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The Denver Nuggets might have the talent to win it all, but do they have the maturity?

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It’s not all sunshine and rainbows when it comes to youth

Denver Nuggets v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Youth. Some of us pine to return to it, some of us chase after ways to recapture it, some of us yell at it angrily from our perfectly manicured front lawns. In professional sports youth is as vital as anything to a franchise. It’s what allows a great franchise to remain relevant after their stars begin to fade, it’s what allows a franchise to become relevant in the first place and it’s even what allows a franchise not trying to be relevant to maintain a positive income and survive through the rebuilding years. If your franchise isn’t investing in the acquisition and development of young talent then you’re either a perennial championship contender with multiple trophies already in the case, or you’re languishing in the desert of a rudderless team building plan. However, it’s not simple to build through youth and it comes with its own set of challenges.

For a team like the Denver Nuggets, with a forward thinking president of basketball operations who cut his teeth in scouting circles coupled with a market that has proven to be less desirable to NBA free agents in the past, investing in youth isn’t just a good idea; it’s their only path to prominence. There are countless examples of the hazards that come with centering prime outside players in a medium market’s build: overpaying for a player like Kenyon Martin or Paul Millsap in free agency, lets say, or acquiring Andre Iguodala via trade despite his lack of long-term commitment. If Denver is going to field a roster of stars that carry them to a title, they’ll likely do it with their own homegrown talent driving the process.

Denver Nuggets v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

It’s clear Denver’s front office recognizes this. While they are certainly active in trade discussions and always looking for way to improve their team through free agency, their roster construction has largely been through the draft. They also live by the mantra of “you can’t skip steps.” Tim Connelly and company appear to be all in on the idea that they can grow a contender from within. In fact, in many ways they’ve already done it. It’s the likes of Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Michael Porter Jr. that national pundits and NBA opponents alike recognize as the talent that has made Denver a top three playoff seed as it stands right now. While the Nuggets aren’t going to be at the top of the list on anyone’s power rankings for winning the title, they aren’t going to be that far from the top either.

The issue they face in getting to the ultimate goal though could very well be the same thing that has got them this far: youth. To be more specific, the lack of maturity brought on by youth appears to plague this team and its relatively young roster. Sure, they have the veteran Millsap on the roster and there’s no doubts in regards to his maturity. He’s also the only player on the team born prior to 1990. In fact, other than Will Barton, there’s not a single player over the age of 25 on the roster who is under contract for next season. Up until this season that’s been fine. Denver has been in the role of plucky, young up and comer, exciting and fun to watch and even more exciting and fun to think about what they can accomplish once they hit their primes. Now though they are trying to move to the next step: perennial playoff team with championship aspirations, and this season there’s been a litany of red flags regarding whether the team has the maturity to win at the highest level.

It started with Denver’s star, Jokic. Now the clear best player on the team and one of the best player’s in the NBA, the Nuggets will only go as far as Nikola can take them. In a season that was as wide open as we’ve ever seen in terms of a path to the championship, Denver’s best player and de facto leader showed up to camp 25 pounds overweight. Nikola not taking care of his body while he was away from the team was a prime example of some lingering immaturity, and make no mistake it cost Denver wins early in the season. To his credit, Nikola bounced back and took things seriously the rest of the way. He put in the work, dropped the weight and got back to wrecking opposing centers on a nightly basis. That is an excellent sign of his growth in his maturity and hopefully a lesson he will only have to learn the hard way once.

On the other hand, he appeared to take that fitness lesson to heart and used his months away from the team this time around to get into phenomenal shape, but then risked it all when he went back to Serbia and was infected with COVID-19. Now, I’m not going to knock Joker one bit for wanting to see his friends and family. He’s still a human being like the rest of us and all of us are going through a tough time with being detached from our loved ones right now. I can’t say I wouldn’t have gone back home for a week before I entered into a bubble for the next three months either. The problem was Nikola, just a couple weeks before all his months of hard work were about to be put to use, decided to go to a large public gathering without taking a single precaution against a pandemic. That was an immature decision, and one that cost Denver valuable prep time with its best player before a playoff run.

Nikola is certainly not the only player who has displayed his immaturity this season, and his transgressions are also not nearly the most egregious. That’s a competition between Jamal Murray, Monte Morris and Michael Porter Jr. I’m not going into the details on what Jamal did; you probably know exactly what I’m talking about. It was an incredible example of poor judgement in the moment and one that can have much more drastic and far reaching consequences than just a basketball game, particularly for the other person involved. Even within the confines of basketball it was a distraction and it cast a negative light on the organization. In most cases it would be impossible to top Jamal’s gaffe this year, but Morris and MPJ were up for the challenge and this time it was outright dangerous. This story is best told through a screen shot, a tweet and a video.

Now, let’s put important context to this right away. According to Woj the Nuggets practice facility was shut down on Saturday June 27th, resident boxer Adrien Broner’s instagram video above wasn’t posted until Sunday. I’m going to give Monte and MPJ the benefit of the doubt here. I’m going to assume they were innocently unaware of why, or even if, their practice facility was shut down. That’s the assumption we have to make because anything else is speculation and that speculation can lead you to a very dark and unforgivable place very quickly.

Even with those assumptions though, holding a birthday party inside an apartment with dozens of people and not a single mask or effort to social distance in site is in immature. It’s more than that in fact. It’s reckless, it’s selfish, and frankly it’s life threatening, and they did it just days before the most complicated travel arrangements of their lives. Currently, neither MPJ nor Monte (along with a handful of other players) are in Orlando, and the reasons for that are both undisclosed and surmisable.

Once again, the immaturity of Denver’s players has brought negative impacts upon them and the organization. Even more troubling in this case is we have yet to see how drastic those impacts will be and more importantly whether they will be limited to the basketball world or if Monte’s soiree will have incredibly detrimental impacts on the lives of someone, or several someones, who attended.

This isn’t limited to individual player acts off the court either. We see it time and again on the court as well. Sometimes it’s Jokic shouting F-bombs in the heat of the moment and getting ejected in an important game, other times it’s MPJ’s inexplicable defensive lapses that resulted in him losing playing time. Most of the time it’s the collective nonchalance the team has in their approach to playing against teams they view as inferior talent. How many angry coach Michael Malone pressers have we heard about the guys taking things for granted, thinking that can just walk into a place and get a win? That’s immaturity losing basketball games for the franchise. To their credit the Nuggets have overcome most of this so far and sit as a three seed in the NBA. However, in order to go from a team that lands somewhere in the middle of the playoff pack that doesn’t get past the second round to a title team, the Nuggets will need to mature more than anything else.

I draw upon none other than Chauncey Billups and his own experience as told by ESPN’s Tom Friend as an example of this. Those who followed Chauncey’s career early on know it wasn’t always perennial conference finals trips and being the steadying force on the team. At one time Chauncey was struggling to stick with a roster, he played for four different teams in his first four seasons despite being the third overall pick in the 1997 draft. When he got to Minnesota though he joined up with his friend and young superstar Kevin Garnett where they both befriended veteran teammate Sam Mitchell and that’s where Chauncey’s career changed. As Friend describes it, the quintessential moment in Chauncey’s development is learning maturity from Mitchell who once told both Billups and KG “you act like a kid. Hold your head up, pull your britches up, look people in the eye. Then you’ll be a man.” That clicked for Chauncey, that made him understand how his immaturity was holding him back and when he decided to conquer it he became an NBA Finals MVP.

For the current day Denver Nuggets perhaps they need to find their own Sam Mitchell. If that guy was intended to be Paul Millsap then (and by no fault of Paul’s) it appears to have not worked. The Nuggets young core appears as immature as ever, perhaps even given a false sense of security about it because their sheer talent can still pull them out a win. That’s all well and good for regular season games against the Phoenix Suns, but those mental errors that happen in games because of lack of preparation and focus won’t get past the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks in the world. In order to win the title the Nuggets will have to remain focused and dedicated throughout an entire season and even in the offseason, both on the court and off it. The hope for Nuggets fans is that these past few stumbles are the last on their way to greatness, and nothing more. They’ve certainly got the talent, but until their roster collectively decides to “pull their britches up” they’ll never reach the pinnacle.