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Before the Gold Rush

The unrefined Nuggets are on the verge of relevance

Getty/Ringer illustration
Getty/Ringer illustration

With the departure of Kevin Durant, the Oklahoma City Thunder can’t be considered legitimate title contenders. But the template they developed still exists. Borrowing heavily from the Spurs before them, the Thunder showed that stable leadership, savvy free-agent moves, an institutional knack for developing young players, and some incredible luck at the top of the draft can make any team, no matter the size of the market, a contender. As OKC faces a post-KD future, other franchises will try to follow in its footsteps. This week, we’ll be looking at who could be the next Thunder.

For a hot summer second, the Nuggets turned Denver into a destination fit for NBA superstars. But no one was buying it.

“Wait, Denver?

The Nuggets securing a meeting with Dwyane Wade in New York last week to discuss a potential $52 million contract was all the proof we needed to confirm that Wade’s transparent offseason power plays had become a farce. The Nuggets thought they had a 50–50 shot at signing him. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t; getting Wade was a pipe dream, but becoming relevant was the goal. And after Wade tweeted out effusive praise for the organization (something he didn’t do for the Milwaukee Bucks, another small-market team he’d met with), it was fair to consider this a mutually beneficial stunt — and to wonder who was really using who.

Through Wade, the Nuggets found a megaphone to broadcast their arrival. Wade went out of his way to declare them a new team on the rise, all but confirming the momentum that Nuggets fans have spent all summer being giddy about. But for most of the basketball-consuming public, it felt like a non sequitur.

Trending teams, the ones that end up developing cult followings, usually give you advance warning. They flash their “it” factor in stages. The Jazz are ready to reap the rewards of staying firm to a five-year plan; the Wolves were beholden to the promise of Andrew Wiggins before they were absorbed into Karl-Anthony Towns’s ultralight beam; the Bucks’ experiment with Giannis Antetokounmpo at point guard began two summer leagues ago; the Sixers’ future is built on the burial ground of a three-year experiment.

Of those four teams, two (Bucks, Wolves) were able to beat the Warriors last season; the other two, for a game, played Golden State to the final whistle — both coming just three points short in the final seconds. Six of the Warriors’ nine regular-season losses last year came against teams with an average age of 25 or younger, teams that are among the nine youngest in the league.

That’s the point of this, right? The establishment won’t be what tears down the Warriors Wall; we have to look toward the future. The Nuggets were one of those teams, giving the Warriors their first loss of 2016. It’s OK if you didn’t know that. Their two-point victory wasn’t quite lauded as a breakthrough the way the Wolves’ late-season overtime win was.

Unlike the Bucks and Wolves, the Nuggets haven’t given us any notice. In a way, this development is a surprise for Denver. The team’s biggest move entering 2015–16 was shedding Ty Lawson, an exoskeleton of someone who was once Denver’s best player, and replacing him with Emmanuel Mudiay, the no. 7 pick of 2015. But for a team whose core still featured familiar faces of the George Karl era, it remained unclear whether the Nuggets were making discernible progress.

But there are some things you can’t forecast. Like Nikola Jokic, a 2014 second-round stash pick out of Serbia, coming in out of nowhere to become not only the Nuggets’ most promising player, but one of the best young big men in the league, full stop.

Jokic finished third in Rookie of the Year voting behind Towns and Kristaps Porzingis, part of a luminous rookie class; just last week he was named MVP of the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Belgrade, leading Serbia to an Olympic berth with a 23-point, eight-rebound, and six-assist performance in the championship game. He’s really good. And he’s ready for his closeup.

The first time I noticed Jokic, he was seated in the stands, near the media tables at the 2015 Las Vegas summer league, dancing along in full spirit to Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” with veteran Oleksiy Pecherov, a player nearly a decade his senior. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I’d just witnessed the perfect encapsulation of the Jokic experience. “Big Honey,” as he’s called by his teammates, is the Nuggets’ resident physical comedian, but his play is imbued with a more subtle wit, though no less joyous. He’s the smartest kid in the room moonlighting as class clown, with a game reminiscent of Al Horford and Marc Gasol — a world of versatility contained in a floorbound body.

Jokic is demonstrably a modern NBA big man — he showed NBA 3-point range over the course of his rookie season — but some of his best work occurs with his back to the basket. Playing in the post is a partner dance that requires you to understand your opponent’s physical cues better than you know your own. Jokic has little athleticism to leverage against his opponents, but through 80 games last season, he consistently outsmarted them with beautiful reads to hidden cutters and unexpected flip shots under the arms of the defense. At 21, Jokic is already one of the better post players in the league, both in creating for himself and for others. Among players with at least 250 touches in the post last season, Jokic landed in the top 25 in field goal percentage on post attempts, and of those 25 players, he had the fifth-highest assist total in the post (he was sixth among centers in total assists). By the second half of the season, the Nuggets were comfortable with Jokic becoming the facilitator from the elbow, snapping the ball to their slew of athletic guards. Jokic was the deus ex machina to bring the Nuggets out of the post-Melo era, once and for all, and his all-around ability helped cushion what was an uneven season from their rookie point guard.

Emmanuel Mudiay’s star potential is evident the moment you look at him: at 6-foot-5 and 200 pounds, he has ample size to see over defenders and to avoid getting bullied on switches; he has unflappable calm in suboptimal situations, and there were a lot of those last season. But Mudiay’s physical superiority often didn’t translate in games. Despite his chiseled frame, he was unable to finish around the rim. Among 104 guards who attempted at least 100 shots in the restricted area, Mudiay was second-to-last in field goal percentage at 45.5 percent. But rookie development always takes fascinating turns; old strengths become weaknesses, and old weaknesses sometimes show real promise out of the blue. Identified as a non-shooter entering the draft, he shot 31.9 percent from 3 on the season, but had reached 36.4 percent, or one point above league average, on more than four attempts per game after the All-Star break; Mudiay’s percentages rose across the board in the second half of the season.

Mudiay largely operated the offense as the ball handler in pick-and-rolls, and the numbers suggest he should stop. But his struggles are interconnected — his poise in navigating a play was stifled by his horrid shooting numbers, and his close-range ineffectiveness meant that his dribble drives were compromised. A lot of this can be chalked up to freshman adjustment (we won’t call his shooting numbers a lost cause, unless he has a Marcus Smart–level relapse); his sense of pace and changing speeds, even as a rookie, was impressive. Even if Mudiay never becomes more than an average shooter, becoming a consistent finisher around the rim will unlock the rest of his skill set.

Jokic and Mudiay are a window into Denver’s future, but don’t necessarily have to serve as the team’s undisputed cornerstones. What the team does from here on is where things will get interesting. The Nuggets have a glut of shooters (Will Barton, and incoming rookies Jamal Murray and Malik Beasley) and defenders (Gary Harris and Darrell Arthur) on cheap contracts. The rest of the roster is still propped up by veterans like Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, and Kenneth Faried, but there isn’t a single player on the roster who will make more than $15.1 million this coming season. (For reference, the Grizzlies will pay Mike Conley, Chandler Parsons, and Marc Gasol no less than $21 million each.) The Nuggets still have nearly $22 million in cap room, and none of the contracts on their payroll are untradable. They have flirted with egalitarian ball on numerous occasions in their post-Melo hangover, but they have the assets to go all-in for a bonafide star (Blake Griffin?) at any point in time, and will have the depth and cash to convince a star to stay. Wade may not have taken the Nuggets’ money, but his seal of approval for what they’re building might have been more valuable to the franchise.

There is a reason it takes time for a buzzworthy team to rise to the top: creating a winner from scratch is a long and complicated process with no foolproof method. Nuggets GM Tim Connelly has done what he could up to this point: draft well, and maintain a flexible salary table amid this unprecedented cap boom. Cult teams teach the value and agony of patience, as fans have to wait to watch a core solidify and provide a verdict. The Nuggets’ sudden infusion of talent last season has given them a light at the end of the tunnel — and like the Earth itself, their core is fluid and brilliant. Denver has become the West’s undefined variable. The Nuggets could be next. But it wouldn’t take much for them to be now.