On April 20, 2012, the Nuggets took on the Warriors in Game 1 of their first-round series. Denver, who came in after posting a franchise-record 57 wins, squeaked out a 97-95 victory to take a 1-0 lead.
The scoreboard wasn’t the biggest setback for Golden State that night, however. They also lost David Lee, the 6-foot-9 center / power forward who combined with Andrew Bogut to form a formidable front line.
A torn hip flexor was expected to keep Lee out for the rest of the series, a reality that forced Mark Jackson to rethink his strategy moving forward. The Warriors head coach decided to go with a smaller starting lineup, while also using Draymond Green more in a reserve role.
It was a move that would pay huge dividends, both in the short run and the long term. Golden State scored 131 points in Game 2 to roll to a victory and they would go on to win the series in six games, taking four out of the next five games from a Denver team that had no answer for the smaller lineup. But more importantly, they found a formula for the future.
The smaller lineup would become the foundation of a dynasty, as the Warriors would appear in five straight NBA Finals from 2015-19, winning three championships in the process. Along the way, they did it by playing small ball, riding a core of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Green to multiple titles.
This is a prime example of desperation being the finest form of inspiration. Jackson was searching for an answer, willing to try anything that might save Golden State’s season. In the process, he stumbled upon the ultimate solution.
Here’s hoping Vic Fangio has the same kind of dumb luck.
Last week, Broncos Country was rocked by the news that Von Miller suffered what is most likely a season-ending ankle injury in practice. Losing the former Super Bowl MVP was a tough blow, one that caused almost everyone to lower their expectations for Denver’s season.
Optimists went from thinking Fangio and Company could be a playoff team to projecting 8-8 as a successful season. And pessimists used the injury as a reason why the Broncos would once again post double-digit losses.
On the surface, this makes sense. After all, Miller is the Broncos best player. It’s hard to imagine that not being a devastating blow to the team’s chances in 2020.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Heading into the season, Denver was expected to be a defensive-minded team. That’s where the majority of their experienced talent resided. It’s where they’ve spent the majority of their money. And it’s the side of the ball that their head coach considers his area of expertise.
With everyone in place, it would’ve made sense for Fangio to rely on his defense to win games. He’d lean on Miller, Bradley Chubb, Jurrell Casey, Justin Simmons, Kareem Jackson and A.J. Bouye to lead the team. He’d have been perfectly content to try to win games 17-14 or 20-13.
Now, that game plan makes less sense. Without Miller, the chances of the Broncos defense being dominant week in and week out is significantly diminished.
That means that Denver’s offense is going to have to do more. And in the end, that reality may turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
The Broncos have a lot of talent on that side of the ball. It’s just young and unproven. Normally, that combination would cause coaches to take things slow, to play a conservative brand of football. Now, Fangio will be forced to ask Pat Shurmur to open things up a bit.
Denver’s new offensive coordinator will be tasked with putting more points on the board. Now, getting to 24-plus is the goal each week, rather than just avoiding turnovers and keeping things close.
Is that possible? Absolutely.
Drew Lock is a talented quarterback, a young gunslinger with a lot of swagger. Courtland Sutton is a Pro Bowl wide receiver, lining up alongside Jerry Jeudy, a highly touted rookie. Noah Fant was a first-round pick in 2019, while Phillip Lindsay has posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. And Melvin Gordon signed a $16-million contract in the offseason.
In other words, there’s a lot for Shurmur to work with on a weekly basis.
Of course, there will be some ugly showings. Young players will make mistakes, leading to poor performances on occasion.
But if and when the Broncos become a legit contender again, it’ll be on the backs of the offense they’ve built during the past three drafts and offseasons. They might as well jumpstart the process of relying on that side of the ball. There’s no time like the present.
Best-case scenario, Denver stumbles upon a formula for success down the road. Worst-case, they discover that Lock and Company aren’t the answer, which will speed up the process of turning the page.
Will the Miller injury end up being the catalyst of a great era of Broncos football? That remains to be seen. But Vic Fangio would be wise to steal a page from Mark Jackson’s book and change directions.
Denver is desperate. Here’s hoping they’re also inspired.
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