Part 1: Screw up the Lottery Balls

Part 2: Stop Snitchin’

Part 3: Inbounding Lob Pass

Part 4: They Did Chauncey Dirty

Part 5: One, Two, Three, Six Weeks!


For a minute there, it looked like 2014 was going to be the Dougie McBuckets draft.

The Denver Nuggets came into the draft lottery with the 11th best odds, and landed the 11th pick. Hey, they didn’t fall lower! The first announcement was that they’d used the selection on Doug McDermott, but then we found out that Tim Connelly had traded the 11th pick to the Chicago Bulls for their picks at 16 and 19, and drafted Jusuf Nurkic and Gary Harris.

Oh, and there was also a second round selection. I’m going to tell this tale again, not because I think there’s anybody reading this who doesn’t already know it, but because it’s the beginning of a glorious and incredible story and I can’t fathom how anyone could get tired of hearing it. With pick number 41, as ESPN cut away from live coverage of the telecast while leaving a ticker going across the bottom of the screen for draft updates and showed an advertisement from Taco Bell for an artery-clogging abomination called the Quesarito which is a burrito stuffed inside a quesadilla and intended to be eaten while sailing in a canoe, the Denver Nuggets selected center Nikola Jokic from Serbia.

I do recall that there were a few commenters among the Stiffs who knew something about him and were excited about the pick. But don’t believe anybody who tries to tell you that they knew what had just happened. Connelly has made it clear in interviews that he didn’t foresee what was to come. NuggLife had taken its first step towards death.

At the very beginning, though, Jokic was a “draft and stash.” He’d spend 2014-15 winning the MVP in the Adriatic league, and come to Denver the following year. Nurkic and Harris were the new guys to watch on the court, for the time being. At the end of the 2015 postseason, NuggLife gave us a hard kick in the soft stuff, as the Warriors won the title and the Finals MVP award went to Iggy the Mole.

Michael Malone was hired as the new head coach that summer, and the 7th pick in the draft (the Nuggets had the 7th best odds in the lottery, so once again, we could at least be thankful that they didn’t fall lower) they chose Emmanuel Mudiay, who had a couple of promising flashes but ultimately, uh… didn’t quite work out. Missing out on a number 7 pick early in a rebuilding process ought to have set the franchise back pretty considerably, but again, NuggLife had taken that first step towards its demise the year before.

Jokic started exceeding expectations early on. He wore the number 15, the same number that Carmelo Anthony had worn for seven and a half seasons. Adam Mares talked about it earlier this year during a Locked On Nuggets podcast: In hindsight, it’s funny and odd that nobody in the organization seemed to think this should be questioned, but I don’t remember paying it any mind back at the time. As the 2015-16 season started off, I think I was still hoping Nurkic was going to keep getting better and better, since he did appear to be pretty talented.

At this point, I don’t really remember much else about that season, do you? The Nuggets finished with three more wins than the season before. Gallinari and Chandler were still on the team. It was a time of transition. A friend who’s a longtime Warriors fan said to me during this stretch “The Nuggets seem to have a lot of good pieces, but I’m not sure how they fit together.”

The 2016 draft, though, I sure remember that. The Carmelo Anthony trade was still paying dividends. It enabled the Nuggets to swap picks with the Knicks, moving them from 8 to 7, and they selected guard Jamal Murray, and I learned that there’s a town in Ontario called Kitchener. NuggLife took another significant step towards death.

The 2016-17 season was when the Nurkic-Jokic dilemma started blowing up, since it didn’t work trying to play them both at the same time. We all remember now how Jokic told Malone he’d be willing to come in off the bench, bless his incredibly humble heart. That didn’t work either, and so of course now we all celebrate Stiffsmas every December 15 to commemorate the day that Jokic was made the starting center, Nurkic was moved to the bench, and suddenly over the din of NuggLife you could hear the sound of basketball angels singing.

Nurkic did not like that sound. He pouted a lot. Many of us thought he was purposefully tanking his trade value. Did he even go so far as to leave the arena during a game? It depends on who you want to believe, I guess. He was finally traded to the Portland Trailblazers for Mason Plumlee, and we had a brewing rivalry on our hands. It was a low point at the end of the season when the Blazers eliminated the Nuggets from playoff contention, and Nurkic wished his former teammates a nice summer. But the Nuggets had improved their win total again from the previous season, from 33 to 40.

You might notice how all of a sudden, I’m speeding through things in less detail. We’re to the point now where this stuff is in pretty recent memory. By the summer of 2017, NuggLife was badly wounded, and it started lashing out in several desperate attempts to conceal its greatly weakened condition. I think we can gloss over a lot of this stuff quickly:

  • Tyler Lydon selected with the 24th pick after Connelly got too clever, missing out on OG Anunoby
  • Nuggets once again were eliminated from playoff contention in the last game of the season, this time during an overtime period vs the Minnesota Timberwolves
  • LeBron James announced he’d be a free agent in the summer of 2018, and the Nuggets made it clear they were interested in wooing him — but then on the first day of free agency, he revealed he’d be signing with the hated Lakers. Asked later if he’d considered the Nuggets, he scoffed and said “I never thought about it”
  • Masai Ujiri pulled off a daring trade for Kawhi Leonard, who went on to lead the Raptors to a title in 2019 — so now there was a *#!%ing expansion team that had gotten to the Finals and won a title before the Nuggets, thanks to the Nuggets’ former GM
  • Michael Porter Jr., the super talented forward selected by the Nuggets with the last lottery pick in 2018, required multiple back surgeries
  • Poor Gary Harris just couldn’t stay healthy
  • The hated Lakers beat the Nuggets in the 2020 WCF in the bubble, and went on to win the championship

And then in April of 2021, NuggLife showed us that it was a cornered rat, and took its last big shot. In a late season road game against the Warriors, Jamal Murray landed awkwardly on his knee (just like with Gallinari, there was no contact), and it gave out, and he lay there on the floor screaming in agony.

Just weeks before, Aaron Gordon had been acquired in a trade (Gary Harris was sent to Orlando) and the starting unit was beginning to look like world beaters. We didn’t know what would happen next. We didn’t know that NuggLife was critically wounded. We thought this was just more evidence that we couldn’t have nice things. The Nuggets still managed to win their first round series against Portland, but were swept in the next round by the Suns, who’d end up in the Finals.

I felt ridiculous for letting myself get so optimistic prior to the knee injury. Just like in 2009 and 2013, I’d let myself daydream about what the moment would feel like when the Nuggets finally won a title. How would I react? Would I be able to make it back to Denver for the parade? How stupid I was to get carried away with those imaginings, I thought. It’ll never happen. Something will always go wrong. And I’d try to remind myself, this is actually just a silly game. It’s a bunch of extraordinarily tall guys trying to put a bouncy orange ball through a hoop and prevent their opponents from doing likewise. Keep some perspective. It can’t possibly be that important, can it?

The whole next season went by with Murray out, and Porter missing most games as well, and then a first round loss to the Warriors. The low point of that series to me was one of the games in Denver, with so many damn Warriors fans in attendance that psychopath Draymond Green had them making tons of noise to distract Nuggets free throw shooters. Credit our guys for at least taking a game from the eventual champs.

Then there was the big surprise later in May: Tim Connelly, the guy who drafted Jokic, left the team. The Timberwolves had backed up the proverbial Brinks truck to his door. Apparently those early reports of his ineptitude in 2013 had been premature. In addition to a salary of many quadrillions of dollars, he was rumored to have been given an ownership stake in the franchise, all the first born children of the Twin Cities, and several Great Lakes renamed in his honor. Some of us thought we were doomed for a minute there, unsure how Calvin Booth would do in his place.

This brings us to the fall of 2022, with NuggLife sitting in its cell on death row. Media day came along, with Murray and Porter healthy again and ready to start the season. Jokic, winner of the last two regular season MVP awards, had signed a supermax extension over the summer, without a second thought. He had a quote ready for the reporters. He said he wanted to be “the Tim Duncan of the Denver Nuggets.” To be a key guy and play his whole career with the team that drafted him. Keep this in mind, I’m going to refer to it again shortly.

And now stay with me for a minute here while I get into some personal details. Just a few days into the 2022-23 season, my mother was diagnosed with severe dementia. All of us in the family had been growing more concerned about her during the last year or two. The pandemic had isolated her (she’d been living alone since my father passed away in 2010), and she was struggling more and more every day. My wife is disabled and I’m her caretaker, so I couldn’t come back to Denver to help my mother. I had to keep tabs on her from afar, via her caretakers. It was so hard. She was changing so much every time I called.

The harder that situation became, the more I was grateful for the refuge I could find in following the Nuggets, and talking about them here on Stiffs. The team was staying healthy and doing well. They climbed to first place in the conference in December and hung on the rest of the way. Was there a bit of NuggLife silliness mixed in? Sure, I suppose so. There was the drama with Bones Hyland, and then there was Kendrick Perkins and his buffoonish commentary, torpedoing Jokic’s chance at a third consecutive MVP award. This coincided with a dip in the quality of the team’s play, which I remember worrying about. But they kept hanging on to first place in the West.

By March, my mother had been placed in skilled nursing care after several falls. Her cognition had declined to the point where she couldn’t fight to stay in her house any longer. Late that month, hospice workers advised me that I had better come see her very soon. We quickly arranged help for my wife, and I flew to Denver the next day. I spent several days by my mother’s bedside holding her hand, and finally couldn’t be away from home any longer. I thanked her for everything and told her goodbye, and I think maybe she understood — she looked me in the eyes at that moment, which she’d scarcely done in the days prior. I flew back to California, and then I got the call on April 8, as the Nuggets were winning their final regular season game, that she’d taken her last breath.

The world suddenly didn’t make sense to me. What kind of place was it, without her in it? I wouldn’t have expected this of myself, but I kept following the progress of the Nuggets and checking in at Stiffs. The playoffs were here. I needed this to grab onto. But I did it in my own unorthodox way. This is where I have to confess that I stopped watching Nuggets games live back during the 2009 WCF. I couldn’t handle the stress and suspense. For the next fourteen years, my practice was to set the DVR for national broadcasts, and have my League Pass subscription in place for the rest, and to busy myself with other things during games. Then, two and a half hours after scheduled tip-off, I’d start refreshing the home page at Stiffs to learn the outcome. (I knew there were other ways to find out, but I wanted to hear the news from someone who felt the same way about it as me.) If the Nuggets won, I’d watch the replay. If they lost, I’d try to put it out of my mind until the next game day.

So yeah, I missed that one game in the first round that they dropped to the Wolves, and then also missed both those second round games during which Devin Booker temporarily became a thousand times greater than peak Michael Jordan. But I watched all the wins, and couldn’t fully believe what I was seeing. Then it was time for the WCF, and I wasn’t sure how I’d get through it. I was still very freshly stricken with grief while trying to deal with my mother’s house and the rest of her estate and also planning her memorial service, and now the Nuggets were in the Conference Finals for just the fifth time in their history, and of course who else would they be facing other than that very most despicable of all American sports franchises, the very deeply hated Lakers.

As I write this now, it’s been more than five months since the Nuggets swept those hated Lakers in that series, and it occurs to me that the fact of that is still sinking in. Seven losses to those bastards in seven prior playoff series, and the Nuggets did not even allow them to win a single game this time. LeBron James did his best Paul Bunyan in game four, and it wasn’t good enough. “The team with the best player usually wins,” their fans had taunted us in years past. This time, our team had the best player. Our Denver Nuggets celebrated their first ever Conference Championship on the hallowed home floor of the hated Lakers’ storied Bitcoin Hut arena. A bunch of Nuggets fans in attendance gathered together near the court to cheer loudly as the Oscar Robertson trophy was given, while the celebrities and their divorce lawyers and their plastic surgeons silently sulked away. Can you believe that? I still can’t believe it. NuggLife was in critical condition. Its ekg monitor was making pitiful little beeps, further and further apart.

May 22, 2023; Los Angeles, California, USA; Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone celebrates beating the Los Angeles Lakers in game four of the Western Conference Finals for the 2023 NBA playoffs at Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

It was ridiculous waiting to find out who the Nuggets’ Finals opponent would be. The Eastern Conference Finals went seven games. On the one hand, it was good that the Miami Heat won, because that meant the Nuggets would have home court advantage. On the other hand, it made me nervous that the Heat had taken away home court in every prior round, and then after giving it back to the Celtics in the ECF, they went into Boston and won game seven.

We weren’t going to make it all this way only to be upset in the Finals by an expansion team, were we? An expansion team that already had multiple trophies, for that matter, since they’d won multiple titles long before the Nuggets made it to the Finals. Oh lord, and what if they became the first 8 seed to win a title? Imagine how that’d feel. At least this iteration of the team wasn’t another “Heatles.” It was Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and a bunch of dudes. The Nuggets were favored, but people were talking about coach Erik Spoelstra’s genius. So much so that I wondered if he spent practice time engaging his players in a roundtable debate over the continuing ramifications of the Magna Carta in the post-industrial age, or perhaps drawing blueprints for a perpetual motion machine.

I was giddy to learn that the Nuggets had won game 1, and I sat there afterwards on the sofa watching it on the DVR with my mouth stupidly agape the entire time. Every so often I’d have to pause and say to Mrs. PHN “The Denver Nuggets are in the NBA FINALS!!!” Not the hated Lakers. Not the damn Warriors again. Certainly not the freakin’ San Antonio Spurs. Our Denver Nuggets! In the NBA Finals!

I definitely sweated a lot over game 2. I deleted it from the DVR unwatched and tried to keep my mind off it for the next couple days. Plans for my mother’s memorial service helped keep me busy. Games 3 and 4 sure were great. As game 5 approached, I committed to sit and watch it live. The Denver Nuggets were one win away from the NBA Championship. I wanted to be watching live when it happened — if it happened, that is.

So there it was, 5 PM Pacific time on June 12, 2023, and I sat down on the sofa and turned on the TV. Mrs. PHN was lying on the bed in the next room, cuddling with our cat. Oh please, I prayed to the basketball gods, let the Heat’s spirit be broken by those two losses in Miami. Let this turn into a blowout before the first quarter is over. I am sitting here to watch without knowing the outcome first. It’s been such a year. Don’t make this hard on me.

The game got underway and Mrs. PHN could hear me groaning and cursing more and more every minute. I kept punching the sofa. I’d have to get up and pace around. It was miserable. And then, with 2:51 remaining in the first quarter, Jokic was called for his second foul, and I turned off the television. I sulked into the bedroom and muttered “Let’s go ahead and feed the cat now.” We got on with the evening, the DVR recording just in case. I sat and read The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, something really challenging and absorbing. Mrs. PHN was nearby, also reading, but occasionally picking up her phone. I figured out after a while that she was googling to check the score. I knew that the Nuggets had fallen behind by 2 at the end of the first quarter. I kept reading, and she kept reaching for her phone every so often, not wanting to tell me anything upsetting, such as the fact that they’d trailed by as many as 10 in the second quarter. I did find out they were down 7 at the half.

More reading for me as the third quarter started. Part VII, “The Parting of the Arabian Sea,” is a particularly compelling and epic section of the book. It’d make a great movie. And then suddenly, “It’s tied!” Mrs. PHN called out. 60-60. I still couldn’t bring myself to watch. An aspect of Rushdie’s novel I found particularly fascinating was the blurring between hallucinations and reality. He leaves it to you to decipher this. And then “They’re up by three!” 69-66 late in the third quarter. Nope, I still can’t bear to turn the TV back on.

On it went like this, until she burst out with “They’re up seven!” 83-76 with 4:03 remaining. I took a few deep breaths, and turned the TV back on. And the very next thing that happened was that Jimmy Butler leaped up, launched an errant three pointer, and in mid air kicked Aaron Gordon right in the junk before everyone fell to the ground. Foul on Gordon. Malone challenged the call. Challenge denied. The call stood, Jimmy Butler went to the line to shoot three free throws, and I furiously turned the TV back off, now at the peak of my misery for the day.

Bless her heart, Mrs. PHN kept checking her phone. The lead went back and forth, and then it was 91-89 Nuggets with 24.7 seconds left. I took still another deep breath, and turned the TV back on and saw Kentavious Caldwell-Pope sink his second free throw to make it 92-89. I couldn’t stay sitting on the sofa and I didn’t know what else to do with myself, so I knelt on the floor and watched as the Heat brought the ball up and Jimmy Butler took another three point attempt that missed and this time there was nobody’s nuts for him to kick. Bruce Brown grabbed the rebound and was fouled with 14.3 seconds left and GOD BLESS HIM he made both free throws (the second one just barely rolled over the front of the rim) and it was now 94-89. The Heat called a timeout and the broadcast cut to a shot of a big roomful of people watching in Sombor, and the Heat brought the ball up again and Kyle Lowry’s three pointer missed. Caldwell-Pope grabbed the rebound with about 10 seconds remaining and I was gasping and sputtering nonsense syllables and then managed to choke out “They’re not gonna foul him! They’re just gonna let him dribble it out!!!” and he dribbled determinedly to the other end of the court and the crowd was going absolutely wild and the clock ticked down to zero…!

… and it was over. The Denver Nuggets won the NBA Championship. NuggLife had come to an end. I fell the rest of the way to the floor and sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. Later Mrs. PHN told me “That’s the hardest I’ve seen you cry since your dad died.”

My phone was blowing up, but all I could do was just kneel there crying as the confetti fell, as Jamal Murray crouched down and buried his face in his hands, as the players hugged each other and donned the hats, as Jokic gave his hilariously calm, subdued interview, as the trophy was presented… it really happened. It really happened. I didn’t think they’d ever do it. I didn’t think I’d ever live to see the day. But they did it. THEY DID IT.


Let me now refer back to Part I of this tale, “Screw Up the Lottery Balls”. Think about this for a minute. The Nuggets missed out on the chance to draft Tim Duncan in 1997, and the Spurs got him instead and went on a long, dynastic run while the Nuggets toiled between awfulness and mediocrity (with occasional flashes of great promise that ultimately went unrealized). And then, 25 years later, on Media Day our reigning MVP told reporters he wants to be “the Tim Duncan of the Denver Nuggets.”

I’d given Ujiri a pass for the JaVale McGee trade because I figured the only way the Nuggets could ever overcome everything stacked against them and win a title would be by finding some overlooked gem who’d shock the world. And the 2023 NBA Finals MVP was our number 41 pick in the draft, the goofy pudgy kid who couldn’t do a pushup. I’m convinced that this was the only possible way that NuggLife could have ever ended. Something absolutely off-the-wall and incredible and unbelievable like this. NuggLife as I always knew it had three components: awful luck, disastrously bad decisions at key moments, and tremendous disadvantage caused by the fact of Denver being an undesirable market to the majority of NBA star players. Was there a curse? I don’t sincerely believe in such things, but if there was a curse, it couldn’t bear the weight of a 280 pound Sombor Quesarito.

We didn’t need great luck in the lottery. We just needed this completely unpredictable strike of lightning. (As an aside, how ridiculous is it that the Spurs won the 2023 draft lottery and drafted Victor Wembanyama, just to bookend this entire saga?)

And another funny coincidence: during the 2023 playoffs, Carmelo Anthony announced his official retirement from the NBA. George Karl congratulated him in a tweet and suggested the two of them attend a Nuggets playoff game, and Anthony responded appreciatively. Some stories started popping up in the media suggesting that he and the Nuggets should mend fences. I suspect that some trial balloons were being floated to see how Nuggets fans would respond. And this all brought up the subject of jersey retirement. There’s an argument to be made for retiring Anthony’s jersey, with one significant complication being that Jokic now wears that same number. This is an oversimplification, but the selfish star player, our lottery prize from 2003 who forced his way out of town to a big market eight years later, is being blocked from having his jersey raised in our rafters because his number is being used by our supremely unselfish MVP who wants to be the Tim Duncan of the Nuggets, the humble star who stays in Denver and doesn’t care about the bright lights, and led the team to its first title. Mrs. PHN put it best: this is poetic.

Now, I know that this whole thing that I’ve typed doesn’t serve as a comprehensive history of NuggLife. As I said in that first installment, you could begin this story at any number of points. How about the 1976 ABA Finals? Maybe David “Skywalker” Thompson’s drug addiction, or Alex English getting his hand broken by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the 1984 WCF, or even just a year before the 1997 draft, when Bernie Bickerstaff decided to let Dikembe Mutombo leave for nothing? There’s other ridiculous stuff that deserves a mention too, like the Nuggets being the losers of the highest scoring game in league history. Or how about the time Nick Van Exel intentionally knocked over a referee? Or when Tim Hardaway threw a tantrum and tossed a TV monitor onto the court?

Instead of trying to do something truly comprehensive, I just wanted to tell the story as it’s formed in my own mind over the last quarter of a century. I am still trying to make sense out of the fact that the Nuggets finally won the championship just two months after my mother passed away. Rationally speaking, I’d have thought that the seriousness of her death would eclipse everything else going on in my life, and that I’d have no time or attention for caring about a bunch of ridiculously tall guys trying to put a bouncy orange ball through a hoop while preventing their opponents from doing likewise. But I don’t think any of us are as rational as we might like to believe. I needed this joy so much in that moment, and I grabbed onto it with both hands as hard as I could. Two things can be true at the same time: organized professional sports are fundamentally silly in a way, but they also really do count for something. To be a devoted fan of a sports team – especially a hard-luck one – is to give yourself over to something that you can’t control, and I think your spirit needs things like this. We bring our hopes and our frustrations and our joy and our sorrow to this, and we experience it all together. Good and bad. 11-71 and NBA Champions. El Busto and El Quesarito.

That night of June 12, after I finally got the tears under control and answered the many text messages and facetime calls, I came here to Stiffs and jumped into the comments section of the game recap. We were all having a lot of fun. I burst out with the idea that many Nuggets of the past had been redeemed, and started listing them. David Skywalker Thompson: you are redeemed! Dan Issel: you are redeemed! Others started joining in. Earl Boykins, Marcus Camby, Eduardo Najera, Linus Kleiza,  Al “Buckets” Harrington, Aaron Afflalo! Monte Morris! T.R. Dunn, Elston Turner, Mike Evans, Wayne Cooper. Jerome Lane, Skita, Marcus Liberty, Cadillac Anderson, Bryant Stith, Kiki Vandeweghe, Alex English, Fat Lever, Ralph Simpson, Bobby Jones, Doug Moe, hell, even Carmelo, and KMart, Nene, Birdman and sure, even Karl and AC! Michael Adams! Danny Schayes! Timofey Mozgov! Kenneth Faried, Andre Miller, Robert Pack, and Keon Clark! Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Rodney White, Darnell Mee and Vincent Yarbrough! Rodney Rogers! Dikembe Mutombo! And on and on…

And Tom Hammonds? Well… how about we just say, no hard feelings?

The author at the victory parade on June 15, 2023