On numerous occasions, I’ve opined about the Nuggets’ need to scrap everything and start over. This is based on the NBA reality that mediocre is usually worse than horrible, because the latter puts you in a position to draft potential stars and unload expensive contracts, thus freeing up room to sign better players.
The Nuggets haven’t ever developed the full-on tanking approach that the Philadelphia Sixers have deployed for the past several years and that the Lakers are doing now as they wait out Kobe Bryant’s swan song. Instead, they’ve cut and pasted their roster, hanging onto many of their most tradeable assets (so far) while drafting or acquiring youngsters with “upside.” And while their M.O. hasn’t shown many results in the won-loss column—they’re on pace for a slight uptick over last year’s 30–52 record—there are some encouraging signs.
On Monday before a crowd thinned by the team’s record and a heavy snowstorm, the Nuggets scored one of their most impressive wins of the year, beating Toronto 112–93. The opponent was no lackluster doormat; the Raptors have the fifth-best record in the NBA and were riding an 11-game winning streak.
Not anymore. The Nuggets handily won just about every aspect of the contest and showcased glimmers of the talent and promise that make you think that, just maybe, this could be a team on the rise.
Point guard and franchise centerpiece Emmanuel Mudiay didn’t score much, but he had eight assists and two steals against just one turnover. Gary Harris hit a couple threes and played gritty defense. Bench sparkplug Will Barton started slowly—he had just two points not long before halftime—and ended up with 20, seven rebounds, and three assists.
And the game’s star was Nikola Jokic, who dominated end-to-end with a career-high 27 points, 14 rebounds, and four assists. The rookie’s stellar all-around play this season—he’s like a slightly smaller version of the Gasol brothers—has cushioned the loss of last year’s breakout big man, Jusuf Nurkic, who’s played in only a dozen games so far because of injuries.
Now consider that Barton is only 25, and every other player mentioned above is 21 or younger. In addition to this peach-fuzzed core, the Nuggets still have savvy and productive veterans Kenneth Faried, Randy Foye, Mike Miller, and Danilo Gallinari, who’s still their best all-around player and team leader. And as all those semi-pronounceable names suggest, the Nuggets have at least partially adopted the Spurs’ model by fortifying the roster with the kind of international talent—five Nuggets have overseas roots—that can thrive in today’s NBA. (They also tend to be cheaper and more under the radar than hyped American college players.)
With the trade deadline a few weeks away, contending teams will no doubt be inquiring about the availability of many of these guys—the team also might have as many as four first-round draft picks over the next few summers—so we’ll see how the roster looks come March. But not long ago, it seemed like this franchise was spinning its wheels in futility, with no discernible long-term plan. Suddenly, the Nuggets look downright intriguing.