Normally when building a roster a general manager has a choice to make: am I trying to compete now, or compete later? No one wants to get stuck in the middle ground where the team is not truly competitive now but also can’t add enough draft picks or clear enough salary to move the roster around and compete later. Making the correct roster decisions matter, as Ryan Blackburn’s article giving much-deserved praise to Tim Connelly’s individual moves—and non-moves—can attest. But at a macro level knowing whether you’re in or you’e out of the contender bubble is important for almost every team.
The Denver Nuggets want to have their cake and eat it too. They want some kind of Schrodinger’s cat contendership theorem where they are competing for a title this year but also planning to compete for one several years from now. Most times that’s a disaster in the making, but for the Nuggets it’s shaping up to be a glorious exploration of talent and success.
The team in town known for overriding success is the Denver Broncos. John Elway famously talked about wanting a coach who, if they wound up being ejected from the playoffs, would go out “kicking and screaming.” He then won the Super Bowl with his next coach, but would have trouble after Peyton Manning’s last game finding the right quarterback and leader to fight every game, all the way to the wire - no matter what. But that should be the goal of every competitive franchise: win or (metaphorically) die trying.
Nikola Jokic is the quarterback Elway doesn’t have to make that happen, and with him all things are possible for the Denver Nuggets. As he proved in Denver’s latest win over the Dallas Mavericks he is a leading man in a character actor’s body, an unassuming superstar and the closer Denver will need in the playoffs to advance. He can score, or pass the ball around, or be a terror on the boards—often all three.
Some days he forgets to score, or be the initiator of the offense. Some days he is content to be a perimeter player for a team that needs him to work from the elbow. Some days he’s unstoppable. He’s a legitimate All-NBA player with the ability to carry this young team deep into the second season. But this is not Denver’s only shot at the brass ring.
The Nuggets are so young. This is not the limits of their window to compete, but they have a great opportunity to do impressive things this year anyway. The narrative that teams need to progress in stages has proven true, but so has the idea that you need a generational talent to obtain a title in most cases, and Denver has that. Nobody told LeBron James to wait until he was 27 to reach an NBA Finals. That’s when he won his first ring in Miami, but he made his first Finals at age 22.
Jokic just turned 24 and while Denver does not match up well with the Golden State Warriors or the Houston Rockets in this year’s iteration, can they make a series of it and try to steal it? Absolutely. Do they need to focus first on getting out of the first round so they can try their luck? Absolutely. But these are experiences Denver will be facing for the first time. Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee have been key pieces on playoff teams before, and coach Michael Malone an assistant on some very good teams, but the pressure is different when it’s all on you to make things happen—something Denver’s young rotation hasn’t experienced in the playoffs yet.
I was annoyed at Denver for not prioritizing these next few years, as counting on getting everything right in just one or two years at the end of this contract for Jokic is foolish when he’s already this good. But Denver has somehow found a way to put young pieces around him without sacrificing the current years. They remain the two seed in the Western Conference in the middle of March and have given themselves a fighting chance to get a top-three seed down the stretch. With (no) apologies to Philadelphia, the best young core in the NBA resides in the Mile High City, and they added two talented players in Michael Porter Jr. and Jarred Vanderbilt who may yet prove to be another wave of talent Denver can utilize as soon as next year.
This team is almost certainly not going to be the best Nuggets team of the next five years. But that doesn’t mean it can’t do great things, even historic things for the NBA tenure of the Nuggets. The Nuggets have never reached the NBA Finals, and have been to just three Western Conference Finals. They might add a fourth trip this year, but no matter what happens in the playoffs the future is exceedingly bright—without detracting from the present.
Sam Hinkie had to burn the 76ers to the ground in order to resurrect them as a viable playoff contender, while getting fired for doing so. His losing was historic. Tim Connelly did not get that benefit and had to make do without a single top-five selection. Netting this many good pros already along with the All-Star Jokic is an incredible piece of work. Having Michael Malone fuse them together into a unit that plays a unique style with a point center was another minor miracle.
The Nuggets have to avoid pulling a Thunder and breaking up the band just when they’re on the verge of greatness, somehow without losing players for nothing in the process. But this Denver team is resilient and focused on winning. They are “playing for each other” as Malone likes to say, and while locker rooms around the league (see: Boston, Los Angeles) are melting down with player drama, the Nuggets have achieved both harmony and success this season.
Jamal Murray hasn’t figured out his game yet but every blip of greatness from him brings Denver a win; the Nuggets are 6-0 in games he scores 30+ points in. Gary Harris and Will Barton are not back to full health yet either, but they’re getting there, while a finally-healthy Paul Millsap just put up 33 points in 36 minutes against the Mavericks. Monte Morris is a steady rock off the bench and Malik Beasley has developed into one of the best pure shooters in the league. And then there’s Jokic who is the willow tree of this squad, bending where the flow of the game directs him and leading Denver to wins in numerous different ways. The playoffs are coming and this squad getting healthy and tuned up is the most exciting thing in this city since the Broncos were last in the Super Bowl. With that standard bearer for Denver struggling to get back in the championship picture it’s now the Nuggets’ turn to show they can deliver a yearly contender for this city.
Pete Carroll of the Seattle Seahawks once wrote a book called Win Forever. Joe Lacob, owner of the Golden State Warriors, said they were “light years ahead” of their competition, and he was right. The Nuggets are not ones for bold statements like Carroll or Lacob; they can’t even get Jokic to acknowledge he is rightfully an MVP candidate. But actions speak louder than words, the future is brighter than the present, and the present already requires shades with these Nuggets as they try to chase down the teams “light years” ahead of them. Get ready Denver—the Nuggets are just getting started, but you won’t want to miss a minute of this.