Forging a Path To Success in Golden State’s Shadow

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The talented Ethan Strauss recently dropped an article on the Athletic about how the league has raced to become what initially made the Warriors successful. The pace of the NBA is faster than it’s ever been and teams are shooting more threes than they ever have. The Warriors have refused to remain part of the crowd and have found ways to adapt their offense to the players they currently have on the roster instead of sticking with the pace and space style the rest of the league has embraced.

The Nuggets, too, tried to copy the Warriors success, but have done so in a very different way.  While the rest of the league simply looked for players who could shoot threes and switch on defense, the Nuggets chose to study and imitate the process instead of the result. The Nuggets found talented young players in the draft, added smart veterans to guide them, and found a coach prepared to build a system around the talent.

Like the Warriors, the Nuggets managed to rebuild their team without a top 5 pick and without tanking. Both teams chose to keep talented veterans around their young guys in order to maintain a winning culture. Both teams took their time and didn’t rush the process at the expense of said talent. Both teams had the buy in from the front office and ownership that allowed them to make a plan and stick to it.

Tim Connelly and his front office looked at the Warriors success and realized that no other team in the league can play like the Warriors because there is only one Steph Curry. That said, once Connelly and coach Michael Malone saw what they had in Nikola Jokic, they realized that no other team has a Nikola Jokic either. So they chose to build a team designed around his style of play.

Connelly has developed a reputation as being one of the best talent evaluators in the league which is reflected in the Nuggets’ current roster. Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris, Jamal Murray, Malik Beasley, Juancho Hernangomez, and Monte Morris are all Connelly draft picks currently playing in the Nuggets’ regular rotation.

He also brought in Will Barton and Trey Lyles who weren’t getting chances on the teams that drafted them only to see them blossom in the Nuggets system. While talent is every front office’s goal in the draft, Connelly has also valued high character, high IQ players in the draft, and this seems to have led him to find talent where others missed it.

Jokic is one of the most talented passers from the center position the league has ever seen and should be surrounded by players that can spread the floor and move off the ball. When Jokic has teammates that fit well with him, he is able to dissect defenses like a frog in science class. Gary Harris and Will Barton were the first Nuggets to realize the brilliant passing of Nikola Jokic and make themselves into elite off ball cutters and spot-up shooters.

The Nuggets were fortunate enough to draft Jamal Murray just as Jokic was starting to flash superstar potential. Jamal Murray was an elite shooter in college with an incredible work ethic. He has the maturity of a man twice his age and the burning desire to be great that has made superstars of other players. In the same draft they picked up versatile forward Juancho Hernangomez at 15, and Malik Beasley, a solid defender and good shooter, at 19. All three players are hard working, mature young men, who have the talent to be effective players in the league. They’ve overcome some struggles and come through them seemingly better because of it. On top of that all three players are lights out 3pt shooters and give 100% effort on defense, making them perfect fits next to the Serbian big man.

Connelly has never failed to remember the importance of veteran leadership, whether it was bringing in aging stars like Mike Miller and Richard Jefferson to lead from the bench, or adding a steadying hand at backup point guard in Jameer Nelson and Devin Harris. These players bridged the gap between what the Nuggets were and what they’d become once the young stars were ready to take on leadership roles. The addition of Millsap was key to bringing in a veteran leader and a defensive captain that fit with the rest of the starting lineup. And adding Isaiah Thomas was a low risk high reward signing that added another vet to the team who already has a strong relationship with the coach.

The Denver front office has also made it a point to do right by their players in recent years, whether that meant moving them to a team that would be a better fit or rewarding them with contracts. Mason Plumlee came over in a trade and proved to be a valuable locker room presence and a talented backup center, so Connelly rewarded him with a new contract. Torrey Craig and Monte Morris worked hard on two-way contracts a year ago and were rewarded with full contracts this season. Through these moves the front office has been able to establish trust with the players and coaches in order to foster a winning culture.

Michael Malone is a coach who never quite got a fair shake with the Kings and was given a chance to prove himself in Denver. He immediately turned the culture of the locker room around. He has such a way with players that he can seemingly get them to buy into anything he wants to try. He’s had some missteps along the way, but in the end he’s helped build a very creative offense around Nikola Jokic, a player the likes of which hasn’t been seen in the league before. He’s also adapted his style to the players he has, finding opportunities to take advantage of the skillsets of his stars.

He utilizes dribble handoffs heavily in the offense because Murray, Harris, and Barton are all very difficult to stop when they get a step on their defender. He recognizes the high IQ of his players and leaves a lot of the offense up to them to create in the moment. Most importantly he and Tim Connelly didn’t rush the development of the team, they didn’t try to put more pressure on the young guys than they could handle, but at the same time they didn’t go out and sign vets that would take their minutes. They found players that could play alongside their young stars while also mentoring them and helping them get better.

As the pieces fell into place, fans and those close to this team started to notice that something special was brewing with the team. There was an energy building this offseason and by training camp it seemed like things had changed. They were no longer a young team trying to figure out who they were. They were a team with confidence coming off a 46 win season that in most years would have gotten a playoff berth. They were also a team with a chip on their shoulder because they knew they blew multiple opportunities that could have gotten them to the playoffs and they were ready to take the league by storm.

Everyone was on the same page, everybody knew what their role was, and everybody was excited to do their part no matter how small. Over the past two seasons the talent has all been here, the fans could see it and so could the coaches and players, but there just seemed to be something missing. They couldn’t get over the hump and play up to their potential. Last season made it clear to everyone that things were in place they just had get out of their own heads and play like they knew they could every single night.

The catalyst for the Warriors was firing Mark Jackson and bringing in Steve Kerr who knew how to release the kraken that was Steph Curry. Jackson’s offense didn’t make sense for the Warriors’ talent and it was clearly holding them back. Kerr stepped in and basically let the talent loose and created a dynasty in the process.

The catalyst for this Nuggets team was missing out on the playoffs by a single game. They had good excuses that could be made, Millsap missed 44 games, and Gary Harris missed 18. The Western Conference was just much better last season than usual and they would have made the playoffs in most years. However this team recognized the real reason for their failure, they lost 7 games against teams in the tankathon sweepstakes. Seven. Again this is 7 games against teams that were actively trying to lose.

They refused to accept the excuses that were right there for the taking and held themselves accountable for those losses to bad teams. Had they won just 4 of them, they would have been the 3 seed in western conference and been a 50 win team. I think the most eye opening moment for most of them though was the final 7 games of the season.

It got to the point where they had to win out to be sure of a playoff spot and with the way the rest of the West was playing they couldn’t count on anyone else to lose. They went on to win 6 straight games, five of which were against playoff opponents. In the final game they pushed the Timberwolves to overtime, but came up just short.

This run of games opened their eyes to just how good they actually were. They were a team capable of great things when they played hard and treated every game like it was do or die. This only served to shine a greater light on those seven games they gave away to much lesser competition. Malone’s come to Jesus sermon about winning games you should win no matter the time of the year finally fell on ears ready to hear it.

They entered the offseason excited about how strongly they ended the season, but furious that they let the playoffs slip from their fingers because they didn’t take every game seriously. The culture that Malone and Connelly cultivated around these players and the friendships that had developed meant that everyone was on the same page. For this Nuggets team there wasn’t really an offseason. This team went their separate ways at times, but not a single one of them forgot about how close the team was to the Playoffs. They went into the offseason treating it simply as a chance to prepare themselves for the next season.

Like how the Warriors built their team by building a culture and adding talent, the Nuggets have done the same and in much the same way. They may not play the same style as the Warriors, as their offense and defense are very much their own, but they’ve built their team in the same way. So while the rest of the league tries to copy the Warriors in vain attempts to find another Curry, Klay Thompson, or Draymond Green, the Nuggets chose to find their own path; one influenced by the Warriors sure, but one that is still very much their own.

While the hot start for the Nuggets may surprise many fans around the league, Nuggets fans have seen this coming. We’ve been yelling and screaming through all the frustrating losses not because our team was bad, but because we knew how good they could be. We bragged about their successes not because we felt forgotten or left out, but because we genuinely believed our players were very good. And now finally much like that Warriors team that shocked the league for 61 wins and a title, this Nuggets team is poised to take the league by storm and reward their loyal fans. Don’t be surprised if this Nuggets team just keeps on winning; they are here to stay for the long haul.

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