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Stiffs Shootaround: LeBron James, the Denver Nuggets, and changing the narrative

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LeBron was ringless once, too

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Denver Nuggets Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Back in May of 2010, Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird, who at the time was working as the president of basketball operations for the Indiana Pacers, told John Hareas of NBA.com, “When I watch LeBron James, a lot of times I think he’s just out there teasing with the teams. He’s getting other people involved early. Now, he can make the shots. He’s awesome to watch. He’s one guy in the league that I think he’ll probably be better than all of us when it’s all said and done.”

That quote was spoken on the eve of LeBron’s final week in a Cavaliers uniform. The Cavs were up 1-0 in a series over the Boston Celtics but would eventually fall 4-2, losing the final three games of the series including a bizarre game 6 in which LeBron seemed somewhat disinterested and appeared to have given up. That quote from Larry Bird, which at the time was probably the strongest endorsement of LeBron’s greatness from a former hall of fame player, marked the beginning of the end for LeBron’s legacy.

A few months later he held a nationally televised show to announce that he was leaving the Cavaliers to join Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat. A year later he was stymied in the finals against the Dallas Mavericks, in part because LeBron struggled to score in the post against the barely 6-foot tall JJ Barea. In the span of 13 months, LeBron went from potentially the greatest player of all time to a player who left serious doubts about his ability to get over the hump.

Of course, LeBron did get over the hump the following season behind a 40-point game to tie the series at 2 apiece in Indiana, a 45-point game to tie the series at 3 apiece in Boston in what I consider to be the greatest playoff performance I’ve ever witnessed, and a triple-double to seal the championship in game five of the NBA finals.

Miami Heat v Boston Celtics - Game Six Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

A year later he took his game to another level and added another championship to his trophy case behind a plethora of soul-crushing wins over the top-seeded Chicago Bulls, the Indiana Pacers, and the San Antonio Spurs. A few years later, he toppled a 73-win juggernaut in the Golden State Warriors, a team that many believed to be the greatest team of all time before LeBron dismantled them in the NBA Finals.

LeBron’s career arc has been impossible to predict up to this point and is even harder to predict going forward. He’s 20th all-time in minutes played and 2nd among active players behind Dirk Nowitzki. Other active players who are even remotely close to LeBron in minutes played are Vince Carter, Jason Terry, Joe Johnson, and Pau Gasol, all of whom are playing spot minutes as role players. LeBron, at age 33, is still the best player in basketball and spent last night proving it to every player, coach, and fan in the Air Canada Center.

There’s a lesson in here for Denver Nuggets fans. Sports are full of successes and failures and all great players, teams, and organizations go through the gauntlet of emotions en route to discovering their final form. Michael Jordan said it best - or as is more accurate with most things regarding Michael Jordan, his marketing team said it best - when he said “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life, and that is why I succeed.”

The 2017-18 Denver Nuggets season was partially a failure, despite so many great achievements along the way. The team missed out on the playoffs and Nuggets fans were forced to watch other young teams like the Timberwolves, Jazz, Celtics, Pacers, and 76ers got their first taste of post-season glory. After a promising first couple of years rebuilding the team through the NBA draft, the Nikola Jokic era Nuggets took their first real L in 2018.

But this L doesn’t have to define them, the same way LeBron’s 2010 loss to the Celtics no longer defines him. Failure is a fork in the road that leads in two different directions. Down one road, a team, player, or organization falls into the habit of learning how to lose. Down the other, a team, player, and organization becomes fueled even more toward winning, gaining experience and wisdom along the way.

It’s unclear at the moment which path the Nuggets are heading down, or how their core of promising young players will respond to such a disappointing finish to the season. But it’s important to remember just how much narratives can change over time. At the moment, Jokic struggles defensively in the pick-and-roll, Jamal Murray looks like more of a shooting guard than a point guard, and Michael Malone looks like a coach too stubborn for his highly unconventional roster. But 2018 might be a 2010 moment for all of them.

Even by his harshest critics, Lebron is no longer thought of as a choker or a fraud. Just ask the Toronto Raptors.