(Photo via: Isaiah J. Downing, USA TODAY Sports)
Over the past couple offseasons many Nuggets fans speculated that the Denver Nuggets would become the next Warriors on the strength of their offense. Instead, the Nuggets came into this year and shocked the NBA by rising to the top of the Western Conference with their depth and their highly rated defense.
None of this means that the Nuggets can’t dominate in similar ways to the Warriors over the past several years. However, as the dynasty in Golden State has started to show some cracks in the foundation, one would think what the Nuggets are building is more long-term.
What better comparison to an organization with longstanding success than the San Antonio Spurs throughout the early 2000’s. A “small market” team that never truly gets the glamorous media coverage they deserve is exactly what the Nuggets look like they are shaping up to be.
While no comparison is ever perfect, there are several factors that point strongly towards the Nuggets becoming the team that could quietly dominate the league for the next decade plus.
The Team’s Beginnings
In the same way that the Nuggets dynasty could be attributed to the drafting of their star big man Nikola Jokic, the Spurs drafting of Tim Duncan with the number one overall pick allowed them to take the leap from playoff team to perennial title contender.
Although the Spurs took a sharp fall before selecting Duncan and hiring Popovich as head coach their retool was much more accelerated than the Nuggets rebuild with Jokic and Michael Malone.
One of the major issues the Nuggets had in getting to the playoffs right away was a lack of a veteran presence aligned with Malone’s system. David Robinson gave Tim Duncan an immediate mentor and duo that led an experienced San Antonio team to a finals victory in a lockout reduced season.
Clearly, the timing of the formation of the teams doesn’t match up. Part of that is just due to the state the franchises were in. The Spurs were a veteran team that a coaching change and addition of a number one pick was enough to start their title window. However, as a veteran team, if they wanted to sustain their team overtime they needed to surround their young star (Duncan) with other young pieces.The Spurs looked internationally, finding Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili with picks 28 and 57 respectively.
The Nuggets on the other hand were stuck with a declining team built around Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried,and Danilo Gallinari. Adding a complementary piece at the time like Gary Harris was the first step, Jokic was more of an experiment. After the team continued to dismantle, the team found their coach in Michael Malone and finally were able to commit to Jokic, surrounded by a rookie Jamal Murray as they started to make their assent.
The piece the Nuggets were still missing was the veteran to tie it all together. Fortunately, with a slew of rookie contracts the Nuggets were able to go out and sign Paul Millsap for$30 million for a favorable contract length to instill defensive principles and an understanding of what it takes to win into the Nuggets team.
The Nuggets didn’t have the luxury of Millsap for a full season and missed out on the playoffs again,but this season the impact of Millsap and Malone’s defensive emphasis has been evident in leading the Nuggets back to potential playoff success.
Ultimately, the Spurs won the championship in 2002-03, Ginobili’s rookie season, with all the pieces together as the West’s top seed. The Nuggets are currently in a position to possibly finish as the top seed this year, and with home court advantage there’s as good of a potential as ever for this to be the Nuggets’ year.
The League Landscape
Although optimism in the Mile High City may be at an all-time high, the Warriors still loom as the ultimate test and measure of greatness in the Western Conference. Nevertheless, with the Draymond-Durant drama, Klay’s shooting struggles, and Steph’s unpredictable injuries, the Warriors are as fragile as ever and appear to be on the verge of a break up.
The Warriors are not totally dissimilar to the all-time great Los Angeles Lakers of the late 90’s and 2000’s with Shaq and Kobe. After all, both the Warriors and Lakers teams had historic one-loss playoff runs and ultimately the Lakers fell momentarily to the divorce of Shaq and Kobe.
With the impending dismantling of the Lakers the Spurs used their home court advantage to take them down in the conference finals. Sound like a familiar possibility?
The rest of the West is extremely competitive for the Nuggets now between LeBron building a threat of his own in Los Angeles, Luka Doncic and De’Aaron Fox upstarting young teams in Dallas and Sacramento, along with the other usual suspects. Yet somehow, the Nuggets have found a way to rise to the top despite the league’s worst injury luck, and perhaps that’s reason enough to believe in the future of this team.
The Big Three
Part of the reason there should be belief that this Nuggets team won’t crumble like Lakers and Warriors teams have and appear to be is because the relationships established between Malone and his team, particularly with the big three in Denver.
Even when many Nuggets fans questioned whether coach Malone was the right fit and capable of coaching this team, no one could question his relationships with Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. Now, with the Nuggets thriving it’s been Malone’s coaching that has started to temper Jokic’s annoyance towards officials and to work both Murray and Jokic through frustrating shooting slumps.
The foundation that Malone has built with his big three in Denver makes it possible to believe that Jokic,Harris, and Murray can continue to have as long-lasting of a relationship with Malon eand the Nuggets organization as Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker had with Pop in San Antonio.
Malone is building a reputation for himself as a coach that will stand up for his guys, especially with his “take that L on the way out” comment. Jokic is quietly dominating those who go up against him in the post while also humbly avoiding accepting too much praise for what he does. That still hasn’t stopped others, like Clippers center Marcin Gortat, from complaining that Jokic is the biggest flopper of all time.
Murray and Harris give the Nuggets two killers at the guard position that dominate playing off the system that their big man creates, while also possessing the ability to create for themselves when they get their games clicking.
No Jamal Murray is not Tony Parker, Gary Harris is nowhere near Manu Ginobili, and Tim Duncan and Jokic are certainly different players, but that doesn’t mean the collective of each big three doesn’t share similarities that make them sustainable.
Depth and Style
The Spurs didn’t win or withstand the test of time on the strength of their big three and coaching alone. There’s a reason unselfish basketball became associated with the Spurs during their period of success. Often, much like the Nuggets, the Spurs didn’t have a 20 points scorer unless Duncan eclipsed that mark into the low 20s. Instead, the Spurs used their depth to spread the ball around and the strength of their defense to win games.
Having depth in the NBA is another thing that is hard to sustain. Again, see how the Warriors have sacrificed much of the depth that made them great in just a few short years. Sustaining depth across time like the Spurs did means hitting on mid to late-round draft picks. Players like George Hill, Ian Mahinmi, Beno Udrih, Tiago Splitter, and others, some like Hill being used to acquire 16th overall pick Kawhi Leonard, all ended up finding ways to contribute alongside free agents who now found San Antonio desirable.
The Nuggets have already shown a propensity to draft their depth well with players like Juancho Hernangomez, Malik Beasley, and even rookie Thomas Welsh showing great promise.The ball-movement oriented style of play should also make Denver a free agent destination for veteran players that it hasn’t been since the last time the Nuggets made the conference finals with Carmelo Anthony.
With Jokic and Harris already locked up with their first extensions and Jamal Murray’s soon to be on the way the Nuggets are set up to fulfill their opportunity to have the success that the Spurs have experienced since the turn of the century. Equipped with young talent like Michael Porter Jr., Monte Morris, and potentially Jared Vanderbilt the Nuggets may be more talented even than the Spurs teams of past,but that’s exactly what’s needed to be successful in this era of the NBA.