Despite the unlikelihood of a lottery pick and the near impossibility of winning a championship, the Denver Nuggets can still put together a successful season.
The worst place to be in the modern NBA is the middle of the pack. This is not a new, or a revelatory statement, but it grows truer with each passing season. With teams like Golden State and Cleveland hogging all the championships and the glory to themselves, front offices around the league have been forced to take inventory and answer this key question: can they really contend anytime soon?
Some see themselves as true contenders. But thanks to the outrageous rosters in Cleveland and Golden State, they’ve had to either double down or back down. Think Houston trading for just one guaranteed year of Chris Paul, or Toronto at the deadline last year.
Does competing seem futile? Tank, or sell your talent for assets and a brighter tomorrow. Think Philadelphia, or Brooklyn moving on from their best player in Brook Lopez. Fail to do either, and live out the foreseeable future in basketball Limbo.
While tanking does carry with it it’s own set of problems, it actually creates new modes of success. It creates pathways to contention for those in seemingly futile situations. It provides fan bases with hope, and plenty to get hyped on, despite the abysmal basketball on display by their favorite squads. The process may not be pretty but it can work.
This dynamic has put the Denver Nuggets in an interesting position. Thanks to the discovery of Nikola Jokic’s budding stardom, the Nuggets have unearthed one of the most potent offenses in the NBA . Despite missing the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season last year, they are clearly trending upward.
This is a team that stands no chance of surpassing the league’s elite anytime soon, but also one that has no business considering a process like the one underway in Philadelphia. It’s hard to think this dynamic didn’t affect Denver’s approach to the offseason.
Trading away pieces of this shiny new core as a means to improve immediately seemed risky. There’s no version of this team that advances to the Finals. In many ways, what Jamal Murray and Gary Harris might provide down the line is far more valuable to Denver than snagging some shiny new toy. But remaining stagnant after missing the playoffs for the fourth consecutive time would have held it’s own disadvantages.
The Nuggets have their young core in place but now they need to incentivize them to stay. Money is a strong incentive, but losing sucks. These players want to get better, they want to win games and they want to play basketball at the highest level. Trending upwards is nice, but these players need to see a commitment to the continued improvement of the team.
Also of note, the Nuggets have finished dead last in attendance during each of the last two seasons. Winning puts butts in seats and so do marketable stars—Denver hasn’t had much of either. Perhaps that’s why they were attached to virtually every marquee player that was rumored to be available this summer.
Potentially trading for Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love wasn’t just about short term improvement, it was also about grabbing a sexy name and selling tickets—something Denver is in desperate need of.
That’s what was so special about the Paul Millsap contract. Denver successfully added not just an all-star, but one that couldn’t possibly fit any better alongside the Serbian sensation in the paint. What’s more is they did so without leveraging that exciting future. They inked the former Hawk to one of the more favorable contracts you’ll find. Three years, under 100 million, and a team option on the third year. Phenomenal.
All that said, Millsap is one of the lesser stars in the league in terms of marketability. He’s known for his superb defensive IQ and his ability to impact the offense without demanding a ton of shots. He’s an excellent basketball player, but he doesn’t bring with him the same shine as say, a Kyrie Irving. His presence alone won’t be enough to lift the Nuggets out of the league attendance cellar.
The Nuggets won’t be able to run with the best in the West, but they will have to show that they are indeed a playoff team if they hope to draw larger crowds moving forward.
Many teams will attempt to find their own definition of success—using the relativity of the term as a defense against the seemingly inevitable fourth installment of Cleveland-Golden State and the unlikelihood that they land a true star with whatever pick they’re awarded as compensation for their troubles. But the truth is, for many teams, this next season won’t be a successful one.
If Cleveland, San Antonio, and Houston fail to win a championship, then the season was a bust. Should OKC fail to compete for a title, they could lose both of their prized stars. The Atlanta Hawks might win one too many games and finish outside of the top-five in next year’s lottery. Atlanta develops their players quite well, but they have few, if any, blue chip prospects on that team. They need some path back to contention.
Denver, on the other hand, won’t compete for a title—nor will they have a real chance at securing one of the many highly coveted prospects in the upcoming draft. They’re bound to finish somewhere near the middle of the pack. But if Denver can manage to make the playoffs while making some sort of leap in the attendance rankings, then they will have accomplished the modest, though important, goals that they should be setting for themselves.
Few teams are better situated to emerge as contenders in the post-Golden State era than the Nuggets. But that’s not happening anytime soon. In the meantime, Denver must sell their players on the idea that this is where they want to play basketball moving forward. They must sell their fans on the idea that this team is worthy of the same praise and passionate fandom as their beloved Broncos.
Another 9th place finish and a third consecutive ranking of dead last in attendance could be disastrous. But securing say, the 7th or 6th seed out West, while finally managing to fill the Pepsi center to some extent, would be nothing short of a shining success. Again, these are modest goals, but they are also important ones. As fans, we should expect little more and demand no less.
They didn’t get Kyrie, they whiffed on Kevin Love, and they botched a prime opportunity to improve through the draft. But none of those moves would have resulted in a title in the coming years. In fact, the former two may have only served to increase the pressure to do so.
Denver isn’t winning a championship this year. But success is within their reach even still.
What does a successful season look like in your mind? Will Denver accomplish those goals? Let us know on Twitter and in the comment section below.