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Saying goodbye to the 2016-17 Denver Nuggets

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Another chapter comes to an end

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

This last season was a good one.

That’s the conclusion I’ve come to. It wasn’t great. There were ups and downs, wins and losses, just like every season. The Denver Nuggets didn’t reach their big goal - to make the playoffs - but they did achieve their main goal in that they got a lot better. I think as a fan you’ve got to chalk up this season as a win, albeit a subtle, quiet win.

This was the season the team began to really embrace their history, first with the retirement of Dikembe Mutombo’s jersey and later on with the honoring of Alex English back at Pepsi Center. English’s voice over shots of the team’s veterans and rookies during their start of season promo felt like a beautiful and meaningful connection between the past, present, and future. The throwback rainbow skyline jersey’s on opening night made for one of the coolest visuals in recent history down at Pepsi Center.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

This was the season that Gary Harris turned into more than a young player with modest potential, he became a great two-way player. I’ll admit that this surprised me a bit. Last season I saw Harris as a decent shooter for a guard, a strong cutter, and ultimately a good-at-everything-but-not-great-at-anything type player. This season he proved me wrong. Harris shot 42% from behind the three-point line this season on 4.5 attempts per game, solidifying himself as one of the league’s most reliable shooters. He added a bit of playmaking off of the dribble, setting career highs in assists and looking at times like a legitimate pick-and-roll option as a ball-handler.

This was also the season Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari both played healthy. The two unique and versatile swingmen have been together for nearly a decade, first in New York and, for the last 7 seasons, here in Denver. However only once over the last 6 years have the two been fully healthy for an entire season. The duo played 1135 minutes together this season and the Nuggets outscored opponents by exactly 100 points over that span, often playing some of the most fun basketball of the season.

The 2011-2017 Nuggets are their own era of Denver basketball and those two, along with Kenneth Faried, are the faces of that era. Sometimes one era bleeds into the next and it’s hard to tell when one starts and the other stops, so perhaps there is more in store for those three here in Denver. Perhaps not. Either way, I’m glad we got this impressive season from them as the new era of promising youth begins.

This was the season that Jamal Murray joined the Nuggets as a third string point guard, quickly became the second string point guard, and may very well be the starting point guard by the time the team takes the court next fall. The Nuggets have had a collection of exciting young talent but perhaps no one on the roster is as exciting to watch as Murray when he gets hot and his shot starts falling. If Harris is the reliable multitool of Denver’s backcourt, Murray is the torch that can light the nets on fire. At just 19 years old, it’s not hard to see shades of Steph Curry in his game, even if that is a lofty comparison.

As Murray was rising, this was also the season that Emmanuel Mudiay began falling, officially losing his job as the starting point guard on the team. Mudiay was the face of the Nuggets’ rebuild beginning back in the summer of 2014. What few fans showed up to Pepsi Center over the last two seasons are frequently spotted wearing the number 0 jersey. And while Mudiay entered the season after a dissapointing rookie campagin, it wasn’t until this last season that fans really started to wonder if he was going to be a bust. The jury is still out.

The jury is no longer out on Jusuf Nurkic. Nurk was perhaps the lone positive that sprung from the extremely disappointing 2013-14 season. His cocky and quarrelsome attitude was a throwback to a bygone era of tough, physical basketball, when players weren’t afraid of confrontation but rather, they sought it out at every turn. Nurk sprinted out of the gate for Denver this season and showed signs of becoming a dominating force on the block and in the paint, leading many Nuggets fans to wonder if he was the future face of the franchise.

Sadly, that story didn’t have a happy ending and, in addition to all of the good things to come out of this season, 2016-17 will always be the year the Nuggets lost Nurkic to Portland. Nurk found a home full of screaming fans, each with a severe case of Nurk Fever. He’s found a home much better suited for him and, to the Nuggets’ misfortune, a home right down the street where he’ll come by to visit several times each year.

Nuggets.com

2017 was the year that Balkan Buddy Ball, the fantastic antidote to small-ball, crashed upon takeoff. Nuggets fans will move on and there is plenty of reasons to move on, but, with Nurkic in Portland looking like the prospect so many of us thought he could be, we’ll always be reminded of what might’ve been.

But more than anything, this season was the season that Nikola Jokic became a star. Jokic entered this season as an idea. A young, somewhat goofy, extremely likeable, anti-star that performed historically well among all advanced metrics but whose production was chalked up to small sample sizes and lucky breaks.

To the naysayer’s delight, Jokic got off to a rough start. Throughout training camp, Nurkic was not only the dominant big man in Denver but also the player the offense ran through most times down the court. Jokic, who was moved to an unfamiliar position at power forward, looked like the collapsing product of too much hype. He soon went to the bench and the 2016-17 Nuggets looked to be moving on with him as a small piece of a large and shapeless puzzle.

Then everything changed. Everything.

Jokic became the starter in December, at a time that felt like the midway point of the season but was actually more like the end of the first trimester. From that point on the Nuggets were never the same. The team started winning games, playing fast and freely, and scoring points. Lots and lots of points. The team found an identity - something they had been lacking since the departure of George Karl. This became Jokic’s team, and his team was fun to watch.

It’s hard sometimes to remember how exciting those early days of the Jokic experiment really were. After 4 months of racking up triple-doubles, and over-the-head passes, and 10-foot floater shots, you almost start to forget just how weird it was to watch this happen the first few games Jokic was breaking out. It’s hard to remember a time when Jokic wasn’t bringing the ball up on the break or making incredibly difficult and risky pinpoint passes around the defense.

I think back to those early days in mid-December when Jokic was just becoming a real phenomenon and Chris Marlowe’s voice would start to buzz with excitement whenever Jokic grabbed a rebound and started to dribble up the court. “Jokic on the break, here we go folks.” It was such a perfect articulation of what everyone at home was feeling. Jokic has the ball and something is about to happen, we just don’t know what.

Those first few games felt like Linsanity, the famous hot streak Jeremy Lin went on in New York that vaulted him onto the national stage. Only with Linsanity, an unknown good player became a great one for a few weeks before settling in as a solid role player in this league. Jokic’s peak never waned. He led the Nuggets to the league’s best offense over the last two weeks of December and then replicated that again in January, February, March, and April. If anything, Jokic improved as the season went on, racking up triple-doubles like they were his job. Simply put, Jokic had one of the best 5-month stretches of any Nuggets player in franchise history, and he did it in just his second season.

Thursday night, the Nuggets will add new players via the draft. Perhaps, a few familiar faces will be traded and a few more brought in and added to the mix. For all intents and purposes, the 2017-18 seasons begins on Thursday, and the 2016-17 season comes to a close.

Whatever pains there were throughout this year, and whatever stumbling blocks there will be over the next few weeks as the roster is certain to change in ways either big or small, the Denver Nuggets have a star in Jokic. The 2016-17 season was the season Jokic became that star and the season the Denver Nuggets became exciting again. Not since Carmelo Anthony left town for New York City back in 2011 has the team been able to say that. There’ve been some great Nuggets teams, but no singular star for fans to attach their hopes and dreams.

In 2016-17, they finally found one. That’s what I’ll remember most.

Poll

How will you remember the 2016-17 Nuggets season?

This poll is closed

  • 26%
    Very fondly
    (150 votes)
  • 53%
    Fondly
    (301 votes)
  • 16%
    Meh
    (91 votes)
  • 0%
    It was awful
    (5 votes)
  • 2%
    I won’t remember it at all
    (12 votes)
559 votes total Vote Now