The Denver Nuggets have opened the season with what some would call an un-even performance. Victories against the New Orleans Pelicans, Minnesota Timberwolves and Boston Celtics have been countered by heartbreaking or down right ugly losses to the Portland Trail Blazers, Toronto Raptors and Detroit Pistons. Last season, a 3-3 record out of the gate, where five of those games came on the road, would have been lauded as a great success. However, as the Nuggets move into year two of the Emmanuel Mudiay-Michael Malone era, the expectations are more about Ws than culture change and growth. The truth is though, that is an unfair expectation to put on a team that is really in just year three of a five year rebuild. The key for both Nuggets fans and the organization itself is to continue to exercise patience because again and again the NBA has shown good team building takes time.
The Golden State Warriors are widely considered the best team in basketball today, and while some of that has to do with mega free agent signing Kevin Durant, far more of it has to do with the team’s ability to identify, draft and develop talent. However, the Warriors didn’t turn into an NBA landscape altering franchise in just a couple years. It took them half a decade. Stephen Curry arrived in Golden State to a team that had won just 29 games the year prior. They’d fail to match that in Curry’s rookie season, winning just 26 games. In fact it wouldn’t be until Curry’s fourth season when the Warriors finally broke back into the playoffs, which was the year they upset the Nuggets in the first round leading to Denver showing George Karl the door. Along the way though the Warriors suffered multiple losing seasons which they parlayed into smart draft picks like Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and even Harrison Barnes. Now they’ve shed the least impressive of those picks and used their prestige as a title contender to land one of the biggest free agent signings of all time.
Durant’s former team also found it’s way to title contention through a series of bad to mediocre years and compiling assets via the draft. A little bit of luck in 2007 landed the then Seattle Supersonics the #2 overall pick where they selected Durant. However, by no means did the team make an instantaneous turnaround. Much like Curry’s Warriors, the Sonics failed to live up to the poor win total that landed them their prized draft pick, and were actually eleven games worse in Durant’s rookie year than they were the year prior. Once the team moved to Oklahoma City and changed their name to the Thunder they still suffered through another losing season before getting back to the playoffs in year four of their rebuild. In that time they had drafted another pair of superstars in Russell Westbrook and James Harden to go along with late round steal Serge Ibaka. The Thunder made some choices they probably wish they could re-do (read: Harden trade) and now face uncertain direction with Durant’s departure but a multiple year rebuild through the draft got them three wins away from a championship and one win away from another trip to the finals just last season.
Of course, not every team lands a Durant or Curry in the draft and sometimes their rebuild leaves them in limbo. Look no further than the Nuggets division rival the Utah Jazz for an example of that. The Jazz are currently beginning what will be a very important season for them. After bottoming out at just 25 wins in 2014, Utah has been working their way back to the playoffs through the draft, but have yet to reach the promise land. Further compounding the problem for Utah is their rebuild actually started back in 2011. That season the Jazz drafted Gordon Hayward and traded perennial all-star Deron Williams for a package centered on young power forward Derrick Favors. The team briefly returned to the playoffs the next season, but since then has been piling up losing seasons. They’ve also added talent though, Alec Burks, Rudy Gobert and Trey Lyles now compliment Favors and Gobert, each one a valuable homegrown talent. However, with Utah just missing out on the playoffs last season they are now desperate to take the next step before potentially losing Hayward and Favors in the next two coming offseasons. If their unable to accomplish their goal, they could be staring at square one very quickly.
The Nuggets have a young core that is built through the draft like all of these teams. Unfortunately, they may be in a situation more similar to that of the Jazz rather than the Thunder or Warriors. This is because like the Jazz, the Nuggets lack that bonafide superstar player that the Warriors and Thunder had in Curry and Durant respectfully. Currently Emmanuel Mudiay, Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic all have flashes of star potential, but none have taken the reins. Perhaps Denver can hope that one of these young talents will follow the path of Curry who really started blossoming in year three of his career before being a full fledged star by year four. It’s also important to remember that not all four of those guys have to pan out. Because while everyone wants to talk about the Currys, Thompsons, Durants and Westbrooks they often leave out that the Thunder took Cole Aldrich eleventh in 2010 or that the Warriors drafted Ekpe Udoh with the sixth overall pick just one year after Curry. The Jazz too have missed, taking Enes Kanter third in 2011 who no longer plays for the team.
The Nuggets are still early in the rebuild process, piling up their draft assets and starting to turn the corner towards once again being relevant. While there is certainly risk in going this route, particularly in identifying star level talent, Denver has done their best to mitigate this risk by stockpiling picks much like the teams who were successful with this method before them. Watching games like last night, where the Nuggets march into hostile territory in what everyone is considering a schedule loss and in turn hand out a beat down led by an absolute point explosion by Mudiay should give everyone hope that there is a bright future at the end of this rebuild. For now, Nuggets fans need to sit back and enjoy watching this team grow up together, that way when they accomplish something really special, the fans can say they were with them from the beginning.