Today is a special day for Denver Nuggets fans.
Five years ago on December 15th, 2016, Nikola Jokić became the permanent starting center for the Denver Nuggets. Though it took Michael Malone and the team awhile to fully commit to such a unique player with drastic strengths and weaknesses, the decision ultimately bore fruit. Jokić has since gone on a five year run unlike any other player in NBA history. From second round pick to injury replacement to starter to All-Star to First-Team All-NBA to MVP to...hell I don’t know what’s next for him. Best player in the league? Best player of this generation? Who’s to say he will stop improving at this rate?
In any case, the Nuggets have reaped the rewards of trusting Jokić for half a decade, and they’re in title contention for now and years to come because of it. Injuries have put a stay in that progress for the time being, but it doesn’t change that Denver has Jokić to guide them along that path going forward.
But what if they didn’t have Jokić?
Asher Levy is putting together an article about the story of December 15th. If you’re more interested in remembering the story of five years ago, then check out that piece. This piece isn’t that.
I thought an alternative reality would be more interesting. What would have happened to the Nuggets franchise had Jokić never reentered the starting lineup? What if Jokić merely leveled out at a high quality starting center, someone that would be helpful for a contender but may not define its path?
This is...the Nuggets paradox.
The 2016-17 season
The defining moment of Denver’s season happened when Denver moved away from Jusuf Nurkić and instead started Jokić. Hypothetically, let’s say that doesn’t happen. Let’s say that Jokić stayed on the bench, and instead of switching up centers, the Nuggets switched point guards. Emmanuel Mudiay was one of the worst point guards in the NBA and was ultimately replaced by Jameer Nelson that season. Had the Nuggets gone with Nelson, Gary Harris, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, and Nurkić, they still would have been roughly a 35 to 40 win team that year. They may not have been good, but they would have found some competence with that group. Mudiay would have moved to the bench, playing next to a rookie Jamal Murray, Will Barton, and Jokić.
In all likelihood, the Nuggets would have discovered about themselves that they don’t have a player to build around. At least, not until they start Jamal Murray toward the end of the season. Danilo Gallinari would have been traded at the deadline, and Nelson would have been put on the bench to free up playing time for Murray. Playing Murray and Harris next to each other would have meant high scoring nights for the two guards, and Murray’s development would have been accelerated by desperately trying to help the Nuggets win games.
Though Jokić would continue to push Nurkić for playing time, his lack of defense would ultimately keep him on the bench as a playmaking big man to assist Mudiay, Murray (for a time) and Barton. Nurkić certainly would have been happier as a starter, but it wouldn’t last into the following season.
The 2017 NBA Draft
The Nuggets had the 13th pick in the 2017 Draft initially, but even as they pushed for the playoffs the previous season, they were exploring big ideas to trade the pick. They explored trades for Jimmy Butler, Paul George, Eric Bledsoe when he was good, even Kyrie Irving. There were a lot of discussions about top tier players. Denver decided to stay the course at the time because they believed in their young core with Jokić at the forefront of it, but one of the players they seriously considered was Kevin Love.
In this paradox, the Nuggets acquire Kevin Love, trading Gary Harris, Nikola Jokić, and the 13th overall pick for Love. The three-team deal that never was between the Cleveland Cavaliers, Indiana Pacers, and Denver Nuggets finally goes through because the Nuggets give the Pacers an offer they can’t refuse for moving Paul George to Cleveland. Harris at the time was considered a borderline blue chip prospect, and Jokić showcasing his passing and scoring ability throughout the 2016-17 season would have been enough to get Indiana to bite.
So, Denver acquires Love. They put him, Nurkić, and Murray in the same lineup, and it works just about as well as can be expected.
Life with Kevin Love and Jamal Murray
It’s clear in the 2017-18 season that Love still has plenty in the tank, averaging 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 4 assists as Denver’s starting power forward. His two-man game with Murray becomes the staple of Denver’s offense, and he even staggers with the bench to lead their second units as well. The Nuggets clearly have an awesome frontcourt with Love, Nurkić, and free agent signing Bojan Bogdanovic to replace Gallinari. In addition, Murray has taken multiple steps forward and is averaging 17 points and 5 assists while hitting several tough shots in the clutch. He looks to be a star in the not too distant future. Will Barton is getting his opportunity to shine too, and he’s becoming a better defender than Denver ever thought he would while guarding the opposing team’s best perimeter player every night.
Unfortunately, the Nuggets just don’t have enough defense with a Bogdanovic, Love, and Nurkić frontcourt. The team ranks 25th in defensive rating and merely eighth in offensive rating, not good enough to make the leap in the standings they were hoping for. It’s clear that Denver has several talented players, but they can’t get enough stops when it matters to become better than a .500 team.
At the end of the season, Michael Malone is fired, and the Nuggets are forced to search for another defensive coach with the promise of improving defensive personnel for the next coach that arrives, beginning with the trade of Jusuf Nurkić.
Trading Nurkić for more mobility
Though it’s clear that Nurkić is a really good player, averaging 15 points, 10 rebounds, and 3 assists in the 2017-18 season, the Nuggets don’t believe in him hitting an extra gear on either side of the ball. He makes good positional plays every now and then and his size and eat up the paint, but he just doesn’t have the mobility to cover for Love’s deficiencies at power forward. So, the Nuggets decide to trade Nurkić to the Memphis Grizzlies for Marc Gasol, whose defensive intelligence and floor spacing help shore up some of Denver’s biggest concerns on both sides of the ball.
It’s a sad day for Nuggets fans, who enjoyed the flair and fun that Nurkić put together with his interior presence and attitude. He even showcased an ability to take over games as a scorer on occasion, at least when he found his touch as a post scorer on rare occasion. Nuggets fans knew that he wouldn’t be the best fit with Love going forward though, and Denver found a center who could help them out in the short term. Gasol would help take Denver’s defense from 28th to 18th almost by himself, and bench additions on the margins helped Denver too. They traded Bogdanovic for Trevor Ariza too, leaving Jamal Murray and Will Barton to step up even more offensively. Murray averaged over 20 points a night in only his third season and Barton averaged 16 per game himself.
Unfortunately, the offense remained borderline top 10, and with the defense only reaching just inside the top 20, the Nuggets were just another above average team, finishing with 47 wins and earning a 7th seed, facing James Harden and the Houston Rockets in the first round and being demoralized. It was embarrassing for Kevin Love in particular, who struggled to score in the post and couldn’t keep up as Denver’s best player.
The cycle of an average team
After the 2018-19 season that saw the Nuggets achieve a first round exit, Love and Murray each signed big contract extensions with Denver. While Murray continued on his developmental track and ultimately became an All-Star shortly thereafter, Love began to really regress. His waning athleticism led to a drop in physicality around the rim, and that affected him on both ends of the ball fairly quickly. The Nuggets immediately began to regret the Love extension within the first year of him signing the deal, but teams began to see the writing on the wall and decided to avoid trading good players and picks when Denver called to offer their former star in a trade.
In the years that followed, Murray solidified himself as a star but quickly became disenchanted with Denver’s underperforming seasons. Gasol retired, Barton walked in free agency, and though Denver made moves on the margins to try and help him, Murray still demanded the roster to become better. Denver obliged, trading future first round picks to clear Love’s salary and create cap space in the 2021 offseason, ultimately signed DeMar DeRozan to be a second star to Murray. It was lucky that Denver drafted Mitchell Robinson in the 2018 Draft to help replace Jokić and Nurkić long term, because he turned into a strong defender and lob threat for Murray after Gasol retired.
Still, it would never be enough to get the Nuggets out of the first round. They desperately tried to make it work, but Murray ultimately demanded a trade in the 2022 offseason. Not a single player on the Nuggets roster on December 15th, 2016 remained in 2022, and the Nuggets were cycling toward another rebuilding year after spinning the wheel of mediocrity for so long.
This is why December 15th is such an important day. Michael Malone and the Nuggets didn’t have to commit to Jokić, their 2014 second round pick who was good but not great at the time. They could have stuck with their 2014 first round pick in Nurkić and tried a different solution at point guard, or traded for a better power forward, or fired their coach, or pushed the reset button. Any and all of those scenarios were on the table after the Nuggets began the 2016-17 season with a 9-16 record.
For my sake and for the sake of all of Nuggets nation, I’m glad they put their faith in Nikola Jokić. He has been challenged to become better year after year after year, and every single time, he has delivered. Having that kind of player, that kind of talent, hiding in plain sight on Denver’s roster was a blessing beyond anything the Nuggets could have imagined.
I would know. I just imagined the alternative.