Since the 2008-09 season, the Denver Nuggets have experienced the Western Conference Finals the same way that the rest of us have, by watching the games on television.
With a 33-49 record, the Nuggets missed the postseason for a third straight year, but the team seems poised to return to the postseason next season if things work out in their favor. With players like Emmanuel Mudiay, Nikola Jokic, Danilo Gallinari, Gary Harris, and the other talented players on the roster, it looks like the Nuggets will be able to compete for a postseason berth and take the next step towards contending for a championship.
When I watch the Oklahoma City Thunder, Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Toronto Raptors, I see teams that are head and shoulders above the Nuggets as currently constructed.
The Raptors are a balanced offensive and defensive team (when healthy), with Dwane Casey's squad able to score with the best in the league thanks to the talents of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, with DeMarre Carroll, Jonas Valanciunas and Bismack Biyombo helping provide stellar defense. With Masai Ujiri pulling the strings in the front office, this team seems like they are going to be contenders for the near future.
The Cavaliers are a team that paid no attention to the salary cap as they built around LeBron James. The Cavaliers are the only team to have over $100 million in total salary, paying players like Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, Kyrie Irving, and the aforementioned James big bucks to help the team contend for a championship. They're even paying three head coaches (Mike Brown, David Blatt, Tyronn Lue), but the opportunity to bring a championship to Cleveland is worth every penny to Dan Gilbert.
The Thunder are a team headlined by two of the best players in the world in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. These basketball demigods are the alpha and omega of the franchise, and first year NBA head coach Billy Donovan has figured out a way to help the Thunder contend for a championship by putting the right pieces in the right places to help the team win. Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, Dion Waiters, and Andre Roberson are athletic, young players that have developed great chemistry on both ends of the court, operating seamlessly together to create misses and score with great efficiency.
The Warriors are a historic team, finishing the regular season with the best record in NBA history. Steph Curry had a legendary season, showing off range from 28 feet while also finishing with flair in the paint. Klay Thompson is an elite 3-point shooter and underrated defender, while Draymond Green provides passionate leadership and versatile play on both ends of the court. Steve Kerr has a ton of athletic players he can plug into lineups, and the Warriors can never be truly counted out of any game.
Regardless of the results of the Conference Finals, these teams have three qualities that the Denver Nuggets should apply to their franchise if they want to do more than dream about contending for a championship.
1) Have a versatile lineup
The Thunder faced a challenging path in the playoffs as the No. 3 seed. Rick Carlisle and Dirk Nowitzki waited in the first round, Gregg Popovich and the dominant Spurs in the second round, and the legendary Warriors in the Conference Finals. To beat the Spurs, the Thunder went with a big lineup, and Enes Kanter helped the Thunder advance with his ability to rebound and score in the paint. Now they have a 3-1 series lead over the Golden State Warriors, and they have won three games largely by abandoning the big lineup that overpowered the Spurs.
The Cavaliers are shooting their way to the NBA Finals, with Ty Lue playing smaller lineups with Channing Frye at center and James at power forward. They have a green light to shoot from behind the 3-point line, and they have been making them at a prodigious rate. If they want to play defensive, they can sub in Matthew Dellavedova, Iman Shumpert, and Tristan Thompson, grinding teams down with physical play and rebounding. They force other teams to adjust to their lineups, and that plays into their favor more often than not.
For the Nuggets to reach that kind of versatility, they need to acquire athletic players at every position with backups that have an above-average skill without being below-average in the rest of their game. Andre Roberson isn't a model of efficiency on offense, but his above-average defense as well as his ability to score in certain ways (corner threes, at the rim) helps justify playing him more than 30 minutes per game. Bismack Biyombo struggles to catch the ball on offense and pass, but he's able to do it well enough that Dwane Casey can still play him and the team benefits from his rim protection and rebounding.
2) Be patient with roster construction
Steph Curry didn't become a superstar right away. He didn't become a superstar after three seasons. But the Warriors were patient with him, helped him develop his game, and now they have a MVP player leading their team. The franchise was patient with Curry as he dealt with ankle injuries, and they are reaping the rewards for their prudence.
Kyle Lowry was drafted with the No. 24 pick by Memphis, but was traded in his third season to the Houston Rockets. After seven seasons, he found a home with the Toronto Raptors, and has helped formed an All-Star backcourt with DeMar DeRozan, who has never played for another NBA team. The Raptors let their two guards build chemistry over time, and when they are hitting on all cylinders, are one of the best backcourts in the league.
For the Nuggets, that means finding the right players to be patient with and then giving them time. Emmanuel Mudiay is only 20 years old, and it won't be surprising if he continues to have growing pains in his sophomore season. Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic are likely to hit some potholes and speed bumps as their games progress, but exercising patience in the right personnel will eventually pay off.
Of course, the challenge there is finding the right players to be patient with - but that's something entirely different which leads into the next point.
3) Right staff, right coach, right culture
The Cavaliers wouldn't be where they are today if David Griffin hadn't been able to make the right moves by trading for J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert last season. If Griffin hadn't made the trade for Channing Frye, they wouldn't be able to have another floor-spacing big man off the bench if Kevin Love was struggling. If he hadn't made the difficult choice to fire David Blatt, the Cavaliers may not be in a position to compete for a championship. The Cavaliers culture is the way it is largely in part to the efforts of their general manager, and they are successful thanks to his leadership.
The Thunder wouldn't be where they are today without the leadership from Sam Presti and Billy Donovan. Moving on from long-time head coach Scott Brooks was a tough choice, but it seems to be the right decision as Donovan has the Thunder one win away from a NBA Finals berth. Presti has done well to put players around Westbrook and Durant to help the team continue to contend for a championship. It helps to have such transcendent talents on the roster, but they aren't able to do everything on their own. The team has a positive culture that helps contribute to their success, and they hope that culture helps deliver a title to the franchise.
For the Nuggets, this means building a culture of success with Tim Connelly and Michael Malone. Everyone in the franchise should be committed to doing everything they can to improve, from the daily grind of lifting weights and putting up shots in the gym to the long-term process of scouting college and international players, working with the analytics department, and helping fill the arena with Nuggets fans on gameday.
For the Nuggets to reach the Conference Finals, they are going to have to do more than just draft the right players. It's not going to be easy, it'll take a little luck, a lot of work, and even with all that, nothing is guaranteed. If and when it does happen though, be sure to enjoy the experience.