Denver Nuggets: Reflections on an Incredible Season

Denver Nuggets (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Denver Nuggets (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images) /
Denver Nuggets
Denver Nuggets (Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The Denver Nuggets recently wrapped the 2018-19 season, losing in the Western Conference Semifinals to the Portland Trailblazers (4-3).

I don’t often write in the first person.  Anyone that’s read the Mile High Maniac site is likely aware of a couple of things:

I’m old and I live in Denver (Parker, actually).

While I am a fan of all local, professional and collegiate endeavors, my heart has always lied with the Denver Nuggets

Now, I have a pretty healthy knowledge of the Broncos, I follow the Rockies pretty closely.  I was a huge Avs fan until the 2002 NHL lockout but I’m recovering nicely with Jared Bednar’s squad. Wanna know how old I am?  I went to Denver Spurs games at the Coliseum with my dad when I was a kid.

That old.

When it comes to the Nuggets, I’ve lived all 51 of their seasons, though the first 10 don’t really register, I was a bit young.  For many of the local bloggers and writers, their love of the Nuggets began with Carmelo Anthony and the incredible 10-year run he and George Karl took us on. Because Carmelo was so good as a Nugget, the way he left will always stick in my craw. I’ve been mansplained (sportsplained?), shouted down, criticized and insulted over my adherence to ‘Melo hate but I will not relent. I take great delight in Anthony’s current plight and while I don’t believe in Karma, it seems like there is some balance at play with the last couple of years of Carmelo’s NBA life.

No, my love affair goes back to Kiki Vandeweghe, Alex English, Dan Issel, Mike Evans, Danny Schayes and Bill Hanzlik.  Guys like that. All that truly means is that I saw the first time the Nuggets got worked by the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, I saw Michael Jordan play here a bunch and I saw a lot (A LOT) of losing Nuggets basketball. That sad-sack, lovable loser shell was endearing and NuggLyfe was just fine with me. I had my backup teams for playoffs and always had in the back of my mind that someday it would be the Nuggets time.

More from Mile High Maniac

From that perspective and piggybacked on the news that Tim Connelly rejected an offer from the Washington Wizards (they used to be the Bullets) to stay in Denver I’m prepared to declare this Nuggets season it’s best.

There was the 2013 57-win season but that was marred by a first-round ouster by the rising Golden State Warriors. The 2009 season saw a trip to the WCF and deserves mention. The 1994-95 Nuggets that beat the Seattle Supersonics in the first round were special but that team almost immediately broke up, we never really got to see that potential realized.

From front to back, top to bottom, there are things that separate the ’18-’19 squad and give them the nod.

First, though Carmelo was an All-Star and among the most prolific scorers the league has seen, it’s arguable that he was a superstar. He never factored much into MVP conversation, in his career he has elevated his teams out of the first round of the playoffs only twice. While we think of him fondly, he is Kyle Lowry, Damian Lillard, James Harden or any of the incredibly talented NBA players that never get to that championship level.

Nikola Jokic is the Nugget that bucks that trend.  We can poo-poo analytics and statistical dominance and say things like “eye test” to try to define what it is we are seeing in the Nuggets big man. None of it really does justice. What matters is comparison and Jokic compares favorably to some of the greatest players ever to grace a court. Maybe last season that seems hyperbolic but by now it’s becoming hard to deny the skill and impact of Jokic.  He earns raves from National Media, Charles Barkley says he’s already the best passing big of all-time. Gregg Popovich could hardly contain himself talking about Nikola after the Nuggets bounced his Spurs from playoff contention and Pop always contains himself.

Denver Nuggets
Denver Nuggets /

Denver Nuggets

The unathletic or poor physical condition narratives fell off after the Joker played absurd playoff minutes and it could be argued that he was the best, most consistent player in the league through two rounds. Jokic is bona fide, legit, 100 or whatever thing legitimizes his ascension to the very top of the NBA hierarchy. The Joker was named Thursday to the All-NBA first team, the first Nugget since David Thompson in 1978 to earn the award.

Second, the continuity in the front-office and coaching ranks provides a stability the Nuggets have rarely seen.  They had it with Karl and Masai Ujiri but their vision was more traditional, choosing to add free-agent talent around Carmelo in hopes of jump-starting playoff success. TC, Arturas Karnisovas, Josh Kroenke and Michael Malone have instituted a different vision, building through smart, complimentary draft choices and allowing those choices to gain experience. More importantly, letting continuity make this team a family.

So many people on Nuggets Twitter jockeying for who can come up with the perfect solution either through trade or free agency, not realizing that the puzzle is solved and the three factors that will push the Nuggets into championship contention are in place.

Factor one, the Nuggets now have deep playoff experience, they’ve played two game-7’s, they’ve gone against an HOF coach in Pop, they’ve faced elite talent in Lillard, they’ve seen how players can rise up in playoff situations and take over (CJ McCollum) and they know how to combat that. They’ve been educated on the fact that you can’t take plays off, that every minute of a playoff game deserves peak intensity.

Factor two, mark your calendars for July 5, 2019. That’s the start of the NBA’s Summer League in Las Vegas and it will mark the NBA debut of Michael Porter Jr. We’ve all seen and endured the can’t-miss prospect that never quite pans out, be it by injury or overzealous scouting, there’s a ton of Jahlil Okafor and Adam Morrison stories out there that should temper our excitement over MPJ.

The thing is, the guys that have spent time around him in the practice gym and on-the-court are all as excited as the fans to see Porter play. Look for an impressive contingent of Nuggets in Vegas to witness the debut.

Porter is likely the missing piece for the Nuggets, a small forward with size that can shoot. Think of Danilo Gallinari with Giannis-esque athleticism. His assumed rise ripples throughout the roster. He can eat minutes at 3 or 4, he moves Will Barton back to the bench, where he thrives (Thrills?) or allows for Barton to be moved. Someone threw the idea out of a trade with the ‘Blazers that would send Barton to Rip City for Maurice Harkless. I’m traditionally against tinkering with this roster but I think that move is solid for everyone involved, were it to become reality. Adding yet more starter-level talent to the second team goes a long way toward addressing Denver’s playoff bench production.

light. Related Story. Mapping the Nuggets Summer

The third factor and the one that’s completely out of Denver’s control is the imminent breakup of the Warriors juggernaut. While Klay Thompson may stay in Oakland, all signs indicate that Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins are gone. Andre Iguodala is a year closer to greener pastures and the Dubs reserves aren’t nearly as formidable as past iterations have been. Of course Golden State will still be a monster and difficult to beat but with MPJ, the Nuggets match up really well with the Warriors.

None of this is guaranteed and we’ve seen repeatedly that teams can fade away just as fast as they flare up but with Nikola Jokic, budding superstar Jamal Murray and “guy I wouldn’t give up even for Klay” Gary Harris forming the Nuggets core, the feeling is that there’s still more ground to gain and a backslide doesn’t seem to be much of a threat.

There are bright days, Championship days ahead for these Denver Nuggets. This team, this year is the best group Denver has ever put on the court. They are young, they are hungry for more, they have their unicorn and all the pieces that compliment him.

Waiting for July 5, 2019 is going to be hard but just wait, it’s going to be worth it when MPJ shows us the way.