The Nuggets are rolling. Yes, they lost yesterday, but it took three overtimes before the suprisingly resililent Celtics vanquished the NBA’s hottest team. Last Thursday the Nuggets’ rampage reached its peak when they demolished the Chicago Bulls at the Pepsi Center, 128-96. The Nuggets were up 28 heading into the fourth quarter—a difficult feat against any team, let alone the best defensive squad in the NBA—giving the boys in (extremely garish) gold the look of a genuine contender.
Maybe, maybe not. Time and again, the sportsyak intelligentsia (sic) tell us that the NBA is a star-driven league, and so far they’ve been right. The last team to win an NBA championship without a superduperstar on the roster was the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons. Its best player was Chauncey Billups, who, beloved as he may be here, is no superduperstar. The last team to do it before that was the 1978-79 Seattle Supersonics, a franchise that now resides in Oklahoma City, and whose rise to the mountaintop came when the NBA was so irrelevant that the Finals were telecast on tape delay after the evening news.
Ever since Carmelo Anthony whined his way to New York in 2010, the question facing the Nuggets has been: Can they win without an obvious go-to guy? The Nuggets play a vigorously athletic game that routinely runs up big point totals in spectacularly versatile style—the team hit nine three-pointers on Thursday night and had at least that many dunks. They have nine players who would log heavy minutes on any team in the league, and their mix of veteran savvy and youthful dynamism is what every coach craves.
And yet, none of this may matter once the playoffs start. More than any other sport, the postseason version of the NBA game bears only a passing resemblance to what we see in the regular season. As a fan, it’s frustrating to watch. The playoffs are inherently exciting, but the NBA version of the run to the ring slows everything way down: there’s more bumping and holding, players give (and take) harder fouls, and scoring declines significantly. The clearest, albeit still partial, explanation for this is that the refs simply call the games differently and allow teams to get away with more physical play.
This isn’t going to change any time soon, and it’s why high-flying fives in the regular season often get grounded in the playoffs. When virtually every game comes down to whether the guy you give the ball to at the end is better than everyone else on the floor, history shows that you’d better have one of those guys if you want a realistic chance of winning.
Even though Anthony is definitely one of those guys, I’m still glad he’s gone. (We’ll find out just how glad all Denver fans are when he finally makes his first visit here since the trade on March 13th.) The Nuggets are more fun to watch and a more likeable bunch overall than when Melo—and for that matter, JR Smith—haunted the Pepsi Center. (Let’s also not forget that Mr. Anthony still hasn’t delivered the Knicks anywhere close to the Promised Land.) But for the Nuggets to reach that hallowed ground as currently constructed, they’ll have to buck decades of NBA trends, conventional wisdom, and the league’s hyperfocus on star power. The good news is, the organization that wins the ring always ends up being the one that’s playing the best as a team at the end. For the Nuggets to reach that level, they’ll have to do it as a unit rather than hanging off the cape of some phantom superhero.
—Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Follow 5280 articles editor Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.