With Denver Nuggets media day on Monday, the 2018-2019 NBA season is officially upon us. For the Nuggets, this year marks a pivotal point in what will likely be described as the Nikola Jokic-Michael Malone era. After two straight seasons of missing the playoffs by an excruciatingly small margin, the Nuggets are primed to return to the postseason for the first time in five years (their second longest playoff drought ever). There’s plenty of reason to be optimistic, given the pattern of development the team has shown over the past three years.

Year one: A new day with Malone and Mudiay

In 2015, once it became painfully obvious the team was not only going to miss the playoffs but also finish with it’s worst record in over a decade, then general manager Tim Connelly had to pivot. He fired Brian Shaw, named Melvin Hunt the interim head coach and headed into the offseason with a coaching search at the top of his to-do list. Connelly took his time, narrowing his candidates down to Hunt, former Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks head coach Mike D’Antoni and a relative unknown: Michael Malone.

Much to the surprise of nearly everyone around the NBA, Malone had been fired by the Sacramento Kings just a few weeks into his second year as head coach of the Sacramento Kings after his star center Demarcus Cousins came down with pneumonia. After a hot start, the team struggled in the immediate aftermath of Cousins’ absence and Malone took the fall. Despite only coaching for a little over a season, Malone was very well liked by his players and appeared to have the young Kings team on the right track. Still, Malone’s hiring in Denver was a bit of a surprise when it was announced in June of 2015.

There were whispers among those who were watching him the closest. Joker was for real.

There wasn’t an easy task in front of Malone. The Nuggets were in a full transition. Ty Lawson had been, for all intents and purposes, the face of the franchise for the last two seasons. After Lawson was arrested with DUI, was late coming back from All-Star break, and then was arrested again for DUI in Los Angeles, it was very clear that the Nuggets needed a change.

Enter Emmanuel Mudiay. The 6’5” 19 year old point guard was not supposed to be on the board when the Nuggets picked seventh overall in the 2015 draft. But on the board he was and pick him they did. Mudiay was immediately billed as the new face of the franchise. Lawson was traded to the Houston Rockets for a combination of players who would last less than a season with the team and a 1st round pick that at the time seemed unlikely to convey.

It wasn’t quite a rebuild but the Nuggets charged forward with a coach with less than two seasons of head coaching experience and a 19-year-old point guard who had only played a handful of games in China since high school.

There was one other, under the radar move that offseason, however. Quietly, in the middle of July, the Nuggets announced they had agreed to a contract with European prospect and Summer League darling: Nikola Jokic.

This content is no longer available.

Predictably, the Nuggets struggled. Mudiay’s struggles with ball security and shooting were real, and the team also had early heath issues. Young big man Jusuf Nurkic, who had come on strong at the end of the previous season, was still recovering from knee surgery and Wilson Chandler was ruled out for the entire year with a torn labrum. Danilo Gallinari got nicked up, Mudiay tweaked an ankle, and by the time Christmas rolled around the Nuggets were six games under .500 and headed towards another disappointing season.

There were a few bright spots of course. Gary Harris was excelling in his sophomore year, something that was a question mark when it was announced he would be the starting two guard from the beginning of the season. There was also that European prospect, Nikola Jokic, making the most of his opportunity with Nurkic out and starting to turn heads around the league. By the end of December he had taken the starting center role and wouldn’t relinquish it. There were whispers among those who were watching him the closest that Joker was for real.

Somehow, with Gallo out of the lineup again the Nuggets leaned on their youth movement of Mudiay, Harris, Jokic and Will Barton and nearly pulled off a .500 record after March. By the end of the season they had managed to improve their record by six wins. They were well outside the playoffs, but for the first time in two seasons the team appeared to be on the way back up.

Year two: the core is born

This content is no longer available.

With the help of the final piece of the Carmelo Anthony trade – the rights to swap picks with the Toronto Raptors – The Nuggets were able to move up to seventh overall in the NBA Draft, the same spot they drafted Mudiay the year before. Once again, a guard the Nuggets valued highly slid to them, this time it was the sharpshooting combo guard out of Kentucky: Jamal Murray.

Murray had been projected to go as high as fourth overall so Denver was naturally ecstatic, even though they already had two young guards in Mudiay and Harris. The youth movement didn’t stop there either. That Rockets pick that Denver acquired from the Lawson deal ended up conveying after all and the Nuggets had a first rounder left over from the Arron Afflalo for Barton deal with the Portland Trail Blazers. They would use both of those first rounders to take Juancho Hernangomez and Malik Beasley.

Malone re-inserted Jokic into the starting lineup and started running more of the offense through him. Eureka.

Coach Malone entered his second season with a handful of difficult tasks. He had two young and talented centers and had to figure out how to get them both minutes. First he tried playing Nurkic and Jokic next to each other, but when that wasn’t working he switched to bringing Jokic off of the bench. This made things a little less discombobulated but the question had to be asked: was the better player coming off of the bench?

Malone’s back court was struggling as well. Mudiay didn’t appear to have improved much following his rookie season. He still turned the ball over far too frequently for a point guard, failed to finish at an alarming rate at the rim, and looked confused on the court, at best. At worst he looked completely lost on offense and defense. Meanwhile Murray had started the season ice cold. Once again, it was early December and the Nuggets were six games behind .500.

On December 15th, Malone made a change. He re-inserted Jokic into the starting lineup and started running more of the offense through him. Eureka! Suddenly players were cutting around this slow-footed Serbian center and he was nailing them in-stride with picture perfect passes. He was absolutely lethal from anywhere within 15 feet of the basket and his range effectively stretched out to the three point line. The Nuggets had caught lightning in a bottle.

Not everything was sunshine and daisies with Jokic’s rise. Nurkic grew increasingly frustrated with his decreasing role. Eventually the situation came to a point of no return and the Nuggets hand was forced. They dealt Nurkic and a first round pick to the Trail Blazers for Mason Plumlee and a second round pick.

The Western Conference playoff race was odd that year. The top seven seeds were clear but the 8th seed looked like it might be had with a .500 record. For much of the winter, the Nuggets clung to the 8th position in the standings. Despite being 5 games under .500 and seven games back of the seventh place Oklahoma City Thunder, the Nuggets held a three game lead on March 1st for the final spot in the playoffs.

However, powered by “Nurk Fever,” the Trail Blazers went on a tear that month to close the gap with Denver. The season had its climax on March 28th when the Nuggets traveled to Portland for what was essentially a one game playoff for the final spot in the post season. It couldn’t have gone worse for Denver. Nurkic dominated, scoring thirty-three points and grabbing fifteen rebounds. he Nuggets lost and, as expected, fell out of playoff position, never to recover.

It was a disappointing end to a fun playoff push but fans in Denver could see something was brewing. Few doubted Jokic’s talent anymore. Despite some early struggles, Murray looked like at minimum a starting caliber player and Harris just continued to get better. The Nuggets appeared to have found their core.

Year three: Jokic ascends to stardom

This content is no longer available.

The 2017-2018 season was different from the previous two. After just missing the playoffs, Denver didn’t have a high lottery pick. What they did have was lofty expectations and a pile of cap space. However, the NBA Draft didn’t seem to go as planned. The Nuggets had a major need for perimeter defenders and a premier perimeter defender prospect was available for them at the thirteenth pick in O.G. Anunoby.

The Nuggets shocked everyone when, instead of drafting Anunoby, they traded the pick to the Utah Jazz for Trey Lyles and the twenty-fourth pick. As the players went off the board and Anunoby was still sitting there it started looking like Tim Connelly was going to pull off another draft heist. However, when the Raptors pick came up, just one pick in front of the Nuggets, they took O.G. and crushed Nuggets Nation’s dreams. Connelly selected Tyler Lydon out of Syracuse, who seemed like a prospect in the same mold of Lyles, leaving everyone confused and frustrated.

The front office rebounded from a poor draft night with the franchises biggest free agent signing in years. Paul Millsap inked a three-year, $90 million deal to solidify the Nuggets defense and provide veteran leadership. The signing signaled that Gallo was unlikely to be retained, signing a deal with the Los Angeles Clippers a few days later. With a player of Millsap’s caliber in tow, and with Murray fully healthy (it was revealed he played his entire rookie season with two sports hernias) the expectation was the Nuggets would be making a return to the postseason.

Just like that, the Nuggets prize free agent signing was going to be out for months.

Denver got off to another clunky start. The front office forced coach’s hand in the backcourt by releasing veteran Jameer Nelson, leaving Mudiay and Murray as the only point guards on the roster. The Jokic-Millsap partnership was a learning process as the Serbian big man appeared to play a bit more passive when playing alongside the 4-time all-star. Meanwhile, Murray got off to another slow start from behind the three-point arc.

The Nuggets were up and down in the first month of the season but as the calendar turned to mid November, Millsap and Jokic appeared to be figuring each other out. That’s when disaster struck. While playing against the Los Angeles Lakers, Julius Randle slapped down on Millsap’s wrist, resulting in a torn ligament which would require surgery to fix. Just like that, the Nuggets’ prized free agent signing was going to be out for months.

It was a crushing blow to a team who looked to just be figuring it out and it left coach Malone scrambling with front court combinations. He tried playing Plumlee and Jokic together but that forced Nikola away from the paint and away from the action. Playing Wilson Chandler as a power forward and Barton as small forward which left the bench under staffed.

This all brought the Nuggets to a point where they no longer could rely on Mudiay, even off of the bench. Just two years after hailing him as the next face of the franchise, Denver dealt Mudiay to the Knicks in a three team deal that brought back veteran Devin Harris on a rental. Once again, the Nuggets spent the majority of the winter holding on to the eighth seed in the West.

This content is no longer available.

The West was entirely different this season though. There were ten teams vying for the playoffs and the Nuggets’ hold of the final playoff spot started to slip down the stretch. This time it was the Minnesota Timberwolves who were pushing Denver for the final spot. As the season wound down and March came to a close, the Nuggets faced a seemingly impossible task. They’d have to win their last seven games if they were to make the playoffs.

Though it seemed impossible, Denver rallied behind Jokic. If he wasn’t putting up 20+ points he was putting up triple-doubles, guiding the Nuggets to wins with the help of Murray, Harris and Millsap who was gutting it out despite his wrist still not being 100%. The Nuggets’ hot streak set up a winner take all game in Minnesota against the Timberwolves on the final night of the NBA season. Winning team was headed to the playoffs. Losing team, to the lottery.

The game went back and forth, with Jokic and Murray carrying the team through vital stretches in the second half. With 4.4 seconds left in the 4th quarter the game was tied and the Nuggets had the ball but Jokic was unable to get up a shot. The Wolves would ultimately defeat Denver in overtime, leaving the Nuggets once again just barely on the outside looking in.

Moving Forward

Despite another disappointing result, the hopes for the Nuggets are as high as they’ve been in five years. In the offseason, the Nuggets jettisoned their veteran players who no longer were part of the team’s long-term plans. Because of health concerns, highly talented players like Michael Porter Jr and Jarred Vanderbilt fell to the Nuggets in the draft. The team also added Isaiah Thomas, an MVP candidate just two seasons ago who is looking to return to form following a surgery to repair a damaged hip.

While none of those players becoming an impact player for Denver is guaranteed, the Nuggets have stocked themselves with high-ceiling players who have the potential to add to their core and elevate the team’s potential. Millsap is fully healthy. It should be apparent to everyone that Jokic is the key to the Nuggets offense and maximizing his talents is the top priority. Murray looks primed for a breakout season and Harris just keeps getting better. Without a doubt, the Nuggets time to return to the postseason has arrived.

This content is no longer available.