Share this story...
Latest News

Despite doing everything right, the Nuggets are sliding in the West

(Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

A student hits the books from the first day of ninth grade until graduation, putting in the work necessary to ace every class during a long, four-year grind. During that same time, they go through weeks of test prep before the SAT, which results in a 90th percentile score. And along the way, volunteer work, sports and other extracurricular activities are fit into their schedule in order to bolster their résumé.

That type of effort should pay dividends. It should result in acceptance into whatever university is atop the wish list.

But no spot is available. Instead, it goes to someone else.

That person spent the previous four years skipping school, hanging out at the beach, gallivanting around the country on vacation, posting selfies on Instagram, chugging beers and generally acting like a total degenerate. With them, the scales of good-versus-bad deeds lean woefully in the wrong direction.

But a hefty check written by mom and dad erased all of those transgressions, opening the door at whatever college seems cool at the time.

That scenario would probably rile some people up. It might even cause a few celebrities accused of buying admittance for their kids to lose endorsements, acting roles and other gigs.

And for good reason. This scenario is the epitome of unfair; it rewards the wrong person and ignores the right behaviors. Fundamentally, Americans have a problem with aristocracy nudging out a meritocracy.

For that same reason, they should hate the current state of the NBA.

The Nuggets are the good student; they’re the franchise that did the hard work, over a long period of time, and is on the brink of finally reaping the rewards.

Denver found a superstar in an obscure place, developing Nikola Jokic from the 41st overall pick in the 2014 draft into a first-team All-NBA center. They found lesser gems with other savvy selections, landing Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Malik Beasley and Monte Morris, none of which were taken higher than seventh overall. And they rounded out the rest of the roster with under-the-radar trades and free-agent signings, bringing in the likes of Paul Millsap, Will Barton and Mason Plumlee.

This was done over time, as Tim Connelly meticulously assembled a team that had less and less holes with each passing offseason. Then, he found a head coach in Michael Malone who could communicate with and teach young players, stuck with him through non-playoff seasons and took the long view when evaluating the team’s development.

The result was slow and steady improvement. In 2015-16, the Nuggets finished 33-49. That was followed by 40-42 and 46-36, with Denver knocking on the door of the playoffs. And then last season, it all came together, with a 54-28 record and the No. 2 overall seed in the Western Conference.

This was all supposed to result in the Nuggets entering their championship window. They’d built a core of young players who were all coming into their prime at the same time, creating an opportunity to compete for a title for the next five years.

That would be the fair way for things to work out. Connelly and Company endured the lean years, did great work to find players, stuck with the plan and built a winner. That should be rewarded.

But as the 2019 offseason is demonstrating, that’s now how things work in the NBA.

The Nuggets turn atop the conference lasted for about five minutes. For a brief moment, somewhere around the time Klay Thompson joined Kevin Durant on the Warriors injury list during the Finals, Denver appeared to be the team to beat next season.

That’s no longer the case. And for the most part, it’s because the rich kid’s parents were willing to open their checkbook.

Already this offseason, the Lakers have improved by leaps and bounds. Despite doing essentially nothing right when it came to managing their franchise in recent years, Los Angeles now boasts a roster that includes two of the top five or six players in the league; with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, they can fill out the rest of the roster with guys playing pickup ball at 24 Hour Fitness and make the playoffs.

And according to reports, their co-tenant at Staples Center is about to make an equally impressive splash. When free agency opens on July 1, many expect Kawhi Leonard to sign with the Clippers. Adding the two-time Finals MVP would instantly make them a contender, taking the franchise from a borderline playoff team to one of the favorites in the Western Conference.

Neither team did anything to earn their good fortune; they’re just lucky enough to play home games in a major market that offers great weather, beautiful people and all kinds of non-basketball opportunities. And they have the ability to spend more money than most other franchises.

As a result, they leapfrog the Nuggets, a team that did things the “right” way. The Lakers and Clippers have cut in line, bumping Denver back in the pecking order just when it seemed like it was their turn to be atop the heap.

That stinks, but the bad news doesn’t end there.

Other teams have figured out that the game is rigged against them. So rather than simply serving as the Washington Generals to the NBA’s versions of the Globetrotters, they’ve figured out a way to compete within this unfair setup.

That’s what the Raptors did last year. Despite being the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference in 2018, largely riding a team of homegrown talent that had grown up together, general manager Masai Ujiri pushed all of his chips into the middle of the table to make a one-year run at the title.

The gamble certainly paid off. Toronto acquired Leonard from the Spurs, giving up four-time All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan to acquire a player who was only guaranteed to stay north of the border for one season. And the trade led to the franchise winning its first-ever NBA title.

Now, the Jazz are trying to do the same thing. Coming off a season in which they won 50 games and finished fifth in the West, Utah decided to roll the dice to add talent around Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, trading for point guard Mike Conley. It was a bold stroke, one that gives the Jazz three potential All-Stars.

Meanwhile, the Warriors still have a ton of talent and just need to keep things on the rails until their other stars return from injury, the Rockets are going to remain a threat so long as James Harden is on their roster, the Trail Blazers are going to be better with Jusuf Nurkic back in the lineup, the Thunder boast a former MVP and an Olympian, and the Spurs are always a contender so long as Gregg Popovich. In addition, the Pelicans just added Zion Williamson to a revamped roster and the Mavericks will get Kristaps Porzingis healthy and in the lineup. In other words, the West will be just as loaded as always.

So in the blink of an eye, the Nuggets could fall from being one of the best teams in the conference to a borderline playoff team. In the next couple of weeks, they’ll find themselves behind the Warriors, Lakers, Clippers, Jazz and Rockets. And arguably, they’re also trailing the Blazers and Thunder. That’s puts Denver in the eighth seed, trying to hold off the likes of the Spurs.

What’s the team’s response? How are they trying to keep pace?

Other than trading into the second round last night to land Bol Bol, they’ve done a grand total of nothing. And there aren’t any rumblings that they’re going to once free agency gets underway.

Instead, they’re hoping that the current roster is going to continue to develop and grow. They’re counting on Michael Porter Jr. being a contributor in his redshirt year.

More than likely, that isn’t a viable option. The days when that plan worked in the NBA are over; that type of old-school process is a vestige of a bygone era.

The Nuggets are sitting idle while everyone else is active. As a result, they’re about to be the smart kid at the community college bemoaning the fact that Aunt Becky’s daughter got into USC.

It’s not fair. It’s not right. But it’s the reality of the modern NBA.

Top Stories