It's difficult to sit out another year of postseason festivities as a fan. I know the Denver Nuggets are working on a slow rebuild that should be more valuable than moderate short term success, but the competitor in me wants to watch the Nuggets be the one to play the Golden State Warriors, not the Portland Trailblazers.
That should be the first clue as to how the NBA landscape has changed dramatically, especially in the Western Conference. Teams often need not just one star player, but two or three.
Watching the Oklahoma City Thunder play the San Antonio Spurs Tuesday night made this even more evident in my mind. A lot is made of the Spurs machine but going against the athletes of the Thunder made the flow more challenging offensively and defensively. It also helped that Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant could consistently beat perfect defense with their combination of athleticism and skill. Putting in brutes such as Steven Adams and Enes Kanter was also integral because they simply wore down the Spurs physically.
Shown in the video above are the simple plays that Adams makes. Kanter also gets in on the action with a rejection of Tim Duncan and a put back over LaMarcus Aldridge. It's blatantly obvious that this series might have been 3-2 Spurs or possibly already won by San Antonio without the contributions of the two big men.
Now, the Nuggets can deploy Nikola Jokić and Jusuf Nurkić in a similar way that Adams and Kanter are deployed, but the combination may simply be a counter that can only be used against teams like the Spurs. It will be interesting to see if the Thunder advance to the Western Conference Finals, how often will they deploy the duo against a Golden State Warriors team (Draymond Green told me this would happen) that can deploy its "Lineup of Death" with Green at the center position?
Also, the Nuggets do not have Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant to alleviate most offensive responsibility from those two big men. They do have Emmanuel Mudiay and Danilo Gallinari, but to ask those two to shoulder the same responsibilities as two of the top players in the NBA is asking for trouble.
Another potential team to model is the Golden State Warriors. But how easy can it be to model a team that just broke the NBA wins record and houses a player that won an MVP unanimously? Stephen Curry has been battling injuries recently, but it didn't show when he went super-saiyan against the Portland Trailblazers, scoring 17 points in overtime to break an NBA Playoffs record. Add that to the list Steph...
Yeah, modeling this type of play style may be difficult as well. The Nuggets have certainly modeled the roster construction of the Warriors, though. Both have drafted a potential franchise point guard with the seventh overall selection and traded the incumbent ball handler (Monta Ellis for Golden State, Ty Lawson for Denver).
Both have also built the rest of the team through the NBA draft (Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, and Green for the Warriors; Nurkic, Jokic, and Gary Harris for the Nuggets). The difference is that the Warriors are about six years into their rebuild, and they have now changed their label to championship contender. The aforementioned Warriors players all have at least four years of experience, while the Nuggets have no member of their core with more than two years.
It's hard to project the ceiling of the players on the Nuggets roster because they are so young, but it's hard to imagine that they can develop a unanimous MVP selection. This is not taking a shot at our players, but merely giving respect to the player Curry has become. 402 three pointers made, a Player Efficiency Rating of 31.5, and a Win Shares per 48 minutes of .318 are all incredible.
His WS/48 places him eighth all-time in the NBA and ABA, only behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, LeBron James, and Michael Jordan. If I'm a Nuggets fan, I'm not holding out hope that my best player reaches that level, and whoever ends up being the best player on a championship team doesn't need to be that effective.
The Atlanta Hawks this season may have rolled over against a stronger Cleveland Cavaliers squad, but they did advance past the Boston Celtics in dominating fashion, and they went to the Eastern Conference Finals last year. Mike Budenholzer's team prides itself on having a couple of players who benefit from the system most in Paul Millsap and Al Horford, but any player can break out and have a game changing performance, as evidenced by Dennis Schroder's 27 and 21 point performances.
Watch carefully in the above video of Game 1 and identify Kyle Korver. There are many instances where Iman Shumpert or J.R. Smith are face-guarding Korver, effectively allowing the Hawks to play four on four against the Cavs. Schroder effectively models the effectiveness that Mudiay would have with an open floor. With big men that screen well and either roll hard or fade to provide spacing, Mudiay's job of navigating an open half court becomes that much easier.
They do need the spacing of Kyle Korver in order to open up the floor for players inside. With respect to Gary Harris, the Nuggets don't have that quality of a shooter, but they could find that guy in the draft if they so choose. Jamal Murray and Buddy Hield project to be very good shooters, and both would fit next to Mudiay.
There is an argument to be made that the Hawks shouldn't be a model for the Nuggets to follow because they haven't won anything, but in the NBA, it's about getting as close as possible and hoping luck can carry the franchise the rest of the way.
There's also the argument that the Nuggets should not follow any sort of model to get back to relevancy. There's no way that every franchise can win an NBA championship, and the ones that do create their own model tailored to the strengths of their players. The Cavaliers are now being successful because LeBron James is sitting back and letting Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving do what they do best, hold the basketball in their hands and score.
A team centered around Emmanuel Mudiay and Nikola Jokic has to create offense in a different way. They may be able to model the Dallas Mavericks team that won a championship in 2011 with Jason Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki, but even that team was filled with key role players bordering on Hall of Famers in Tyson Chandler, Jason Terry, and Shawn Marion.
The Nuggets are so young, too young to make any judgment and paint the players in a specific light. More growth needs to be made before a proper assessment of ceiling and skill can be made. This is not just going to happen in 2016-17 either. Most title teams centered around the drafting of franchise centerpieces take a long time before they are ready to compete. They also need an alpha dog scoring threat, something my colleague Adam Mares points out in his most recent article about the upcoming draft.
Will the Nuggets be the next team to break out? The current roster needs time to tell, but they also cannot sit on their hands. Every year they use trying to quantify the value of their pieces is another year of rookie contract value wasted. If the perfect situation comes along for general manager Tim Connelly, he must strike while the iron is hot.