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How Denver Built the Team That Rocked the West

While the Lakers loaded up on superstars, the Nuggets took a much windier path to the Western Conference finals

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The most improbable thing about the success of the Nuggets is that it all began with Taco Bell. In the 2013-14 season, the Nuggets plummeted from 57 wins to 36, their worst record in more than a decade. Whatever magic had bound together a deep, versatile playoff team was gone. Injury and roster turnover dragged the reluctant Nuggets into a state of transition, and in doing so brought an added weight to every draft selection.

Rather than make the 11th pick in the draft, Denver diversified—flipping it to Chicago for the 16th and 19th picks. Those picks would become Gary Harris and Jusuf Nurkic, two important players in the trajectory of the franchise. Yet the most important move of the night came well into the second round. With the 41st pick in the 2014 NBA draft, the Denver Nuggets selected a Serbian prospect named Nikola Jokic—a selection thought so inconsequential for the purposes of the broadcast that it was made off-screen in the middle of a commercial for the latest, cheesiest addition to the Taco Bell menu. Here is proof, despite all the intestinal evidence to the contrary, that some good can come from a quesarito.

Denver has built a contender from these sorts of inconspicuous beginnings, and it’s paid off with a trip to the Western Conference finals opposite the star-studded Lakers. Six years after his introduction to the league was served in a tortilla, Jokic stands as one of the NBA’s very best players. Few of his peers have been so reliable in the playoffs; through four full, seven-game series, Jokic has dominated matchups, forced opponents into uncomfortable adjustments, and balanced superstar production with unusual efficiency. “I would put his impact on winning against anybody in the NBA,” says Nuggets president Tim Connelly, who drafted Jokic in 2014 and has since conceptualized the entire team around him.

The last remnant of the blockbuster trade that sent Carmelo Anthony (anchor of the last Denver team to reach the conference finals) to the Knicks in 2011 was the right for the Nuggets to swap first-round picks five years down the line. It was through that 2016 pick that Denver selected Jamal Murray, the first player drafted specifically to complement Jokic. Their inherent compatibility now bears out in a devastating two-man game. No other NBA pairing this season or in these playoffs has so many mutual assists between them. Murray will string out a defense to its limit before setting up Jokic for a wide-open jumper. Jokic, in turn, will mash smaller defenders with such casual regularity that panicking defenses will leave Murray—the guard who has scored 40 or more in a game four times already this postseason, including as a finishing blow in Game 7 against the Clippers—just to double him. Every Denver possession is safeguarded by the fact that the team’s two best players can dance back and forth, through screen and re-screen, until something shakes loose.

“He plays with such a joy,” Murray says of his counterpart, “a free-flowing game without any pressure. Even if he does something dumb or has 20 turnovers, he still plays free and plays within himself.” The same is increasingly true of Murray, who has found a poise in his work off the dribble that keeps the Nuggets’ entire offense in balance. When Denver signed Murray to a massive five-year extension last summer, there was a great deal of skepticism around the league as to whether his play could measure up. To that point, Murray’s defining attribute was his inconsistency; he was a tantalizing talent who could shift out of focus for quarters or games at a time. Connelly was explicit that with a change in income tax bracket came a change in responsibility. Murray has met those demands, exceeded them, and taken Denver with him.

An NBA team derives all its power from confidence; without it, even an expertly assembled roster can collapse on itself, irrespective of its talent. Denver’s second-round series demonstrated this to both extremes. When Game 7 began to turn, the Clippers—who had blown double-digit leads in each of the previous two contests—seemed to spiral into doubt. What should have been a buzz saw of an offense instead just floated along, taking the ball on a meandering voyage to nowhere in particular. The Nuggets, in contrast, became a team of undeniable purpose, with Murray its most willing agent. It was as if the full faith of his max extension had been given back.

“How many times have we seen it?” Nuggets coach Michael Malone asked after Game 7. “Our season’s on the line, we need somebody to make a big play, and Jamal Murray steps up. That’s why when you think about our team, you think we’re doing it with a 25-year-old, a 22-year-old, a 23-year-old, and we’re making the strides that we’ve made. Not only am I excited about this moment—I’m really excited about what is to come.”

The 22-year-old Malone was referring to is Michael Porter Jr., yet another of Denver’s recent draft picks. At the time of the 2018 draft, Porter’s stock was communicated by semaphore in red flags—a result of missing the vast majority of his only college season due to a herniated disk requiring two back surgeries. An orthopedic surgeon told SB Nation in 2018 that in cases like Porter’s, the disk is akin to a jelly doughnut with a hole poked in it, except that if pressure were applied, it would leak vital lubricating fluid instead of artificial sweetness. At least one team was reportedly advised to stay away from Porter completely. Others were urged to use extreme caution. Denver accepted the risks in order to draft the kind of talent it wouldn’t be able to add otherwise.

It took Porter a year of rehabilitation before he could even get back on the floor, but that gambit is part of the reason the Nuggets have survived two highly competitive series. Porter can fire jumpers over the top of anyone who guards him, and has been confident enough to not only take big shots, but also demand them. Health willing, he will be a no-questions-asked star in his own right.

“We’re only gonna get better,” Murray says. “MPJ is not even started yet.”

It’s defenders like Harris, Paul Millsap, and Jerami Grant that make putting a rookie on the floor in the playoffs a practical reality. Harris has played his six years with the Nuggets in fits and starts, with one injury derailing his progress after another. The latest sidelined Harris for the first five games of Denver’s first-round series against Utah—until his return changed the very nature of the matchup. With a dogged, instinctive perimeter defender in the mix, Malone could finally piece together lineups that didn’t broadcast their liabilities. Even as Harris’s jumper comes and goes, the Nuggets can rely on his cuts to prey on a tilting defense. No player on Denver’s roster better understands the grooves of the offense and how to navigate them.

“Early on, I think Gary Harris was the first player on our roster, four or five years ago, that really understood how to play with Nikola, and how he’s gonna make [their] life easier,” Malone says. In the postseason, Harris has seen the biggest bump in efficiency of any Nugget when playing alongside Jokic.

Millsap and Grant are, in essence, the players who most clearly contrast the Nuggets with their Western Conference finals opponent. The Lakers are the kind of organization that could bumble their way through season after season and still land LeBron James in free agency. The Nuggets patiently developed their young players and carefully minded their cap sheet just so they could have a chance to sign a then-32-year-old Millsap, who is now clearly in the latter stages of his career. (That didn’t stop the former All-Star from giving Denver 32 good minutes in Game 7 against the Clippers, in which he was a plus-19.) The Lakers can package all their high draft picks—the spoils of their losing run—into a deal for Anthony Davis, secure in the knowledge that Davis wants to play in Los Angeles. The Nuggets bided their time, waited for another playoff team to dissolve, and traded their own future first-round pick for a consummate role player in Grant.

In doing so, Denver made itself an exceptional case. For many teams in the wing-dominant NBA, the loss of a starting small forward would doom a playoff run before it began. The Nuggets have coped without Will Barton, their third-leading scorer in the regular season, by starting his polar opposite. “For me, what really stands out in today’s NBA is his ability to guard and cover whoever,” Malone said of Grant at his introductory press conference last summer. Without the move to acquire him—and without Grant’s defense against Kawhi Leonard—the Nuggets’ season would already be over.

It’s impossible to separate the triumphs of this team from the mid-market sensibility that informed its creation. The fact that star free agents weren’t lining up to join the Nuggets was what gave Jokic the room to come into his own. Considering the way Jokic developed, Nurkic became a luxury. The patience afforded to Murray and Harris led to invaluable continuity—a kind of shorthand that pays off in the mess of an elimination game. Without the budget to spend on a wing stopper, the Nuggets invested in the development of Torrey Craig—a former leading scorer from a tiny college who reprioritized his game while playing professionally in Australia. Given the financial future of the team, Denver actually traded away a valuable 3-and-D wing in the middle of a contending season. The realities of the market made it all the more necessary for the Nuggets to take smart, long-term chances on players with strong statistical profiles. Some of those projects didn’t pan out. One, Monte Morris, fell to the 51st pick in the draft despite strong indicators in metrics like turnover rate and WARP. Now he works as a reliable backup for a conference finalist.

There are so many ways to win in the NBA, and so many ways to build a team that can. The Nuggets are a model all their own. They work mismatches in a way that’s unlike any other team in the league. They scramble to make more of half-broken possessions than other teams can. They know their reputation as a lesser contender, and they work in defiance of it. “We are just not accepting that someone is better than us,” Jokic said, shortly after eliminating a flashier contender in awesome fashion. The next challenge to that idea will be the greatest yet.