A year ago, the Denver Nuggets missed the 2017 NBA playoffs by one spot in the standings. Despite winning six more games this year at 46-36, the Nuggets have also missed the 2018 bracket by just one spot, landing at ninth place in the Western Conference for the second straight season. There is disappointment in this result—in the persistence of a purgatorial finish, even as the team has improved—but it isn’t the sort of disappointment that begs for start-over or vast structural change; it is the kind that promises to be transformative as motivator.
One can romantically imagine Nikola Jokic, Garry Harris, and Jamal Murray’s young legs on treadmills during the summer as they watch footage of the Minnesota Timberwolves celebrating on loop, following their overtime victory over the Nuggets on the last day of the season. This one-game playoff offered the team and their fanbase a taste of the adrenaline that basketball’s second season gives—the dissatisfaction of losing this contest will grow, and continue to expand the hunger for deeper runs as each day of the playoffs passes and we imagine all the ways in which Denver could have matched up with the Golden State Warriors, Portland Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz, and New Orleans Pelicans. Between this painful loss and the better things to come is a montage of growth large enough to propel the team into the playoffs. Win or loss, facing the stiffest competition in a seven-game series will create a demonstration of proof, however imperfect, that the Nuggets yearn for. Missing out on the privilege of this litmus will act as a powerful carrot.
This is the optimistic outlook, anyway. There is the possibility that only the hardest core of Nuggetsdom will even recall this contest and the six-game winning streak that preceded it, heroically keeping their scant playoff odds alive. The harsh Darwinist reality of the Western Conference squeezed the best out of Jokic, Murray, Harris, and Will Barton during this stretch, forcing them to harden and find a resolve that goes beyond talent to keep winning games and extend the season. The Nuggets often won ugly in March and April, eschewing the expectation of advanced, free-flowing offensive productivity that followed them into 2017-18. Watching them win as more experienced teams cornered them out of their comfort zone looked like an omen of greatness arriving. But this inspired stretch may go on to exist as a sad, hardly remembered peak of the team’s current arc, if its bitter end function as a depressant instead of a driver.
NBA purgatory is defined as being just on the wrong side of the border between the postseason and missing it. It is here that the least favorable combination of product enjoyability and offseason prospects resides—and this is particularly the case for a franchise without the history or market size to attract major free agents, which is precisely true of the Nuggets. Denver has landed squarely in this halfway point for two years in a row, and the longer they are there, the more fragile of a place it becomes. As much as making the playoffs was an imperative for the Nuggets this season, it will be all the more so in 2018-19. Pushing through this purgatory is more an act of faith and willpower and other inexplicable forces than it is about management or strategy, and it is the challenge in front of the Nuggets.
The reasons the Nuggets’ future is worth investment—why their small step forward in 2017-18, however much bigger it should’ve been, is more indicative than misleading—are three: Jokic, Murray, and Harris. The trio will be 23, 21, and 24 years old respectively when the 2018-19 season begins, and they are a joy to watch grow and push through any obstacle. For the modern Western Conference, the most impressive assemblage of talent the sport has ever seen, to be the thing they look to navigate is thrilling. Everything else going on with the Nuggets—the potential albatross of an aging Paul Millsap’s $90 million deal; questions about Mike Malone’s fit as head coach; how to find more shooting and defensive depth to surround this core—are accessories to this journey.
The Nuggets have a generational player in Jokic. The native Serbian’s abilities to shoot, handle, and especially pass as a center create looks rarely seen in the sport. We have to look backwards by decades to find a dynamic, creative playmaker this beefy and this tall. 6’10”, 250 pounds and averaging a triple double over large parts of his third professional season, Jokic inspires the devotion of many NBAphiles with his quirky presence; he is a monster whose inclination is to make the most airy kind of basketball art. Imagine if Frankenstein’s experiment wanted to be a ballerina, and was extremely successful at being one. As Denver’s season hung in the balance, Jokic also looked more physical and resilient than he ever had before, playing the role of a more traditional strong man with effective brutishness when things weren’t going his way.
What might concern Denver’s enemies even more than Jokic’s continued evolution is that Murray has the potential to end up eclipsing him. The second-year guard from Canada showed an increased ability to eat everything available to him in the Denver offense, stroking open jumpers with ease, but also a knack to create his own points by dancing enemies to death and scoring at unusual angles—often in the clutch. There is even a contingent of fans who believe not giving Murray the ball in the final possession of regulation against Minnesota is nearly grounds for firing coach Malone. Like Harris has already done, in addition to being a relentless defender and reliable shooting threat, Murray is also developing a keen sense of Jokic’s uncanny floor vision, and finding himself cutting to the rim for easy layups at increasingly improbable moments.
Until next season begins, the Nuggets will stay mired in a mix of raw doubt and raw hope. While the whole of their roster is full of question marks, their young core is made of men who are already twice the players they used to be, and still getting much better at playing—with each other, and in general. But the Western Conference will likely continue to be the unfair tidal wave that destroys many well-built homes, and it can be said that Denver is not built entirely well. Even if the talent and chemistry of Jokic, Murray, and Harris buds unabated, they will not be impervious to the forces of nature that have taken many quality teams down. Whatever happens, though, they remain pure at this moment: different, youthful, ripe with the potential to show us something we haven’t seen before. For all that the 2018 playoffs are about to show us, there’s always next year and the Nuggets for something else still.