“We are nobody. We are just someone who worked to be here.”
Nikola Jokic was speaking at the podium following the Nuggets’ Game 5 loss at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers, the game that ended Denver’s providential playoff run to the Western Conference Finals and a 2019-20 season which was as surreal as it was successful.
In describing the Nuggets as originating from being “nobody,” Jokic invoked both the team’s expectation-defying achievements as a whole, and the arduous journeys taken by each of Denver’s individual players along the way, noting that many of them didn’t play much at all in the first few seasons of their careers.
“We know what is the feeling of working hard for something, and then not playing,” Jokic said. “So when you play Western Conference Finals, you know how big it is.”
It was a big achievement indeed for a still-blossoming Nuggets squad which just last season, with the eighth-youngest team in NBA postseason history, had returned the franchise to the playoffs for its first time in six years, advancing to the second round and missing the conference finals by only four points after losing a hard-fought seven-game second-round series to the Portland Trail Blazers.
Denver reached this season’s NBA final four in a big, dramatic fashion as well, making history by becoming the first team in the league to come back from two playoff series deficits of three games to one, and in the process doing so in a single series for the for just the 12th and 13th times ever.
And perhaps just as impressive as accomplishing those feats was the fact that the Nuggets’ Round 2 opponent, the Los Angeles Clippers – led by 2019 champion and two-time Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard – had been all but anointed the inevitable victors before the series had even tipped off, as epitomized most notably by all 19 of ESPN’s NBA experts picking the Nuggets not only to lose, but to not even reach a seventh game.
“We proved we can come back down 3-1 twice, proved we can challenge the Clippers who are the favorites, proved we can challenge the Lakers,” Jamal Murray said following Game 5.
“It’s only our second year in the playoffs, so, wish things went differently, but I’m just proud of our guys, proud of everything we’ve done, everything we’ve accomplished.”
‘We Don’t Skip Steps’
While Jokic’s “nobody” remark may have been somewhat hyperbolic, it was certainly grounded in the truth that the vast majority of Denver’s current players had fairly humble NBA beginnings.
Of the nine players in the Nuggets’ regular playoff rotation, four – including Jokic, Jerami Grant and Paul Millsap, were second-round draft picks while one, Torrey Craig, was undrafted. And of the four first-rounders in that group, only two – Murray at seventh and Michael Porter Jr. at 14th in their respective drafts – were lottery picks. Additionally, P.J. Dozier, who played some key spot minutes, was undrafted, and although usual starter Will Barton III was unable to play due to a knee injury, he like many of his teammates was selected in the second round.
The slow, patient grind that most of Denver’s current players went through as they developed is reflected in large part by the arc the team overall has taken since the inception of its current incarnation in the era overseen by president of basketball operations Tim Connelly.
“I think the resiliency and the toughness that our team has shown over the last several years, I think Mo [head coach Michael Malone] and his staff deserve so much credit,” Connelly said in his exit interview last week. “It sounds corny and cliché, but we have a never-give-up attitude I thought that was evident in our play and reflected in our two comebacks.”
“Every year under Mo we’ve gotten better and better and better,” Connelly added. “We’re playing a level of basketball that we wanted to play at, so I’m proud of our group.”
Connelly’s assertion that the Nuggets have continually improved under Malone’s tenure is borne out in their win-loss record, their standing in the Western Conference, and their eventual playoff success over the past few seasons.
As the chart above indicates, Denver’s record improved in each of Malone’s first four seasons from the time he was hired in June of 2015, culminating in top-two and -three finishes respectively in the West in the last two years, along with two playoff runs which gained heaps of experience for the Nuggets’ still-mostly-young squad and thrust the team back into NBA relevancy for the first time since the George Karl era.
The bottom portion of the chart shows, along the same timeline as Denver’s progression of seasons, the results of a Google Trends search for the Denver Nuggets starting from October, 2010. It’s plain to see that the postseason runs from the past two seasons have garnered many more eyes on the Nuggets than they had drawn in a long while, with their series win over the Clippers especially shining the national spotlight on the franchise more brightly than it had been since the days Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson and Chauncey Billups topped the marquee.
The hard work, resiliency and pride which Jokic, Murray and Connelly spoke of goes back not only to the modest beginnings of the current version of this Nuggets team, but also to the fact that so many involved, from operations and coaching staff to the players, have been in it together for the long haul, with “We don’t skip steps” as a guiding organizational mantra which emphasizes the value of patient roster-building and continuity, and places a premium on cultivating a high quality team culture.
“we’ve built this from the ground up, which makes it that much more satisfying,” Malone explained following Denver’s historic comeback win over the Clippers.
“Now you have two core pieces in Nikola and Jamal that are still very young, that are bought in, and have grown up in front of our eyes,” Malone said. “And I think most NBA teams, most pro sports teams don’t do it that way. It’s always a quick fix, go grab a guy or rent a guy.”
The Success And Limitations Of Continuity
Continuity has been a central hallmark of Connelly’s team-building philosophy even as he completely reconstructed the team in his first four seasons with a 100% turnover of every single player, resulting in the current roster which is genuinely “the team that Tim built.”
Viewed graphically, the picture of Denver’s continuity is striking, with a full eight of their regular rotation players having played with the team for no fewer than three full seasons and, in the case of Gary Harris – the team’s longest-tenured player – as many as six.
As a team loaded with second-rounders and located in the “flyover country” of Denver, Colorado – traditionally neglected by casual NBA fans at large and spurned by the league’s top free agents – the long, arduous road the Nuggets have traversed on their way to finally once again piercing through into the national consciousness makes their recent success all the sweeter, especially in contrast with teams such as the Lakers and Clippers which had superstars like LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard fall into their laps almost simply by virtue of being located in Los Angeles.
However, as the chart of Denver’s roster above shows, and the team eventually being unable to withstand the Lakers’ conference finals charge likewise demonstrates, both the financial pressures of the salary cap and luxury tax (which ultimately served as the inflection point for the deadline trade of Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez), as well as the discernible need for more immediate roster reinforcements than can be attained through internal development, continuity and the draft, highlight the difficulties Connelly and his front office staff will face going forward in maintaining the Nuggets’ newfound relevancy and hard-earned competitiveness.
“I think in a perfect world, we’d like to bring the lion’s share of our team back, starting with free agency,” Connelly said. “We’ve had a lot of success with continuity… Certainly we’re excited to make those pitches and bring as many guys back as possible.”
But with Jerami Grant (should he exercise his player option, as he seems inclined to do), Paul Millsap, Mason Plumlee and P.J. Dozier, along with three end-of-bench players, all entering unrestricted free agency, and Torrey Craig becoming a restricted free agent at the same time Jamal Murray’s maximum contract kicks in alongside Jokic’s, the reality is that this offseason is not looking like the perfect world Connelly is hoping for – especially if the ownership family of Stan and Josh Kroenke continue their reluctance to spend over the luxury tax threshold.
In short, the money simply will not be there for Denver to re-sign all of of their current free agents, despite holding the Bird rights for many of them which would allow for substantial spending over the salary cap.
As a result, the cracks which started to appear in the continuity approach this season are likely to widen, ramping up the challenge for Connelly and his operations staff in continuing to find ways to improve the Nuggets through trades and external free agency.
On the latter count, Connelly appears optimistic, in part due to Denver’s heightened profile around the league. “I think we’re starting to be recognized as a team you want to be around,” he said. “I would say the last year plus we’ve had a handful of calls from agents that said, ‘Hey, my guy wouldn’t mind being there, he’d like to be there,” Connelly related. “Four or five years ago you’d get the call they’d say, “Whatever you do, don’t trade for my guy.”
“So I think as the team grows, our options grow… but it’s encouraging I think how we’re viewed league-wide is different than where we were several years ago.”
Having their perception improve from “nobody” to “somebody” and actually continuing to get better on the basketball court are, however, two very different (if not entirely unrelated) things. And the road ahead does not get any easier, either in terms of Denver’s offseason challenges or their impending opposition.
With the James and Anthony Davis Lakers, the Leonard and Paul George Clippers, a likely-healthy Steph Curry and Klay Thompson Warriors, and a slew of other formidable competitors on deck next season in the cutthroat Western Conference, the Nuggets cannot afford to lose any ground, and will in fact need to gain some to legitimately be in the hunt for title contention.
But for now, despite an end to their season which fell short of their championship aspirations, Denver – especially with the right offseason moves – can enjoy being far more than merely relevant again in the NBA, but among the teams with the brightest futures, featuring a superstar duo of their own as franchise cornerstones (or perhaps a trio, if Michael Porter Jr. starts approaching his lofty ceiling), and in the mix for rings for years to come.