Many of the best games this past regular season had to offer went down in the Pepsi Center. From buzzer beaters against OKC, to the miracle against Milwaukee, Denver made the jump from underrated watch to league pass darlings. Despite missing the playoffs by one game for the second straight year, multiple major outlets showed them serious love in their preseason rankings. By all accounts, they are expected to end their playoff drought next season. The conversation around the Nuggets has changed.
This team has reached the peak of loveable underdog status—a position that’s objectively enjoyable as a member of a fan base, but one that is short-lived. With the jump in expectations and the recent big time contracts handed out to Nikola Jokic and Will Barton, the timeline for Denver has changed, and the stakes are higher than ever.
There was a time when whatever Jokic and company were able to produce was pleasantly surprising. Like finding five bucks in your pocket as you pull into a drive-thru. But that grows old. It’s happened enough times in the last two years that we now expect to find the cash whenever we reach into our pockets. The Nuggets have matured. They’re older now, with a full-time job. No longer are they gathering coins and scrounging for cash. They’re expected to provide.
With high expectations and relative momentum comes a certain pressure. Last season’s heartbreaking ending can be rationalized. They won 46 games in the toughest division in basketball and their key players missed serious time. A similar ending to the prior season can be chalked up to youth and a search for their real identity on the court. There will be no excuses or rationalizations this season. There will only be more shoulders on which to place the blame. Barton got his money. Jokic got his max. Now they have to deliver.
Denver is a Broncos town. It always has been, and as long as football exists, it always will be. The unconditional attention and adoration that team receives is not afforded to the rest of Denver’s professional squads, especially the Nuggets. There’s only one way to put butts in the seats, and there’s only one way to keep them there: win.
The Nuggets are so damn close to turning a corner when it comes to local attention. The first half of last season featured some brutally disappointing turnouts for home games. But as the team went on a tear down the final stretch, the fans began to file back in to the Pepsi Center. After finishing dead last in attendance for two straight seasons, the Nuggets climbed all the way up to 20th in average attendance in 2017-18.
Like a broken lover mulling over a return to their ex, the fans want back in, but they aren’t exactly lining up outside the arena. It’s a cautious approach—a tentative embracement. The NuggLyfe has scarred many, and this fan base has been duped one too many times before. They want to believe in this team. But they don’t trust them.
Should the Nuggets deliver the kind of season we are all expecting, they should see another jump in attendance. And who knows? Maybe even some acknowledgement from the local media. But should they come up just short yet again, there’s a real chance they lose that developing trust. There’s a real chance they’ll have to start from scratch.
There’s more to this than attendance. The Nuggets are set to roll out a roster that’s been assembled entirely by President of Basketball Operations, Tim Connelly. The locker room is filled with guys that have bought in to whatever head coach Michael Malone is selling. For the first time since they were hired, this is their team. Perhaps that provides them with more reason for optimism than ever, but it hasn’t provided them with more security.
Malone is coaching on the final year of his contract. That’s a tough spot to be in for a coach, and, frankly, an unusual one. By now a team typically has some idea if the coach has either done enough to earn an extension or needs to be let go. That’s not the case here. This team has improved each and every year since he’s been hired, but one can—and many have—argue that they’ve underperformed in each of the last two seasons. How has this team not made the playoffs? There are some that feel Malone is the answer. This is the year we find out.
Perhaps Malone isn’t the tactical wizard that Denver needs to compete if they ever do turn that corner. Perhaps his presence places a lower ceiling on this team. But it undoubtedly raises the floor. If nothing else, Malone has brought stability and accountability to a locker room that was severely fragmented and flat out toxic not that long ago. This is a pivotal moment in the direction of this franchise. That stability shouldn’t be overlooked. If they miss the playoffs again? That’s gone. Malone’s gone. Connelly might be too.
The core is locked in. The roster is unlikely to undergo any major changes should they fail to capitalize. But it takes more than talent to compete in this league. It takes organizational alignment and an unwavering commitment on multiple levels. From the team itself, to the coaching staff, to the front office, to ownership. For now, for this one season, it appears that dynamic exists in Denver. I can’t remember the last time that was the case.
Just yesterday I wrote that “championship or bust” shouldn’t and doesn’t apply to this Nuggets squad. I stand by that, but that doesn’t mean there’s any less pressure. It will be as hard as ever to make the playoffs out West. It’s important as ever that Denver finds a way to do so.
There comes a time when words like “potential” and clichés like “bright futures” run dry. There comes a time when a team must drop the excuses and capitalize on their relative momentum or else all that they’ve worked for, all that they’ve built, is for naught.
For Denver, that time is now.