Highs and lows of final week before the All-Star break prove that Denver’s young basketball team is still trying to find consistency.
The Denver Nuggets found the energy behind their own basket. Inbounding the ball, Nikola Jokic used a one-handed baseball throw to move the ball 90 feet. The pass hit its mark, a wide-open Gary Harris ready for an easy layup.
The Pepsi Center crowd, filled primarily with Golden State Warriors fans, exploded. At that moment, in the second quarter of the Nuggets matchup against the best team in the west Monday night, the noise in the arena was amazing. It was an energy that continued through every one of the Nuggets record 24 three-pointers. Basketball was fun again in Denver—there could be no question.
The win over Golden State showed the potential future of the Nuggets—a young core of potential All-Stars, key veterans, a scheming coach and an excellent general manager. The Nuggets, currently occupying the eighth seed in the West despite a losing record, are trying to figure out how their identity will propel them to success.
Those Nuggets supporters who see potential have been begging people to support the team all year. How can you stay away from this team? Don’t you want to see the beginning of something?
I understand why fans don’t fully accept the Nuggets. It’s hard to look at this team and not remember the last time the Nuggets were good. It was only four years ago. The electrifying Nuggets team won 57 games led by coach of the year George Karl. They were fun to watch too.
The collapse came out of nowhere. Back in 2013, the Nuggets lost in the first round to a supposed lesser opponent—the Golden State Warriors, years before they were champions. The Nuggets star Danilo Gallinari was out with an injured knee. The Nuggets had other injuries during that series, but the potential for success in the years ahead seemed obvious.
Then the Nuggets fired Karl.
The Nuggets front office pulled a Wile E. Coyote in pursuit of an NBA championship. President and sometimes owner Josh Kroenke fired Karl using reasoning that doesn’t add up. He blamed the Nuggets shortcomings on a belief that Karl’s playoff record was his fault and not part of basketball’s lack of parity. A vocal minority of fans and media cheered the move. Making the playoffs was not good enough for Denver.
The average Nuggets fan, the kind that supports the team between Broncos season and baseball season, was shocked. Since that time, I have tried unsuccessfully to explain to dozens of people what happened. How could they fire Karl?
The fallout quickly turned into a free fall. A redesigned team “built to win in the playoffs” couldn’t get out of the bottom of the Western Conference. New coach Brian Shaw and his assistants drove the Nuggets promising core into the ground. Josh Kroenke hid in the shadows when he realized his mistake, leaving General Manager Tim Connelly to pick up the pieces and face the media. Luckily, Connelly has.
Self-sabotage feels written into the Nuggets DNA at this point. A carousel of front office types over the years failed to propel Denver forward. When excitement built around this team, the Nuggets found a wrecking ball.
The December after a Western Conference Finals appearance in 2009, the Nuggets were soaring behind Carmelo Anthony, Kenyon Martin and Chauncey Billups. However, a decision to use assistant Adrian Dantley as interim head coach when Karl battled cancer, turned disastrous. By the end of the season, team chemistry eroded and Melo plotted his exit from the Nuggets
Rewinding quickly, first round busts Raef LaFrentz and Nikoloz Tskitishvili followed the departure of Nuggets star Dikembe Mutombo to free agency after he helped the team achieve playoff success. The Nuggets made the mistake of ending the Doug Moe era in 1991 after nearly a decade of success. Also, as Denver Stiff’s Jeff Morton (future author of the Denver Nuggets history book) pointed out, they traded Fat Lever at the wrong time in 1990.
So yes, fans with a long memory and other interests have a right to be skeptical of the current squad. Maybe Jokic will be lost to free agency. Maybe Jamal Murray will flame out like Ty Lawson. Maybe the Nuggets will fire coach Malone just when he’s hitting his groove. Maybe they won’t retain GM Tim Connelly.
It’s just really hard to trust an erratic organization. The Nuggets lack transparency. Putting aside everything else, that last Karl team did feel like it was on the brink of something great.
Of course, there are nights when this current Nuggets team comes together. They feel destined to make the playoffs. They feel deservedly like the talk of the town.
On those nights, Jokic is the superstar heir apparent playing with style. The young players, Jamal Murray, Will Barton and Gary Harris bring the energy. Veterans like Jameer Nelson, Wilson Chandler and Gallinari contribute. Coach Malone even gets his substitutions right.
When everything clicks, the Nuggets can knock off the Golden State Warriors. Right now, it was for just one game. In the future, perhaps they can make a playoff series against Golden State competitive. In our wildest dreams, Jokic and the Nuggets win the Western Conference Finals.
Of course, what fools are we to have such dreams? For a team like the Nuggets inevitably loses to the middling Minnesota Timberwolves two nights after beating the Warriors. To support the Nuggets, you must be willing to accept the risk that you’ll watch the team play games like Wednesday against Minnesota more often than you’ll see games like Monday night against Golden State.
This post originally appeared on 5280 Sports Network, now a part of Mile High Sports