What happens when unexpected success and newfound expectations meet together? Sometimes, a perfect storm of opportunity. Most of the time, reality checks, usually ones that are difficult to deal with and understand.
As a 20-year-old, I still have much to learn, but I have had some time to reflect on my experiences in sports before and during high school. I played basketball for a brief time, but where I truly specialized was in both football and baseball. Before high school, I enjoyed success at every level, and it looked like that would continue for a long time. During high school baseball especially, life was going well. One of my coaches projected that I would be pitching in the 86-90 mile per hour range by my senior year based on my previous seasons, which is pretty darn fast for the high school level.
As I was preparing to seek out colleges to play for at the next level, it was discovered that I had torn my labrum in my throwing shoulder. I had surgery, spent my entire junior baseball season rehabilitating, hoping to rediscover the throwing velocity lost, but to no avail. I struggled through my senior season and could barely throw a baseball without immense pain. There would be no college baseball for me, and it was heartbreaking.
Emotions are running high among the Denver Nuggets and their fans after a difficult loss at the hands of their biggest competitor in the Portland Trail Blazers. So much emotion was put into the contest on Tuesday, even our own Adam Mares calling it potentially “the biggest Denver Nuggets game in years.”
Adam was right. This is the closest the Nuggets have been to tasting postseason basketball in four seasons. The loss at the hands of the Blazers, at the hands of the recently traded Jusuf Nurkic, has been the most difficult pill to swallow for this Nuggets fan in a long time. But why? Why is coming so close and being just out of reach of success more painful than three and a half seasons worth of failure?
To piggyback on an excellent article written yesterday by Mike Olson, how can any Nuggets fan not relate to this quote?
I said that word a few more times during Tuesday evening’s loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, watching our odds for the postseason dwindle. It was a frustrating moment during a hope-filled season. But sometimes your hopes get really high, just to see things take a late and decidedly downward turn. Though the odds of making the playoffs are long, they’re not impossible just yet. That we’ll be able to say that into April is a smaller step forward than many Nuggets fans were hoping for, but it is a step forward.
That sure doesn’t change what it feels like to have your heart broken in the moment, watching one get away that you were desperately hoping would be yours. No matter who your team is, some nights the game is the hot flute player hanging up on you, and you watching the guy right next to you go to the dance.
A “hope-filled season” is an excellent way to describe this year for the Nuggets. With so much young talent, a blossoming star in Nikola Jokic, and at least a two game improvement on last year with eight games left to go, how could anyone look at the season as a failure? Sometimes, reality catches up and hits you like a mack truck, and it changes the perception of what has been a genuinely great season for the Nuggets. Above all, the two goals made publicly were to develop internally and to compete. Both have been met, with young players making up a large portion of Denver’s playoff push and being just one game back of the 8 seed.
The Nuggets are going to be good for a long time. Scratch that, I believe the Nuggets are going to be really good for a long time, but setting the expectations higher than the trajectory leads to disappointment more often than it leads to verification. At the beginning of the season, I penciled in Denver for 40 wins and tied for the 8 seed, and it looks like Denver is going to finish close to both benchmarks. I consider that a success.
Not everything has gone to plan of course. Nurkic was moved before the deadline for a long term option at backup center. Emmanuel Mudiay has not made nearly enough improvement over one of the worst rookie seasons of all-time. Jameer Nelson, a 35-year-old, is the current starting point guard and will finish with over 2,000 minutes on the year.
No rebuild ever goes completely as planned though. The Golden State Warriors are a major success story for the pieces they have selected all throughout the draft, but they also drafted Anthony Randolph 14th overall in 2008 and Ekpe Udoh sixth overall in 2010. Those were missteps that prevented them from entering the playoff discussion even sooner, but Golden State looks to be okay right now, nearly nine years after the selection of Randolph. They needed those bumps in the road to be in position to select players like Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. They needed Randolph to not pan out, because if he did, they might not have landed any of those three star players.
The Nuggets may need to miss the playoffs for another year. That might be the event that propels them on an unstoppable trajectory to the playoffs. They may be forced to make tough decisions on rebuilding versus competing in the short term. They may need to make the unpopular move so they can be popular when the time is right. Or, they might need to make the playoffs to get their young players an early taste of postseason action. Of course, these are all hypotheticals since nobody can predict whether what will happen is what needed to happen.
For me personally, my labrum surgery ended up changing my path, and it forced me to focus on life after playing sports even more. This newfound focus brought me to the University of South Carolina where I am pursuing a different sports-related dream, but the only way I ever found my way here was through missteps in the past. I have (finally) accepted these bumps in the road as necessary steps to be where I am today, writing for the wonderful Denver Stiffs community. How far I have come, a football and baseball jock worried about his immediate future, turning into a basketball mind and writer with those two aspects quickly becoming who I am. I could never have foreseen such a transformation five years ago.
What will the Nuggets look like in five years? Will they still be rebuilding and trying to enter the playoff discussion like the Sacramento Kings? Or will they be competing with teams like the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs for Western Conference dominance? Time will tell, but don’t let a few bumps get in the way of seeing the whole picture. The arrow at this point in time is decidedly upward, and I’m very confident that faith in this Nuggets team now, no matter how these next eight games go, will be repaid in spades after Jamal Murray and Malik Beasley can legally drink alcohol.