The first year my club soccer team made it to the “postseason”, we ended up in a round robin tourney in Colorado Springs to see which teams would go on to Regionals. The winners of that regional tourney would go on to Nationals. We didn’t even make it fully through the weekend in the Springs, after an 0-3 record in the first day and a half.
It was insane. The teams we were facing were faster, stronger, and more cohesive than any of the teams we’d beaten to get past our regular year. The entire experience was reminiscent of trying to jump onto a fast moving train. I felt certain I’d been hit by one by the time we made the two hour drive back to Fort Collins.
In the years to come, we’d not only get past that local round, but beyond the Regional round as well. But that first time... Good god, that first time hurt like hell. I went home embarrassed and wondering if we really belonged in the mix in the first place.
Going into the fourth quarter of their second playoff game against the San Antonio Spurs, your Denver Nuggets had to be wondering if they belonged in the mix themselves. Inconsistent scoring and a well-attenuated Spurs squad had the Nuggets a dozen minutes away from a 0-2 deficit, something very few teams have overcome.
It’s also easy to forget that Denver nearly surmounted a huge deficit in Game 1 as well, a fact lost in the flotsam and jetsam of worry, blame, and teeth-gnashing that arose from fans and observers alike after that opening game loss at the Pepsi Center. The Nuggets have the playoff experience of Paul Millsap (a lot), Mason Plumlee (a little), Will Barton (a little), and Isaiah Thomas (more than a little, but of little consequence on the floor) to fall back on. For all of the others, these are previously uncharted waters. How impactful can that change of pace be the first time you experience it? Even if you’re as talented as All-Star Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Malik Beasley, and Monte Morris, there’s no previous comparison to NBA Playoff basketball. Coach-of-the-Year candidate Michael Malone has seen playoff experience as an assistant, yet surely there’s even some new wrinkles and surprises for him, especially against a coach as talented as Gregg Popovich.
Yet no matter how big a star you become over your career, NBA Playoff basketball is rarely kind to first-time participants, especially when a large portion of the team is experiencing it for the first time together. Here’s a look at a number of basketball’s biggest stars spread out over several decades to see how they fared their first time into the fray. Let’s start big, shall we?
His Airness was a force of nature from the moment he stepped into the league. He exploded for 26.5 points a game and a 8.1 VORP in his rookie season, carrying his Bulls to a 38-44 record, with a team that you primarily wouldn’t recognize. As such, even the talented Jordan couldn’t carry the team very far, and the Bulls managed a single win in the first round against the Bucks.
The league’s current pre-eminent shooter has seen an amazing number of playoff games in his career, but you’re very familiar with his first playoff run following his fourth season, as he had the first step of it in beating the 57-win Nuggets squad in six games before losing to the Spurs in six. He’s been in the playoffs with some admirable results ever since. Joining him along the way was...
KD was a super Supersonics before his move to the middle, reaching the playoffs in his third season with the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder got a tough early draw that season, as they lost in six games to the L.A. Lakers with three first-time young guys who would each eventually be league MVPs in Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden.
People often forget that it was rookie Carmelo Anthony who beat King James in the race to the playoffs, as LBJ didn’t get to the postseason until his third year. When LeBron did break through, he actually made it past the first round in six games over Washington, before losing to Detroit in seven in the second round.
The Greek Freak made it to the playoffs in his second season, and lost in the first round to Chicago in six.
Bird came into a fairly mature team in one of the league’s cornerstone franchises, made it into the playoffs handily his rookie year, and still lost to the 76ers in five games in the second round. The was another rookie that year, in...
Magic arrived to an already-powerful Lakers squad, and went all the way his rookie year. He’s on of two guys on this list who were so lucky in their first playoff experience.
Speaking of Lakers, the Logo helped take his Lakers squad to the second round his rookie season, taking St. Louis to seven games before dropping out as a part of another strong Lakers squad.
The player Nikola Jokic is often compared to was one of the great forces of the league over the course of his career, and still only made to to the second round when he took the Philadelphia Warriors to the playoffs his rookie year.
It only seemed right to wrap up with the example of playoff games, wins, and championships, who propelled an already-stout Celtics squad to a championship his rookie year. Quite the first time, rook.
Hundreds of other examples, but those run the gamut. A lot of first-time flame outs. A couple championships for rookies. Some huge stars not making it at all until year three or four. Those and everything in between.
But this is our first time, at least for the lion’s share of this Denver Nuggets roster. We’re so young, it makes the head coach think and recount a visceral “holy sh—” in the midst of coaching them in a playoff win. Young and brave and learning by the day. So here we stand, talented and fortunate enough to be looking to take at least one of the two games in San Antonio and get home court advantage back in Denver. It will undoubtedly be an uphill battle in a place we’ve long struggled to succeed. But I don’t see much fear in these faces, do you? No matter what comes from here, these gentlemen obviously have each other’s success and best interests at heart. You can hear Malone’s hilarious expletive and Adam Mares’ perfect question to wrap up the pool interview with Jamal Murray and Gary Harris below. Feels like the first time? To co-opt what Malone said so succinctly, it certainly won’t be the last.