Last season, the Denver Nuggets were simply a magical team throughout the regular season. Some of the highlights included: 57 wins, a ridiculous 38-3 record at the Pepsi Center (in retrospect, it's too bad they came along a few years late for this ad campaign), the NBA Coach of the Year in George Karl, and a team-wide mandate of "GET TO THE HOLE" that won over League Pass observers everywhere.
I happened to draw the game thread duties for this very same fixture last season, in which I made my admiration of the Nuggets crystal clear. A wild affair, the game could be succinctly summed up as "Live by Damien Wilkins, Die by Damien Wilkins" or as Levin likes (actually, liked is more accurate because now he's just all HINKIE) to say, "Sixers gonna Sixers." In the preview post for that game, I wrote this:
Do you guys realize yet that I really, really, enjoy watching the Nuggets play? Because I do. You should watch them more if you enjoy basketball.
I'm a total mush. Shortly after that game, the wheels started to fall off for Denver. A few weeks later, Danilo Gallinari went down with an ACL injury right before the playoffs started. He's yet to return to the lineup. Without Gallo's services and Kenneth Faried playing at far less that 100 percent, the Nuggets fell to the hot-shooting Warriors in an extremely entertaining six games.
Their offseason was pretty much an unmitigated disaster. First, the team's well-respected architect, Masai Ujiri, bolted for Toronto. Currently, he's reenacting the Lucy-Charlie Brown football scenario with James Dolan. Karl received a pink slip, even after winning Coach of the Year, because he seeked a contract extension that the organization was reticent to grant him. Finally, Andre Iguodala bolted for the Bay Area, cementing one of the great "Everybody Loses!" trades in the history of sports (even though Orlando probably "won").
This year, the Nuggets are a slightly below average team. The still have Ty Lawson, Manimal, and a million other legitimate NBA rotation guys, which should be plenty to beat the Sixers tonight in the altitude. Rookie coach Brian Shaw hasn't been able to bring Indiana's defense with him, but that's what happens when Paul George and Roy Hibbert are replaced by Randy Foye and JJ Hickson. In the East, Denver could be a top-four seed, but out West they'll struggle to make the playoffs.
I spent 450 words recapping the precarious position that the Nuggets currently find themselves in simply as a reminder that no matter what course of action a team takes towards building a championship, there are no guarantees. Ujiri did pretty much everything right for a couple of years in Denver, and his team bowed out in the first round during the only year of their hypothetical window.
Every time that I hear that rebuilding teams like the Sixers are wasting their time, the refrain goes something like, "All you have to do is make smart moves! Look at Indiana and Portland!" They're partially right, too, because a team like the Pacers has built a championship contender without picking at the top of the lottery. Still, if "smart moves" were the only prerequisite for building a contender, the Fun Nuggets would've been rewarded with much, much more. There's no one specific blueprint.
Things aren't all gloom and doom in Denver. They own the Knicks' unprotected first-round pick this year, which right now looks very appetizing. Part of me wonders if Denver is wasting their time in the dreaded middle portion of NBA pecking order, but then again, the Sixers could very well be wasting their time at the bottom. I don't think so, but every path has its uncertainty. There aren't any guarantees.
Well, except that the Nuggets will beat the Sixers tonight. That's pretty much a lock.