The Denver Nuggets are back. Missing three starters of their own, the Nuggets ran the Portland Trailblazers (sans Damian Lillard) off the court by 29 points. Nikola Jokic had a near-triple-double in just three quarters of work, but even that wasn’t the biggest story. Denver’s bench - justifiably maligned all season as it had posted the fifth-worst point total of any team’s bench unit - has exploded this week into a bounty of production. The Nuggets won without Jokic earlier in the week as he served a one-game suspension, and now sit at 9-4 on the season and in first place in the division.
So what happened?
The bumpy start to Denver’s season wasn’t reflected in the record as much as in the ugly on-court basketball that did not resemble Nuggets Basketball in anything other than jerseys. Their defensive energy remained high despite the offensive struggles, but unless star Nikola Jokic was lending his Midas touch to Denver’s efforts the Nuggets were a wasteland in most respects. Coach Michael Malone voiced his concerns about the reigning MVP’s workload by week two of the season:
Coach Malone had a long conversation with Nikola Jokic after the Nuggets practice yesterday. Malone said he worries about Jokic. "We're only 7 games in and sometimes I look at him and feel like he's got the weight of the world on his shoulders."— Katy Winge (@katywinge) November 3, 2021
With Jokic on the court at that point in the season, Denver was 14.2 points per 100 possessions better than its opponents, and when he sat they were 25.4 points per 100 possessions worse. That’s a 39.7 points per 100 swing, which is obscenely terrible, and it was a small miracle that their record was actually .500 after that game. A key component of Denver’s search for answers turned out to be this: how do you bring back joy to a team that is failing in all respects to provide its own?
Sports always have their cliches. Any given Sunday, take it one game at a time, no one gave us a chance... there are phrases baked into sports. One of the standouts, of course, is that winning is contagious. The flip-side of that is showcased in the baseball movie The Natural, with a speech that starts out, “Losing is a disease, as contagious as polio.”
I’m not sure I agree that winning is contagious. Winning is work, a grind. Losing creates bad habits, sure. But what is contagious? Joy. Denver has some joyous players, who just love getting up to grind. Jokic wants everyone to experience the joy he feels on the court. Will Barton plays with a fierce joy and is off to perhaps the best start of his career. And then of course there is the rookie, Bones Hyland - we’ll come back to him later.
Does joy lead to winning? Not necessarily. Some legendary championship teams have included stars who didn’t like each other, or even some stars that punched out role players (sorry Steve Kerr). Enjoying the process is not a necessary component of winning. Winning cures all ills and while joy doesn’t always bring wins, wins generally provide joy.
But I happen to enjoy teams that share their daily joy along with their results. It makes it far more satisfying to feel and see that love for the game, that camaraderie, and it makes the Nuggets a very satisfying team to watch. This year the Nuggets started off slogging through the work, focusing on the struggle without Jamal Murray, and unlike last year when he got injured they are not yet deep into the season where they can pivot to what they know works.
Because what works for this team is playing loose, an amusing dichotomy when paired with a coach who tries to keep a lock on Denver’s idiosyncrasies. The Nuggets have a head coach in Malone who admits that he hates to lose more than he likes to win. His injured point guard Jamal Murray is cut from the same cloth, but Jokic is different. Nikola pursues basketball like an artist, trying for the right brush stroke at the right time. The individual moments of the game matter as much as the outcome, and as one of the best offensive orchestrators the league has ever seen he discovers things as he plays that others do not.
That tension, between hate-to-lose coach and creative-genius star is what makes the Nuggets great, and gives them a chance at a title. Malone is a crucial component of that chase. If the head coach was more laid back, maybe his star doesn’t grind quite as hard. Jokic was out of shape his first few years, also by his own admission, and started taking the game and his body more seriously when he decided it was his obligation to be the best he could be. Denver can only go as far as he can take them, but if Malone grips the reins of the team too tightly and restricts his MVP then the team suffers. It’s a balancing act that both Malone and Jokic embrace in their joint pursuit of greatness.
But others have to pick up the slack in Murray’s absence, and this past week they have been able to do that. Denver had misplaced its creative, free-wheeling offense for a disaster of missed threes and incoherent player movement, but ironically it took Jokic being suspended to snap the team out of its funk. Will Barton was instrumental in that game against the Indiana Pacers, putting up 30 points and willing Denver to victory. It was the sort of performance Denver needed to find its footing.
Jokic returned with a terrific triple-double in the next game, one that also showcased two other joyous players: Aaron Gordon and Bones Hyland. Gordon has been a revelation this year, allowing Denver to play its switching defense with a forward that can move on the perimeter and handle offensive guards. He changes their length profile and gives Jokic easier defensive reads - and therefore terrific defensive impact against contained threats. In return, Jokic is feeding Gordon for massive dunks off of cuts and giving him wide-open looks from deep. Gordon is having the most efficient season of his career so far, and unlike in Orlando actually looks like he’s enjoying basketball.
And then there’s Bones. Hyland’s biggest flex of his rookie season is earning Malone’s trust this early, despite some defensive lapses. Malone trusts him anyway because he plays team basketball and wants to do the right thing, not just the spectacular thing. He has a short memory like his mentor Barton, has tremendous range, hustles all over the court and plays within himself. He creates plays for others, and hypes up everyone that plays with him. After such a tight start to the season, the bench is loosening up in large part to Bones playing with an absolute lack of fear. If the rookie isn’t tense, then how can the veterans be? It’s freeing up the whole unit.
And he knows which thing to do when, which is rare for a young player. Most rooks like to be flashy when they should be fundamental, but Bones isn't confused about the order of operations. Gonna be good for a long time. https://t.co/29LC47du2p— Gordon Gross (@GMoneyNuggs) November 13, 2021
Against the Portland Trail Blazers, Bones put in 18 points but also hustled for steals and closeouts, and fed players like JaMychal Green and PJ Dozier. The cloud over the bench lifted, and a squad that had been averaging around 28 points a game put up 63 to slam the door shut and give Jokic the entire fourth quarter off. Denver fans normally grind their teeth hoping the lead is intact by the time Jokic gets back in the game, but last night was a statement by the Nuggets that when they are on and hitting shots in rhythm they can make rivalries just disappear. Portland at this point is not a true test as they don’t know who they are, but Denver is starting to remember its own identity.
Shaquille O’Neal tells a story about how he couldn’t break Hakeem Olajuwon, that Hakeem would just laugh him off when Shaq tried to play head games. Hakeem played with joy -though he, like Jokic, would fight you if required. Teams have played rough with Jokic for most of his career, mistaking that joy for weakness, and now that he’s matured he has crushed all attempts to knock him off his game. If the rest of the team can learn to take that same approach and find the strength in that freedom, the Nuggets will maximize that potential brewing just beneath the surface.
Joy remains Denver’s secret weapon, and as they harness it this season it should help them overcome the injury woes and the long wait until Murray’s return. The bench players are starting to carry their heads higher and relax their shoulders. The starters are finding that groove. The shots will fall.
The sound from the Ball Arena tonight wasn’t just the crowd cheering on the blowout of a division rival, it’s that sleeping giant in Denver waking up. Injured or not, shooting issues be damned, the Denver Nuggets are reconnecting with the unique way to play that makes them great, and putting the rest of the league on notice.