The Denver Nuggets went all in on their team on March 25th, 2021 when they acquired Aaron Gordon from the Orlando Magic at the NBA trade deadline.
The four games the Nuggets played immediately after with Gordon in the starting unit next to Jamal Murray at point guard were some of the brightest days of the current era. Nikola Jokić averaged a high number of assists sharing the ball with shooters and cutters. Michael Porter Jr. was optimized in his role as the third scorer on the team. Will Barton was finding success attacking gaps and mismatches.
Denver went 4-0 in those four games against the Atlanta Hawks, Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Clippers, and Orlando Magic. They were bullying teams that were previously giving them trouble, playing strong defense, and filling their roles to perfection. Everything was falling into place for a team that had a starting unit as dangerous as any in the league with depth to back it up.
Two weeks after the trade, the injuries began in full. They’ve been unrelenting since.
Here’s a list of the major injuries the Nuggets have dealt with since making the trade:
- Prior to trade — Aaron Gordon recovering from significant ankle sprain
- April 12th, 2021 — Jamal Murray tears ACL, has surgery on April 21st
- April 16th, 2021 — Monte Morris strains right hamstring, returns less than 100% prior to playoffs
- April 23rd, 2021 — Will Barton strains right hamstring, returns less than 100% in second round of playoffs
- May 3rd, 2021 — P.J. Dozier strains groin, out for the playoffs
- June 7th, 2021 — Michael Porter Jr. tweaks back, fights through pain in second round of playoffs
- Offseason — Monte Morris has procedure to “clean up” knee injury
- Preseason — Vlatko Čančar strains left hip, is out for several weeks, has yet to debut this season
- November 6th, 2021 — Michael Porter Jr. aggravates back injury, full recovery timetable unknown, surgery possible
- November 14th, 2021 — Zeke Nnaji sprains ankle, is out for unknown timetable
- November 18th, 2021 — Nikola Jokić sprains right wrist, is currently out for an undisclosed period
- November 21st, 2021 — Bones Hyland sprains right ankle AFTER spraining left ankle a few days earlier, is in walking boot
It can be difficult to process the experience of being so close to a championship run with such major obstacles still standing in the way. Jokić won the MVP last season and appears to be just as good if not better this time around. Having the best player on the floor is generally a prerequisite to becoming a title contender, and the Nuggets have that box checked for the foreseeable future.
A great player doesn’t make a great team though, and the Nuggets have struggled to find consistency over the last several years while surrounding Jokić with as much talent as they possibly can. It took Murray awhile to find his consistency. Paul Millsap was signed to help Denver reach the pinnacle but ultimately aged out before they were ready. Barton has struggled with injuries and consistency throughout his career. Porter is the opposite of Millsap and hasn’t been quite old enough (or close enough in his prime) to fill the role the Nuggets envision for him in a playoff environment. The Nuggets had to trade Gary Harris, initially their first building block of the rebuild, in order to find the player they believed to be their missing piece in Gordon.
It felt like, for a brief period of time, the Nuggets had found the confluence of timelines needed to achieve championship caliber status for at least three to four seasons.
Now, the Nuggets are struggling to keep their heads above water.
For whatever reason, the Nuggets seem to have their greatest heartbreaks in the midst of their greatest triumphs as a franchise. During the 1977-78 season, David Thompson won first-team All-NBA for his legendary season battling the great George Gervin for the scoring title that year. Two years later, Thompson broke his foot and began using cocaine to help cope with the physical and emotional toll. The Nuggets traded Thompson just a couple short years later in what was a tragic story then and an under-discussed part of Denver’s history now.
Fast forward to the 1984-85 season in the midst of Alex English’s prime. He, Calvin Natt, Fat Lever, and Dan Issel led the Nuggets to the Western Conference Finals to face Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and the Los Angeles Lakers. It was Denver’s best chance at the first NBA Finals appearance in franchise history, and it came crashing down when Kareem elbowed English and broke his thumb in several places. That happened during the third quarter of Game 4 with the Lakers leading 2-1 in the series. English wouldn’t play again, the Lakers won the game and Game 5 after that, and Denver’s brief spot in the limelight was snuffed out.
Fast forward to 2009, and the Nuggets are facing the Lakers again with perhaps the best team in franchise history. They made it all the way to the Conference Finals once again, and all that stood in their way was Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. They never got the chance to get going in that series after Anthony Carter had his inbound pass stolen by Trevor Ariza in Game 1, and the team never truly recovered after that.
In 2013, the Nuggets were on pace (and ultimately set) the franchise record for regular season wins after trading for Andre Iguodala. It was unclear who the leader of that team was, but Danilo Gallinari certainly had a claim. The team was absolutely rolling heading into April...until Gallinari tore his ACL right before the season ended. The team never truly recovered after that, and despite a valiant effort from Iguodala and Ty Lawson in the playoffs, they lost to an upstart Golden State Warriors squad led by a shooter named Stephen Curry and kickstarted by the injury to David Lee that freed up time for Draymond Green to play more minutes. Little did we know that a dynasty was forming at that point.
“NuggLife” is the ultimate forging of fandom through pain. When something unexpectedly bad (or expectedly bad) happens to the Nuggets, the term NuggLife is bandied about ad nauseam. It’s this unexplainable force that helps drive Nuggets fans toward suffering and hardship through the dedication to their favorite team. To know the Nuggets is to know the peaks and valleys of the franchise, a mountain range of landmines waiting to be detonated because it’s what Nuggets fans expect to happen. Why expect the worst? Because you can’t be hurt as badly if your hopes have less distance to fall into disarray.
Because you can’t have the valleys without the peaks. They’re cyclical, as is the Nuggets franchise. The Nuggets experienced the triumph and the horror of David Thompson’s rise and fall, the excitement and inevitable demise of the Alex English Nuggets finding new ways to lose, the shock and disgust of an inbound pass flipping the script, and now the pain and shattered dreams of the injury bug.
It appears the Nuggets haven’t quite shaken free of NuggLife just yet. Michael Porter Jr. is receiving alternate opinions on his back injury and what his options are, according to Mike Singer of the Denver Post. Jamal Murray is working his way back from ACL surgery, but rushing his rehabilitation would be one of the most insane moves in franchise history, and the Nuggets will play that as patiently as they can. Now, Jokić is out with a wrist injury, leaving the rest of the Nuggets roster to fend for themselves for the time being, the most recent example of that being horrible.
Don’t worry, it gets easier with Denver set to embark upon a seven-game road trip with the prospect of only one of their three stars returning in the foreseeable future.
The hope for this year, and for the years to come, is that Denver breaks tradition. They’ve built this team through the draft (Jokić, Murray, Porter, Morris, maybe Bones and Zeke Nnaji), trades on the margins (Barton, Gordon) and signing whichever free agents that are interested in coming to Denver at the price the team can afford (P.J. Dozier, JaMychal Green, Facu Campazzo, Austin Rivers, Jeff Green). They lucked out with Jokić, but they had to nurture that relationship, push him past his limits, and hope. There was no other path for them to be a true championship contender otherwise.
Before the injury bug hit, they had found their mix. They had found their rhythm. They had finally reforged their place in the NBA as one of the elite teams capable of winning a championship. NuggLife would say that’s over and done with now.
Hopefully the Nuggets, starting with Michael Porter Jr. and the ultimate prognosis for his back injury, can break the spell set upon this franchise decades ago.