Ahead of the biggest Nuggets game in 4 years, as Adam Mares called it on his podcast, I’m torn. I want to be completely amped for this game (and indeed this entire last stretch of the season) because it is the first stretch of meaningful basketball for Denver since the basketball gods dismantled the Karl Era Nuggets with one swift twist of a knee. On the other hand, it feels very much like an orchestra warming up, with some tuning needed before the real show begins next year.
So is this a prelude to the “real” show, or a main event - and can it be both? Look, this Denver team should not be competing for the playoffs. Last year the Rockets made it in at 41-41 (and thus gifted Juancho Hernangomez to Denver), but in the three years prior it took 45, 49 and 45 wins to make the Western Conference postseason dance card. Denver’s current playoff chase is due in part to Portland faltering early in the season and letting a potential below-.500 team slide into the 8th spot in the West.
But one thing the Nuggets should never do is apologize for their situation. It’s three days until April and Denver is playing meaningful games, something that hasn’t happened since Danilo Gallinari blew his knee out 4 years ago. April 4th, 2013 was a turning point for the franchise. Instead of fielding its strongest team in years and making a deep playoff run, the Nuggets had a worst-case-scenario come true and fell to the ascending Golden State Warriors.
Denver responded to that gut-wrenching end of the season by dropping the Coach of the Year and the Executive of the Year and starting with a new vision - which promptly failed disastrously. But despite the brief pain of the Brian Shaw era, the key to Denver’s resurgence has been GM Tim Connelly’s keen scouting eye and ability to roll sevens on longshots, including rising star Nikola Jokic.
But you know all this. If you’ve been reading this site since before Jokic was a full-time starter you remember the Shaw debacle and the George Karl wars and Gallo’s failed “healing response therapy” nonsense. It hasn’t been a long downturn for the Nuggets, but it was such a steep fall into drama and irrelevance that most of the city forgot it had an NBA team.
Denver is slowly waking up to the idea that this team is pretty good now and should be very good in the years to come. It’s figuring out that this team is in the heart of a playoff chase (although precious few of the remaining games are at home). And reminding its paying fans of that fact should help the Kroenkes keep swimming in their vault of gold next year, but that’s not the main goal either.
Building a legit contender going forward is. That was the goal when Karl was fired, and when Shaw was fired. Josh Kroenke might have made the wrong choice to replace Karl, but he was very clear about his goal. One approach had gotten stale, and one was rotten from the start (although I’m sure Bryan Shaw is cursing the universe knowing that Nikola Jokic could have run everything he wanted).
Coach Michael Malone still has some things to prove when it comes to running a perennial winner, but these are his opportunities to learn on the job and demonstrate he is the right man for the next stage. And the kids need experience too. Even if they’re not playing, they need it - although according to Jameer Nelson they’re not kids at all:
Jameer was asked how this loss effects the "kids" and he cut him off and said, "they aren't kids. They are men."— T.J. McBride (@BSN_McBride) March 27, 2017
Jameer is the best.
That’s a pretty common vet response - at the end of your first year in the league you’re no longer a rookie, and this Jokic’s second year and the third for Gary Harris. As young players in the league, however, they still have a lot to learn about how to win when the games matter and the whistles change, and teams are game-planning to take away your favorite plays.
And the kids - excuse me, young men - want to play. Some of them might even be getting a little salty about it.
between booker and me we scored 70 today .. not bad— Juancho Hernangomez (@juanchohg14) March 25, 2017
Now whether that was a margarita-rim of shade at getting a DNP-CD against the Pacers or simply a funny line from a rookie enjoying the ride, I don’t know. I do know that these young men all have a ton of competitive fire and seem to be taking the journey for what it’s worth - ups and downs.
It's a good thing that this is not easy....Or else everybody would be doing it. BeMore— Jamal Murray (@BeMore27) March 27, 2017
To drop another Gandhi quote: glory lies in the attempt. This can be a big game without being the goal. Playing in games that are pressure-packed, with actual stakes, is hugely important for a core as young as Denver’s. Showing the city of Denver that the Nuggets are once again serious about competing for attention and affections in a Broncos town is also good. The Wright Brothers crashed a few times before they got their plane to sustain flight - a loss tonight doesn’t end anything for the Nuggets other than maybe their hopes to be an appetizer for Golden State’s playoff run.
A win would put them in position to battle the whole way down the stretch and give them somewhere around even odds to make the actual playoffs. Playing the Rockets and Pelicans multiple times in these last few weeks makes it seem a bit like the playoffs are already here, though, and that’s good too. The more games in which the Nuggets can feel this pressure and agonize or celebrate with each game, the better for their future - and the excitement of their present.
What can I say? I’m hyped for this anyway. Bring on Portland!