In the summer of 2015, the Nuggets traded Ty Lawson to the Houston Rockets. It was an announcement that Denver was starting over big time. Lawson was at the center of the Nuggets plans until he wasn’t. Whatever he represented was ambushed once Chauncey Billups came out and questioned Lawson’s leadership, followed by Lawson’s inability to drink and not drive. The end of the Ty Lawson experiment was over and the Nuggets had to figure out how to rebuild into a playoff team, one of the hardest things to do in the league. The Lakers haven’t done it, the 76ers haven’t done it, the Kings haven’t done it. But here the Nuggets are with the same number of losses as the OKC Thunder, one half game from the fifth seed. They haven’t been to the playoffs in five years. What have they done differently?
The Kids Are All Right. The young players have developed and thrived. 22 year old Nikola Jokic is averaging 16 points and 10 rebounds. 23 year old Gary Harris plays 34 minutes, the most on the team. He shoots 47%, scores 16 and shoots 37% from three. 21 year old Emmanuel Mudiay cannot shoot but he is a good backup point guard with acute court awareness. 20 year old Jamal Murray is thriving as the starting point guard, except he doesn’t play make, at all. He’s out for himself and that’s pretty good too, 15.8 points. His 2.7 assists are weak, though. 22 year old Trey Lyles adds punch off the bench with 10 points. He is long and athletic. The Nuggets used the draft to cherry pick length and scoring talent and haven’t disappointed, even as they did trade Donovan Mitchell this June and regret every moment of it.
Quality Coaching: Mike Malone has done a good job with young kids and veterans like Paul Millsap, Wilson Chandler and wanting to be traded Kenneth Faried. The Nuggets play hard and execute well. No one averages 5 assists a game and yet the Nuggets are 7th in assists. Malone embraces the whole team concept which is easy to do without a dominant star.
The Numbers: Denver is 9th in scoring. 7th in Offensive Efficiency. 6th in Fast Break Points. 3rd in Points in the Paint. 10th in scoring percentage. 2nd in Offensive Rebounding. 8th in Total Rebounds. 7th in Assists.
What Can Trip Them Up: Mediocre to Awful Defense. They are anemic in stopping shooters, one of the worst teams in field goal percentage defense, and their three point defense is boring. But no one said the Nuggets were contenders. It’s The Process. However, legitimate questions still remain about scoring in the last two minutes. The go-to player is…?
The Nuggets don’t have a superstar and they probably don’t have an All-Star in L.A. in 2018. But they are a good team that plays hard every night, has a good offense in which they use the sum of the team to get it done. They score, both inside and outside. They have great chemistry and their kids and vets have symmetry. The goal is to get out of lottery and build up. The Nuggets have done exactly that. It looks like their five year playoff drought is over.
They are over the cap for 2018-19 which means they will have to run with this crew and develop the defense instead of signing a Paul George max player type star. Giving Paul Millsap $30 million means they are ride or die with Millsap.
But the Nuggets have done what has proven to be pretty impossible. Be a small market. Go from bad to good in five years with young players who are only going to get better and no star.
Things are looking up in the Mile High City. The Nuggets don’t miss Ty Lawson but he probably misses them. He’s playing this season in China while they are playing for the 5th seed.