The title odds remain stacked against smaller-market teams like the Denver Nuggets. Denver’s not truly a basketball town, it doesn’t have a beach or an indulgent owner or a mega-city’s party vibe. Much like any other heist, stealing a spot in the Finals for even a mid-market club - and sustaining that kind of success - requires a great plan. It also takes some luck.
The Nuggets have been very lucky so far. Some of that luck is in the choices they’ve made, and some is in moves that didn’t happen, but that’s how it works for even the legendary teams. The Golden State Warriors built their title team off of an injury-prone point guard they almost traded for Amar’e Stoudemire on draft night, or for Chris Paul a couple of years later. Klay Thompson was a scorer who couldn’t defend before he was part of the best defensive unit in the NBA, and Draymond Green was a 6’7 center without a position who fell to the second round, until Golden State constructed one for him and unleashed his greatness.
This Denver squad has a legion of these sorts of stories. The Nuggets tried to get Dwyane Wade last summer and spent a day wooing him in person before he took his over-the-hill game to the dumpster fire that is the Chicago Bulls instead. His arrival would have come at the expense of Gary Harris, whom Denver then tried to move the following summer for Kevin Love (assuming the rumors are correct).
When that fell through (thanks, Indiana, for preferring OKC’s package for Paul George and ruining that three-way deal) the Nuggets then USED Gary Harris to help sell Paul Millsap on coming to Denver. Millsap and Harris together look to be far better than Love, both in fit and combined contribution level. If Millsap had turned Denver down the offseason would be bleak, but instead their poor luck with earlier trades helped them get the best fit possible.
But Denver wouldn’t have Gary Harris if the Bulls hadn’t swapped both Harris and Jusuf Nurkic for Doug McDermott. That draft was the same one that netted Denver it’s star, Nikola Jokic, in the second round. The amount of luck involved in finding a star that late is astounding, but getting all three of those guys in one draft is spectacular.
And it took a while to realize what Denver had accomplished. Here’s a video of a couple of Boston radio guys throwing up their arms in disbelief that Kevin Pelton said prior to the 2016 draft that the Celtics would be wise to call Denver about one of its centers and trade the #3 pick for one of them (around the three minute mark).
They laughed about that idea after deliberately mispronouncing both Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic repeatedly. Laughed it out of the room. A year later I’m sure they would gladly give up half the roster for Jokic - and they can probably pronounce his name. Luckily Denver figured out that Jokic was their lynchpin (although they did that too late to salvage Nurkic’s trade value, to our eternal chagrin). Denver’s luck in holding onto an underappreciated player until he fully blossomed here will pay huge dividends.
The luck isn’t over, though, because both Emmanuel Mudiay and Jamal Murray fell further in their drafts than they should have, allowing Denver to get two shots at its point guard of the future. Grabbing Juancho Hernangomez alongside Jamal Murray was another stroke of pure luck, though. Ty Lawson obliterated his trade value (as well as his value to his current team) through his DUI idiocy, and the Nuggets were incredibly lucky to salvage Houston’s non-lottery first-rounder after waiting too long to cash Lawson in. The Rockets were one spot from making the lottery, but instead landed at #15, giving the Nuggets the pick to select Juancho. The rumors said Juancho was going at #16 to the Celtics if Denver did not select him, something he may have confirmed in a Spanish-language interview. Check out Boston’s war room right after Denver picked:
It was a morgue - a lovely, beautiful morgue. Denver might have gotten its karmic comeuppance this year with OG Anunoby going one pick before the Nuggets drafted, but watching Murray and Hernangomez drain bucket after bucket from deep early in the pre-season only increases my belief that both will be really good players in this league - and great fits for this team.
And fit is important. The team concept around Jokic requires players that will cut without reward and shoot without conscience if it’s in service to team principles. If you think just anyone can cut and spot up and be happy with a team-first concept, LaMarcus Aldridge would like to disagree. His interview yesterday about his level of discontent with no longer being an offensive focal point is pretty eye-opening:
"It was an afterthought [to get me the ball early]. But it was both [probably my fault and the team's] because I didn't feel like I would get it," Aldridge said. "So I probably didn't run the floor as hard, or I didn't seal as good. Then, they didn't look for me. Then, when we both thought about it, it was too late.
"But this year, knowing that it's going to be a point of emphasis, I'm going to run harder. I'm going to duck in harder, and they're going to look for me faster. So it's going to be better."
Denver’s offense has buy-in from almost everyone, and watching them sprint up the floor while getting long lead passes from Plumlee or Jokic or Millsap is a beautiful thing. Players have the belief they will get the ball back and so are sharing almost to a point of excess. Getting players who buy in to the team concept and enthusiastically accept their roles is key. It helps to be able to subsume one’s ego - and not-so-coincidentally, that’s exactly what several players and front office members brought up about Paul Millsap, perhaps the best free agent acquisition Denver has ever had.
The Nuggets are building their team around a bunch of players that they are lucky to have, who have blossomed through a lot of hard work and dedication to their craft that they were not necessarily credited with. At any point along the way Denver could have tripped up and cast aside Murray or Harris or even Jokic, and messed up the equilibrium not just of this year’s squad but of future teams that needed this template of players to be successful.
Oklahoma City consolidated some excess parts, even some mistake parts added in error, into a Big Three that for a year might rival nearly any team in the West. The Nuggets are trying to do them one better and home-grow a worthy title contender that a few seasons from now can do what the Durant/Westbrook/Harden Thunder could not and this year’s iteration likely won’t either: bring a title back to their non-traditional basketball home.
On some occasions it’s better to be lucky than good, because sometimes luck can help make you great. The Larry O’Brien trophy remains the goal - let the heist planning begin in earnest.