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The Denver Nuggets are always ahead of schedule.
After trading Carmelo Anthony in 2011, they bypassed the rebuilding phase that typically accompanies trading one of the ten best players in the league, and became even better.
When the 57-win 2012-13 Nuggets, quietly one of the most inexplicable and enjoyable teams of the past decade, burned in the flames of Stephen Curry’s coming out show, the delayed rebuild finally took place.
George Karl, fresh off a Coach of the Year award, was let go, and Andre Iguodala, the team’s most valuable player, departed with him. The Brian Shaw era was ushered in, proving to be one of the more downbeat ‘eras’ the NBA has seen.
In the post-Anthony, Chauncey Billups and Allen Iverson world, the Nuggets have endured without a superstar fulcrum. For three years, they did it as well as anyone, making the playoffs each year led by a bevy of above-average non-All Stars. The Ty Lawson-Danilo Gallinari-Arron Afflalo-Kenneth Faried world had a defined ceiling, though, one that Denver smashed their head against in successive first round playoff exits. From 2011 through 2013, the Nugs fell in the playoffs to teams led by Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant and Stephen Curry. The Wilson Chandler life just didn’t stack up.
In 2013, the Nuggets dared us to believe they might break all the rules. Like the 2014-15 Hawks, they racked up an unfathomable amount of wins thanks to a revolutionary style, attention to detail, depth, and selflessness. Before Gallinari went down on the eve of the playoffs, the Nuggets were a few shades lighter than a dark horse in the West.
The beauty of teams like the 2013 Nuggets and 2015 Hawks was that they raised a middle finger to convention. They were marvellously illogical – paradigm destroyers that forced us to re-evaluate what we thought we knew about basketball.
But the tragedy of those teams came with the inevitable reinforcement of reality that has strangled every non-superstar team outside of the 2004 Pistons. While Denver would have no answer for Durant or Curry at the end of games, their opponents invariably would have an answer for the Wilson Chandler drives and Andre Miller mid-rangers the Nuggets would be forced to rely on.
Although it may not have happened by choice, the Nuggets, after three seasons trapped in mediocrity, are in the process of building a similar team to the one that continuously fell at the first hurdle. Again, they have an impressive amount of quality depth. Again, they have no singular transcendent talent.
In three years, the Nuggets have completely reconstructed their roster, burning down a team that won 57 games and quickly finding a future in the ashes. The speed in which Denver has rebuilt itself with depth and an array of genuine assets has been remarkable.
The rebuild has occurred almost exclusively through the draft, with the Nuggets adding Garry Harris, Jusuf Nurkic, Nikola Jokic, Emmanuel Mudiay, Jamal Murray, Juan Hernangomez and Malik Beasley across three drafts. The accumulation of so many quality young pieces in such little time is almost unprecedented, aided by the savvy trades of Arron Afflalo (for a first round pick and Will Barton), Ty Lawson (for another first rounder) and Doug McDermott (for Nurkic and Harris on draft night).
The young core combined with Gallinari, Chandler and Faried – the three holdovers from the Karl era – gives Denver a collection of diverse assets that perhaps only Boston could eclipse if a trade opportunity for a disgruntled superstar were to present itself.
The problem is that Denver’s ceiling and path to contention is totally dependent on such an opportunity arising. Their chances of signing a superstar outright are slim to none, so their future relies on a bolting superstar. One imagines general manager Tim Connelly spending his days hoping that DeMarcus Cousins or John Wall will wake up one morning feeling more disconsolate than usual.
Barring such an occurrence, the Nuggets seem destined to repeat the incredibly nice, extremely unfulfilling post-Anthony mini-era of faux contention.
Denver is loaded with players who could maybe one day be the fourth best player on a title team. Emmanuel Mudiay has perhaps the highest upside of the core, but he will have to fly and not just climb out of his present basement to reach it.
The Nuggets are a catastrophe with Mudiay on the floor, an untenable disaster zone on offence. With Mudiay on the bench, Denver has the seventh best offence in the league – when he takes the floor that ranking plummets to 26th. At present, Mudiay is one of the least efficient players in NBA history – his stat-line is like a Kobe Bryant retirement tour – and that has to change fast if he’s to salvage his immense physical gifts.
Jusuf Nurkic is another picture of inefficiency. A potential franchise cornerstone is beginning to look more like a poor man’s version of Nikola Pekovic, although Nurkic is still young. The inability to play Nurkic alongside Jokic – a tandem that gets destroyed by 17 points per 100 possessions – has been the biggest disappointment of Denver’s season, ultimately forcing Jokic to the bench.
Keep the faith with Jokic, though. He’s still Denver’s best asset, an otherworldly passer who can space the floor and be active on defence.
Jamal Murray may soon eclipse Jokic, though, with his sweet stroke and dynamism on offence already giving teams headaches. Denver fans should send flowers to New Orleans for passing on Murray in favour of Buddy Hield.
Garry Harris looks to be a solid two-way perimeter player, but players like Harris are emblematic of Denver’s fundamental problem – they’re a team of solid players, with no liquid hope for transcendence.
The Nuggets could very well make the playoffs this season. They’re 7-10, having thrown away a handful of games late, and sit just 1.5 games behind the Lakers for the eight-seed. They go 11-deep in capable NBA rotation players – something that few teams could claim.
They’re 18th in net rating, ahead of other potential playoff teams like Portland, New York, Indiana, New Orleans and the Lakers. The Nuggets are already competent, and they’re trending towards ‘good’.
But without a superstar trade Denver will remain in the purgatory they’ve become accustomed to. Danilo Gallinari is probably their best player – an injury prone veteran putting up 16 points a game on 40 per cent shooting. Depth is nice, but the reality of your opponent having the best player on the floor almost every single night is crushing. Unless that changes, nice is all the Nuggets will likely ever be.