On Wednesday night, the Nuggets open what figures to be a season-long exercise in learning. It’s an admittedly weird place for the team to be in, because they’re less than three years removed from a Western Conference finals appearance and still have several established veterans playing valuable minutes.
But when point guard Emmanuel Mudiay fell into their lap on draft night this past June, it cracked open the door to a total franchise rebuild—a door that blew wide open once Ty Lawson drunk-drove himself out of town.
It’s both ironic and fitting that the Nuggets open up against Lawson’s new team, the Houston Rockets, the franchise’s past and future meeting face-to-face on day one. Expect Lawson to do everything he can to embarrass the kid, because guys like him tend to get extra amped up when playing the team they think “disrespected” them, even if all the evidence says otherwise.
A humbling debut for Mudiay would be just fine, because the Nuggets are going all in on his future, and for good reason. The 19-year-old—he won’t turn 20 until March(!)—was talented enough to be discussed as a number-one pick before the draft, and the fact that he’ll be the floor general for the Nuggets this year has many projecting him as a rookie-of-the-year favorite.
Having a teenager playing the toughest position in the game—especially in a Western Conference packed with loaded or improving teams—all but guarantees a lot of Ls for the Nuggets. Most forecasts peg them to be among the bottom five or so teams in the NBA.
Those veterans I mentioned might not love this plan, but it’ll be interesting to see how many of them last the season in Denver. Between Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried, Randy Foye, Jameer Nelson, and a few others, the Nuggets are loaded with seasoned players on cap-friendly contracts who might look very appealing to a contender as the trade deadline approaches next spring.
Not only that, the Nuggets’ front office—which, when it barely a year ago, looked pretty clueless—suddenly might be visionary. (Might.) That’s because GM Tim Connelly and team president Josh Kroenke made a series of deals that, depending on where certain teams’ records fall this year, could end up giving the Nuggets up to four first-round picks next summer. If good teams come calling about the Nuggets’ vets, that number will only go up.
True, Mudiay is just one guy, but the Nuggets also see particular promise in former first-rounder Gary Harris and two Eastern European big men. Nikola Jokic has the smooth shooting and passing game (at 6’11”) that’s becoming a necessity in today’s wide-open NBA. And Jusuf Nurkic has the skill set and, more importantly, the nasty, that centers need to thrive. (One stat-geeky analysis projects him to be one of the league’s top 30 players over the next several years.)
By plumbing the international talent market, going young, and returning to a more up-tempo style than they played under Brian Shaw, the Nuggets will at times look like a rag-tag pickup squad. But they should be scrappy and fun to watch, and within a year or two, they could be pretty darn good.
Follow 5280 editor-at-large Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.