are pretty far from a championship but at least they are on the right track. Unfortunately, the road only gets harder from here.