clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Patience - a painful virtue with this Nuggets contender

New, comments

Hold on tight, Nuggets fans, and commit to waiting out the pain

Miami Heat v Denver Nuggets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

“Patience is the companion of wisdom.” St. Augustine wrote it 1600 years ago, and highlighted it in opposition to our baser natures. Patience helps us fight our venal desires to see a dunk from Michael Porter Jr. immediately, and on replay - though why one would want to fight that desire, I don’t know. As fans we want it all - and we want it all now.

One of the enemies of patience that St. Augustine didn’t list was expectation. Nuggets fans have huge expectations for this team, as does the national media for the first time in a very long time. Neither the fans nor the team has had to cope with being a front-runner yet, and the transition from Scrappy Youngsters to Expected Contenders is not as simple as flipping a switch. The Nuggets don’t have to go far to see another young team laden with expectations that was unable to progress, and actually fell apart by the end: the 2018-19 Boston Celtics. They were a few shots away from the NBA Finals the prior year but additions to the roster actually hurt them. This year’s version of the Celtics swaps out one All-Star point guard for another and will try to retake the path that seemed almost pre-ordained a short time ago.

Nothing is ever pre-ordained for the Denver Nuggets. So when Nikola Jokic starts off the year looking disinterested and out of sorts, or Jamal Murray can’t hit twos, or new addition Jerami Grant isn’t 100% lethal from the jump then the shadow of Nugglife looms large over this franchise. The patience that coach Michael Malone has preached for years seems dissonant now: the fans have been patient, and this is the year they’re supposed to see the rewards of that patience displayed on the court. The Nuggets boast the best continuity in the Western Conference. They shouldn’t have long adjustment times coming out of the summer. This is the time to make their run, before the teams with more turnover get their feet under them.

Fact check: Denver is 5-2. It’s an ugly-as-sin five wins, but they all count the same at the end of the year. Malone looks angry enough to chew rocks on the sidelines but they’re winning. Jokic has missed out on what feels like 40 assists because guys can’t make open shots, and has missed chunks of several games now due to foul trouble or other issues but they’re winning.

Winning without being particularly special is its own brand of dominance. I don’t know many people who would classify the performance against the Miami heat as special - Michael Malone certainly would not - but they won by 20 thanks to a grind-down second half effort. The chants for Michael Porter Jr. rang to the home rafters in that game, but the Nuggets are past the point where they play guys just to get them in. Porter did eventually enter the game and provide several more glimpses of his immense offensive talent, but this is a year for results, even spectacle, rather than gentle steps forward.

Which is part of the struggle, really: Denver hasn’t had the pressure to scrape and claw for every victory in recent years. They haven’t taken the best shot of every team as a showcase game. They haven’t been expected to not just win but dominate. The restlessness of the fanbase comes partly from a lack of domination. The victories are not as pretty as expected, and those changed expectations flip a promising 5-2 start and lead of the Northwest Division into some kind of slight.

Denver’s loss to the the Minnesota Timberwolves in game 82 of the 2017-18 season to miss the playoffs set a hunger in them, and in the fanbase, to never see that happen again. And last year the Nuggets won so many close games, in such a variety of clutch performances, that the supposition was for this to be the year to start blowing teams out. The NBA rarely works that way.

The Nuggets will have to scrape and claw for their victories until they get their offense fully on track. They will have to fight through the best efforts of other squads and remember their defensive rotations and play hungry. The first few games have been a slog of mistakes and miscues that frankly haven’t seemed all that fun for the participants, and that might be the most unforgivable thing. Denver basketball, especially Jokic Ball, is supposed to be fun. It turns out that talking about being a contender is much easier than actually being one.

Michael Malone said it best a couple of games ago:

So the Nuggets started performing. Jamal Murray got more vocal after that miserable loss to the New Orleans Pelicans while focusing on being a leader in his actions and his play. Will Barton raised his game on both ends of the court to pace Denver when both Paul Millsap and Gary Harris went out injured against the Heat. That’s the thing about these Nuggets now: they are still extremely young, but that youth makes up the most-talented and highest-paid parts of the team. Jamal Murray got his giant extension. Nikola Jokic cashed that first max paycheck. They are the leaders of this squad, and that load will take some getting used to for guys who would rather let their play on the court speak for them.

The first few weeks have been a bumpy ride. This team is loaded to the gills with talent, and getting the most out of it will cost Malone some more hair this year. Some of the leadership wobbles from Jokic and Murray will also drive him - and fans - crazy. But this team isn’t trying to impress in October and November. The season is a marathon and they want to pace themselves for a deep run into May and even June. If there are bumps along the way but the wins are banked, then let the learning process take its course. The Celtics failed with Kyrie Irving as their patron saint, but Jokic’s uniquely unselfish style is the antithesis of that brand of basketball. How to make that style bloom eternal in Denver is what causes the gnashing of teeth. Feel free to expect greatness - just don’t expect to demand the path it takes to get there.

And when all else fails... well, St. Augustine of Hippo is also the patron saint of brewers, so take a deep breath and tip one back. The Nuggets are wobbling like a 50-foot toddler learning to walk. It’s messy, and awkward, and frustrating for everyone involved. Just wait for them to walk, and then run. That’ll be really exciting.