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Hope in Fraud City

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After years of being paper tigers at best and irrelevant at worst, the Nuggets are finally building something of permanence

The Shawshank Redemption

The Shawshank Redemption is one of my favorite movies. It begins with a murder and a wrongful conviction and ends on a beach with two men from completely different places who spent enough time together to become brothers - and to find hope. Hope is the theme of the movie. It is the final word of the final sentence of spoken dialogue in the movie: “I hope.” There is something beautiful about hope - for this year, and next year, and the ones to come after - and it’s been missing from Nuggets basketball for far too long.

The Denver Nuggets have a strange relationship with their town. Denver has been Broncos-crazy since the inception of football in the Mile High City, and everything else has come second. The Broncos have also been wildly successful, which gives sports radio even more to talk about with them and enhance that love affair between town and team.

The Colorado Avalanche moved to Denver from Canada - and immediately won a title. They were contenders for their first decade and entrenched in the town’s psyche thereafter. In a city that loves its winter sports, hockey fit in perfectly to its adoptive home.

The Colorado Rockies started out with the Blake Street Bombers and carried through to a great night at the ballpark. Win or lose, for better or worse their stands are packed and their fans are proud. The Rockies have had good years sandwiched around bad ones but never lose the faith of their fanbase.

And then you have the Nuggets. They were wildly fun and fairly successful from their ABA days through the 80s, playing high octane basketball and delighting fans. Then ownership issues crept in and as the team declined so too did the fanbase. There was a brief surge in the 90s with Dikembe Mutombo and The Finger but more struggles for much of that decade and into the 2000s, until the appearance of Carmelo Anthony. But the years of terrible basketball took their toll, as did Denver’s subsequent failure to do much of anything in the playoffs during the Melo and George Karl years. All this history has been recapped here before, by people more qualified to do so than I am, so I won’t rehash the minutiae.

But I would like to talk about hope. Hope is something that springs eternal in Denver’s other franchises. The Broncos are in the middle of their worst stretch in almost forty years but fans still believe they are one player from greatness - and they might be right. The Avalanche and Rockies have their fanbases accustomed to attending games and cheering and enjoying the atmosphere far more than the Nuggets in down years. In the years after the Karl regime, the Pepsi Center was a ghost town for Nuggets games. Even now Denver is struggling to sell out a great second round series as attendance is split between the Avalanche and Nuggets who are both having phenomenal years with young rosters.

But part of the reluctance to buy in may be due to Denver fans having been hurt before. Carmelo Anthony was a basketball savior when he first arrived after some of the worst years in franchise history, but he only got out of the first round in Denver once. Bad health luck befell the post-Melo Nuggets and then they wandered in the lottery wilderness for a few more years. The team has been built from mid-lottery picks, trades and a couple of second round guesses - and what a guess Nikola Jokic has turned out to be. It’s not the way teams draw up creating a contender, that’s for sure.

Guesses are hard to sell to the public, though. George Karl’s squad used the home court to its great advantage, but suffered on the road and in the playoffs when transition basketball was shut down and the team had to execute in the half court. The Melo Nuggets (and the Melo-less Nuggets Karl led after his departure) were not built to survive the second season. That’s been the narrative on Denver forever: that the Nuggets are a gimmick team that cannot compete in Real Playoff Basketball. It was shouted loudly and derisively during nationally televised broadcasts in which the Nuggets were lapping their opponents in the actual action. Some commentary from Jon Barry comes to mind, to the effect that it was all an illusion and nothing of permanence would ever be built from that base.

If Danilo Gallinari didn’t blow his knee out, maybe that narrative would have changed. Instead, all Denver got was the illusion and once the audience thinks something is a magic trick it’s hard to convince them it might be real. If the #3 pick in the draft and one of the best offensive options of his era could only come close to glory once in seven years, what are the chances the Nikola-Jokic-led Nuggets can do better than those paper tigers?

Only they are doing better. As the 8th-youngest playoff team in history, they just keep forging ahead. Jamal Murray had the first back-to-back 30 point playoff games in Denver since Melo. Will Barton is getting up off the mat and Gary Harris is proving to be that jack-of-all-trades that Denver relies on him to be. As always, though, everything for this Denver team revolves around Nikola Jokic, who has only gotten better in the playoffs. Unlike some Nuggets teams of years past, this team has found the ability to take a shot and fight back. Paul Millsap is filling the Chauncey Billups role of veteran leader to help Denver survive being this deep in unknown waters - but he’s been called a fraud as well based on his Atlanta teams that couldn’t quite climb the mountain in the Eastern Conference.

In fact, fraudulent is an accusation that’s been leveled against Denver many times, both in the past and even through these playoffs. We even teamed up with D-Line Co. to make a jersey commemorating Denver in the style it has been talked about in basketball circles since the 80s: Fraud City.

The shirt and the idea has resonated with fans in a way I didn’t expect. It still feels shaky to believe in a team this young. It feels like the rug could be pulled out at any minute - but like any good magic trick there’s a lot of time and preparation that goes into making something that will stand up to rigorous examination. The Nuggets are trying to get back to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in a decade, and this is not their peak. Maybe they don’t look like the team you thought Denver could pin its hopes on - but they are.

And Denver is starting to buy in. You can’t wear a shirt proudly mocking the idea that you are a fraud if you still believe that you could be. Nuggets fans know this is not the best Nuggets team of the next few years. This is not their only shot. The foundation being strong enough already to survive a four-overtime loss and come back to win the next one on the road is nothing short of miraculous. It’s okay to believe, Denver. The die-hards are already there, and the casuals will feel that hope no matter what happens the rest of this series and into next year.

As was said in the movie, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” The Denver Nuggets have served notice this year, and especially in these playoffs, that basketball hope is back in the Mile High City.