clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Of Youth and Genius

New, comments

Denver is planting its crop and waiting for the long-term gains - and that’s okay

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

I've disagreed with the front office of the Denver Nuggets on a number of things this year, from draft moves to roster and coaching decisions, and even the direction of the next few seasons. Judging by the tenor of conversations this past week about the state of the Nuggets, I'm not alone. The Nuggets are young and are not all-in on this season, and have willingly left roster mismatches and holes like blights on what I would like to see as an attempted masterpiece.

I'm here to tell you: that's okay.

In December the Nuggets were variously overwhelmed, aggravating, competitive, stubborn and even occasionally brilliant. That's what should be expected from young rosters, and Denver started the year as the 8th-youngest team despite having a 37-year-old player like Richard Jefferson around. But Jefferson isn't playing. Neither is Darrell Arthur, or (unfortunately) Paul Millsap.

The eight-man rotation Denver has been using includes one player born before 1990: Wilson Chandler. The Nuggets had three players born between 1994 and 1997 log 40+ minutes against the Timberwolves, then two of them followed up against the 76ers with 39+ minutes in a 48 minute game. The Nuggets are placing a huge burden on some very young shoulders - one of the decisions I railed against prior to the season.

But Denver's immediate goals are not my goals. I believe it is possible for Denver to truly compete both now and later, but the Nuggets appear laser-focused on later. I want the Nuggets to care about this year and next as much as they care about the ones after, but this is Denver's version of Trust The Process. They know they don't have a closer, just like we know it - and they want to grow one internally. This roster is built to validate the belief that a person only learns by doing. Denver is trying to build manageable roles for its young players while they wait for one or more to step up into superstardom.

The Timberwolves went the other way: they cashed in some young players for a vet in his prime who already knew how to put a team on his back, and they are leading the Northwest Division with that player destroying the Nuggets in crucial end-game minutes. Of course, Denver also paid Paul Millsap $30 million a year to do the same thing - he's just injured. But Millsap is a lead-by-example type, while Jimmy Butler definitely talks... and was criticized for his leadership skills in Chicago.

Denver’s just looking for that example, though. The front office doesn't seem to want anyone to whom their young guards or brilliant center will defer, vocally or otherwise. Millsap will fit in; Butler will take over.

The Nuggets probably are not interested in who is going to be the closer now, just like they are probably not all that interested in alpha dogs or any other "who hits the winning shot in Game 7 of the Finals?" conversations. If there are roster complications or player salary issues, they are taking an exceedingly long view on those matters. Having Jamal Murray as a bench player might make him more affordable in a couple of years, and hanging onto both Will Barton and Wilson Chandler would seem counter-intuitive for a team that is not built to challenge in the West yet.

But the Nuggets are putting their money and time behind the idea that players develop by playing and being placed in the situations that require growth. More than that, they are betting that these specific players have to be placed in those situations. It hasn't worked out with Emmanuel Mudiay so far - the position of "starting PG in the NBA" was not the right fit for him as a 19 or 20 year old, and his place on this roster is tenuous right now.

It does seem to be working for Jamal Murray, who is getting better by the week.

In that view, Chandler and Barton are complementary pieces that help stabilize a roster without taking key roles away from Denver’s myriad rookie-contract options. Starting point guard, backup point guard and point center were all reserved for raw players just getting to the Association. That has capped Denver’s immediate ceiling, but has allowed them plenty of evaluation time. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray are both on pace to be stars (and I would argue Jokic is already there despite his desire not to be). Gary Harris has gone from potential-bench-guard to having the third-best RPM in the league for shooting guards - two spots behind Jimmy Butler, and well ahead of 9-figure guys like DeMar DeRozan, C.J. McCollum and Bradley Beal. His fit with Jokic is nearly perfect, another huge consideration.

The Nuggets have their plan, and they are working it. Do I think they’re doing everything right? No, but there isn’t a front office (or a fan plan) that does. Michael Malone’s team is 5 wins better at this point in the season than they were last year, and have 10 home games next month to make a real run up the standings. He is not getting fired because he is doing exactly what the front office wants: performing better year-to-year while presiding over the growth of Denver’s crucial young pieces.

Is Malone the right guy to take this team to title contention? It’s immaterial to the current state of the team, and to the team’s goals in 2018. They want to make the playoffs this year. They want to “not skip steps” as Tim Connelly has said repeatedly. They want to get better - and they are getting better.

I would have liked to add a Jimmy Butler type this offseason, a talker and a doer who can put the team on his back. I wanted an experienced point guard to both tutor the young guards and to provide high-level play over the next season or two. I would prefer a less cluttered roster, one sharply-honed both for the next two years and the stage after.

But the Nuggets don’t care, nor should they necessarily. It comes back to KYP: Know Your Personnel. Some people learn better by being understudies, and some people don’t get any real growth until they do something themselves. The Nuggets have placed a large bet that Murray and Jokic and Harris are self-starters who will only chafe with someone else telling them what to do or forcing them out of playing time. In the cases of Harris and Murray, I might actually believe that to be true. I’m still not sold that Murray is a point guard, but he is definitely a self-starter and self-motivator. Jokic is an enigma wrapped in a riddle, and figuring out how to unlock his best self will make or break Malone’s tenure with Denver.

I don’t need to be right about the path Denver should take - I need the Nuggets to be right. Even if I was right about what they should be doing now, that wouldn’t necessarily correlate to a better team two years from now. This is one of those times when the people being paid to be geniuses will get to show their work.

“Everyone is a genius at least once a year. The real geniuses simply have their bright ideas closer together.” --G. C. Lichtenberg

Their bet is set to pay off in two-to-four years, not now, which means I can’t hold their feet to the fire for my own goals for the team. My hope for 2018 is to judge the Nuggets by their own goals, and to enjoy this team for what it is and not what I wish it was. The team is doing just fine on its own merits this year - the genius will show up later.

Poll

If the Nuggets are great later, do you care how they are now?

This poll is closed

  • 34%
    Yes, you should try your hardest to win every year
    (121 votes)
  • 18%
    Yes, otherwise why should I watch now and not just come back in 2 years?
    (64 votes)
  • 18%
    No, they could miss the playoffs the next 2 years and it would be fine if they compete for titles after
    (65 votes)
  • 28%
    No, and I’m glad we still get entertaining basketball now instead of a 20-win team during Don’t Skip Steps
    (101 votes)
351 votes total Vote Now