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For the Denver Nuggets, the first 25 games mean everything

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After screwing up the first 25 games of 2016-17, the Nuggets don’t have the same luxury this season

The stadium of the Denver Broncos, home of the 5A football state championship game on November 29, 2014.

“It’s not how you start. It’s how you finish that matters.”

A proverb taught in sports and in life, this phrase has helped me through difficult parts of my life. I have told a variety of tales about my life outside of “Denver Stiffs Writer” ranging from baseball injuries to why I became a basketball fan. This time, with Week 1 of the NFL season in the books, I’m going to tell a football story.

From a young age, I was a gifted football player, not in the sense of athletic gifts (though I wasn’t half bad in the open field), but as a cerebral player. My two best traits on the football field were always my hand-eye coordination and my ability to see and make the right play. Growing up, I played all over the field, as an offensive/defensive lineman when I was really young, at quarterback for a season, to settling in at tight end and middle linebacker in my eighth grade year.

I decided to attend Valor Christian for my high school years. It was three minutes away from my house, and it had a stellar academic reputation at the time. What I didn’t know: Valor was about to become a football powerhouse in the state of Colorado on the back of excellent coaching and the McCaffrey brothers. Max, Christian, Dylan, and now Luke McCaffrey are all Division I athletes (Luke will soon join them), the former two becoming professional football players. I had the luxury of playing with Christian for three years; he was a sophomore when I became a freshman, and it’s been amazing to watch him excel.

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Naturally, having the McCaffreys around brought high standards onto the program, and year after year the team didn’t disappoint. Valor has won seven state championships in the last eight seasons. They are currently the top ranked team in the state, according to CHSAA (Colorado High School version of NCAA) polls.

The state championship I want to talk about? That one that the Eagles lost.

It was the first year without Christian McCaffrey, and nearly all of the starters on the team were new. I was recovering from my shoulder surgery and had to ease into physical contact. I was competing at tight end with a 6 foot 5 guy who ran like a wide receiver. I was 5 foot 10 and an average runner. You can guess how that competition went for me, and midway through summer camp, my coaches approached me about changing positions to play offensive line. I had played there off and on throughout high school, and it looked like my only opportunity to see the field was to switch things up.

Throughout the rest of camp and the beginning of the season, I was the 6th or 7th offensive lineman that rotated in at guard or center occasionally. The season wasn’t going well, and the offensive line was struggling. Looking to inject some life into the group, my coach came to me and said that they were going to try me out at right tackle for the rest of the year.

Remember when I said I was 5 foot 10? I was also 220 pounds, extremely undersized for a tackle even at the high school level.

Despite this, I started the rest of the season at a position I had never played in my life, and things began to smooth out for the team. We made the playoffs, advanced through the rounds, and finally made it to the state championship game for the sixth time in a row. During the game, we fell behind, then pushed ahead, ultimately losing 25-24 by a single point to the Cherry Creek Bruins. Many players cried, but me? I had mixed emotions. Looking back on the beginning of the season, there was no reason for the team to be in that position. We had finished strong, and so did I, becoming a main contributor and stabilizing player on the team. Obviously, it was difficult to lose, but I had finished the race really well.

Lining up for a play in the state championship game; November 29th, 2014

I liken this experience to the Nuggets’ season last year. They started slow, made a big change, and nearly roared all the way to a playoff birth on the shoulders of Nikola Jokic. Like me, Jokic is a flawed player. Gangly, not an excellent athlete, doesn’t look like he should be good, yet he gets the job done because of how intelligent he is. His ability to set up the defense without overpowering them all the time is what makes him a special player.

The first 25 games lost the Denver Nuggets their opportunity at the playoffs last year. They messed with rotations, benching their clear best player in Jokic because he asked for it. The change didn’t work, and 17 games (over 20 percent of the season) were needed to figure that out. Finally, things clicked when the Nuggets got weird and centered their offense around what is frankly a weird player. They had to take a chance, and like the Valor Eagles of 2014, they nearly hit their ultimate goal when things were looking bleak.

This season, Denver has far fewer questions. They know who the best player is, and they know who the second best player is: newly acquired Paul Millsap. They have their elite floor spacer and cutter (Gary Harris) and their Swiss army knife (Wilson Chandler). They have their sixth man that can create by himself (Will Barton) and a couple of bench bigs that play hard all the time (Kenneth Faried and Mason Plumlee). The only major question is the point guard position, but that should be answered in time, hopefully as one of Jamal Murray, Emmanuel Mudiay, or Jameer Nelson emerge as a true winner of the race.

For these Denver Nuggets, getting off to a great start means everything this year. They know who they are, they know where they need to go, and they know how to get there. Will they commit to getting weird with Nikola Jokic again? We will see.