There’s a parable about a rabbi who takes a wrong turn and winds up at a fortress where the guard yells to him, “Who are you and why are you here?” The Rabbi yells back, “What do they pay you? Because i’ll double it if you come to my house every morning and repeat those questions.”
The Denver Nuggets should wake up every day asking themselves those questions. They are looking for answers after being humiliated by the Utah Jazz in back-to-back playoff games, with only some superhuman performances from Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic down the stretch of Game 1 to save them from an 0-3 deficit. This is not the promise that was made to Denver fans after the last playoffs, when it looked like Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray were the engine around which a contender could be built.
That team was brought up short via injury and poor play as well; both Will Barton and Gary Harris were injured going into those playoffs and rookies like Monte Morris hit a wall when asked to continue playing more than they ever had before. But the blueprint was there, and thus there’s a question that bears repeating: who are the Nuggets and what are their goals?
December 15th, 2016 is an important date in Denver, because it’s the date Nikola Jokic was planted in the starting lineup and Denver’s offense took off. It didn’t cement his role, however - Denver seems to go away from what has worked for them with every long break in play. It was celebrated again the following year when the offense was once again centered around Jokic, no pun intended.
The Nuggets have slowed their pace every year since then, to allow for fewer possessions and opportunities for mishaps on the other side of the ball. They have trimmed the offensive playbook down from cutting and movement to more screens and interminable pick and roll. And Denver’s offensive efficiency has remained in the top of the league - but it struggles to keep up with teams that can also execute. Denver simply doesn’t have the defensive weapons to take away Utah’s best options in the playoffs, and its own weapons have been MIA for long stretches of these games.
Denver goes through this every year with Jokic and Murray. Jokic seems annoyed and out of sorts for the first two months, Murray gets off to slow, uneven starts, and then they find their groove a ways into the season. The problem right now is that this is not November, it’s the playoffs, and Denver has no more time to wait.
The new wildcard is Michael Porter Jr. As great as he can be offensively, he has been targeted by the Jazz as his defense is just not up to snuff. He ball-watches, is poor on rotations and awareness, and in over his head frankly - just as one would expect from a rookie with very little playing time as a starter, especially prior to the bubble. But he’s not the one letting the Jazz guards get whatever they want. He’s not the one letting Gobert embarrass him on a national stage. Denver doesn’t know who MPJ really is yet, but that’s why you have max contract stars to set the tone and right now that tone is decidedly off-key.
Nikola Jokic has been demolished by Rudy Gobert, someone he was happy to put up good numbers on during the regular season. Jamal Murray was shut down by a longer, stronger defender for two straight games after his heroics saved Game 1. But adjustments can only solve so much. You don’t trail by 30+ points in consecutive games because someone rotated incorrectly. Malone talked after the game about how his squad needs to be “a lot more mentally tough” but they also have to answer those questions.
Who are you, Nikola Jokic? Are you the player that put this team on his back in the playoffs last season, who is an All-Star and an All-NBA talent, or are you the one who said this after the game:
"To be honest, I think I just missed shots. I took all the shots I wanted...The shots that I took, I think I sleep really good... My mind is gonna be all right because I think I took really good shots. I just missed." -Nikola Jokic on Rudy Gobert getting the better of him tonight— Joel Rush (@JoelRushNBA) August 21, 2020
Jamal Murray finished the first game hot, dueling with Donovan Mitchell and coming out the victor, but has been irrelevant in the next two games, continuing a pattern of bursts of glory followed by average play. He is being paid like the star he’s shown he can be, but is that who he is? He’s actually younger than Mitchell despite being drafted a year earlier, but it’s his 4th year in the league. Which Murray is Denver going to get going forward?
Porter’s barely dipped his toe in the water of his NBA career but Denver is already counting on him for big minutes and moments. His scoring touch is undeniable and his rebounding chops impressive, but everything else in his game is a work in progress. He’s struggling in the playoffs as almost every rookie does - but is he the missing piece for a team that could use his scoring punch, or someone who can’t fit Denver’s needs next to Jokic because of his defensive shortcomings?
And then there’s Coach Malone. He bragged when he got to Denver, with a lineup far more offensively suited, that his defensive preferences are just that: preferences. He said he could win any way it took, but since then the offense has narrowed, the playing time curtailed for his young offensive star rookie due to defensive miscues he was not allowed to play through, and now Denver is reaping the rewards of playing to win the battles and not the war.
The Nuggets were ill-prepared for the playoffs, frankly, and they’re going to have to overcome it. Denver rested players and treated the seeding period like the pre-season, but now can’t find the switch to get the right level of urgency and connection out of those same players. Can Malone coach a team with three offensive stars and no defensive ones? Can he motivate players who are built for a different brand of basketball than he preaches?
The situation is different in the bubble. Offenses are playing well because good defense requires a season of preparation and frankly no team has time for that. The Los Angeles Clippers might be the best defensive team in the bubble and they’re routinely giving up 110+ to the Dallas Mavericks. No crowds seems to have lowered the shot-to-shot pressure as well, and teams are shooting like they should in an open gym scrimmage - even if it is for a title. The goal is to win, not to win the preferred way or the pretty way or the way that best satisfies one’s inner view of oneself. Isn’t it?
Denver’s stated goal was a championship, and they’re struggling to win a game now against a team that plays together more, plays harder and is better coached. They’re still only down one game in a seven game series, but these answers need to come quickly.
Can Malone swallow his pride and change his plan now that he’s been punched in the mouth by Utah? Can Jokic overcome his reluctance to be a star and rip control of the series back from the Jazz? Can Murray be the consistent flamethrower that a short-handed Nuggets roster desperately needs him to be, despite whatever obstacles are thrown his way? Is this a paycheck, or glory, or is sacrifice for a championship really the goal?
Who are you, Denver, and why are you here?