Joker and John Elway: the limits of greatness

Denver Broncos QB John Elway, Super Bowl XXI
Photo by Mickey Pfleger/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

When one legend is not enough

For the Denver Nuggets, losing Game 1 against the Golden State Warriors is not fulfillment of a prophecy, no matter what fans say about Nugglife. It’s not even an omen. A healthy Golden State team against a Denver team missing its second- and third-best players is a mismatch, especially considering the styles of the two teams. As Nikola Jokic himself said after the game, the Nuggets are the underdogs.

The Nuggets under coach Michael Malone have historically not started fast in playoff games. They take the other team’s punches, then come on like Rocky Balboa in the late rounds. Right now they don’t have the firepower and will need the non-Jokic players to make plays and get buckets to hang with the Warriors in this series. It’s not over, but it will take work to make a fight of it. After the complete demolition at the hands of the Phoenix Suns last year, though, and the way this series started as an entirely uncompetitive affair, there are some Denver echoes stirring of another massive talent that took a while to build a team around.

I was 11 years old when the Denver Broncos made it to the Super Bowl with John Elway for the first time. I printed off a seven page banner on my home computer and hung it over the fireplace to set the mood. The mood got pretty sour as the Broncos lost to the New York Giants with a terrible second half. The next year they got back to the final game again, and lost even worse. Two years after that, same result: an embarrassing demolition.

The number of Hall of Famers who gave meaningful contributions on those teams besides Elway numbered zero. It was an amazing one-man show. The act of even getting to those Super Bowls with teams so outmatched deserved nothing but praise and even apology by those involved. Instead, Dan Reeves tried to draft Elway’s replacement at quarterback like those losses were somehow his fault.

The Nuggets are not there yet with Jokic, but there are limits on what even he can do. Jokic is a regular season juggernaut because no one can gameplan for him without real practices – he breaks the normal defenses teams use to stop other team’s on-ball guards and creates havoc with his passing vision and paint dominance. In the playoffs, other teams build everything they do around limiting his ability to hurt them alone – and they force the other players to hurt them. Elway briefly had the Three Amigos to throw to: Mark Jackson, Ricky Nattiel and Vance Johnson. But they couldn’t stick as healthy contributors and couldn’t get open against a real title contender’s defenders. Other teams took away Elway’s weapons and he couldn’t do everything himself. It took a lot of defense and a multi-pronged offensive attack with other Hall of Fame players to help Elway and the Broncos finally get the rings they deserved.

In the 2019 Playoffs, the Nuggets won a seven-game series and then lost the next in seven games, against a much more experienced Portland Trail Blazer team led by All Stars. It was their first brush with playoff basketball, and there was no shame in it. In 2020, a worldwide pandemic threw everything out of kilter but Denver still made the Western Conference Finals despite massive injuries to Gary Harris and Will Barton making a rookie Michael Porter Jr. Denver’s third-best player. The two-man show from Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic was impressive, but they had reached its limits.

The 2021 and now 2022 playoffs aren’t providing even that two-man game to fall back on. Last year’s injuries had Denver playing guards on 10-day and two-way contracts to put bodies on the court. This year there was a debate on how big a mistake it might be not to put Davon Reed, who might be Denver’s best wing defender, on a full contract so that he would be playoff-eligible. These are not the discussions that championship teams have. There should not be a need for a minimum wage steal or G League call-up to make a 9-man playoff rotation so that Denver can compete for a title.

2022 NBA Playoffs - Denver Nuggets v Golden State Warriors
Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

But this comes back to Jokic again, ultimately. The Nuggets had the best team eFG% in the league this year – they had the highest effective field goal percentage, meaning that essentially they were the most efficient scoring team in the NBA with their combination of three point percentage and two point percentage. Similar things happened last year when MPJ had the most efficient 19+ PPG scoring effort the league had ever seen. Denver gets the best looks thanks to Nikola Jokic. They get open shots. They make those open shots well enough on a regular Tuesday in the NBA to look like contenders.

When the lights get bright and the attention gets focused however, things can change. The Three Amigos aren’t running free and uncovered anymore and Jokic is being swarmed from every angle with multiple defensive coverages throughout the games. Can the Nuggets hit the hard shots, the contested shots, the last second shots that teams need to win titles? It’s hard to say – their most competitive shot-makers are in street clothes right now when Denver could be testing this and finding out.

One of the unfortunate side effects of Denver’s injuries has been their inability to test their construction and see what works. The formula is not breakable in the regular season, in a different way than the George Karl Nuggets formula but with similar results: it takes the playoffs to find out whether what Denver has built will withstand an actual test and be forged in the fire… or shatter. Jokic has already won more playoff games than Carmelo Anthony did in a Denver uniform, but the team construction can’t be vetted. Every year injuries have taken their toll, whether it was Gary Harris and Will Barton in those early years or MPJ and Murray now. The Nuggets don’t have the firepower on offense or the talent on defense to legitimately compete without Jokic doing something unbelievable, something honestly that no player has ever done. Right now it’s no different than Kevin Garnett with the Minnesota Timberwolves or LeBron James the first time around with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Murray and MPJ coming back healthy next year – and staying that way, knock on every tree in the forest – would change a bunch of things on offense especially for the playoffs. Then Jokic cannot be the sole focus, because Murray and Porter should be making teams pay. Then Jokic doesn’t have to work so hard and can be allowed to rest without leads being turned to ash the second his butt touches the bench. All the rest of the Nuggets can slide back down the depth chart so they aren’t constantly swimming upstream. Right now rookie Bones Hyland is expected to match output with Klay Thompson, which is both patently unfair and unlikely.

But the Nuggets are going to start this offseason – which hopefully does not begin for several more games but will almost certainly begin without a ring – needing to answer the same questions they’ve had for every year of their playoff run. Paramount among those questions is this: can this healthy roster win in the playoffs against the top teams in the East and West? Offensively they should have the firepower. Jokic, Murray, Porter, Bones, and Gordon can put up points, and if Barton, Monte Morris and the Greens remain they certainly have the added scoring to prevent meltdowns. Can they defend well enough? Can they be consistent enough? Denver’s front office will have to figure that out this offseason without playoff evidence from the whole healthy roster. In previous years they’ve made moves that assume that scoring will cover all sins, but neither Jerami Grant nor Aaron Gordon alone could cover up for the multitude of sins Denver commits against guard penetration and wing screens.

The graveyard where good offenses go to die in the playoffs is stacked with the bodies of teams that thought the same. Two-time MVP Steve Nash might have some words for probable two-time MVP Nikola Jokic about the limits of offense when every player on your team isn’t a Hall of Famer (no offense Golden State, it’s just a little ridiculous). Jokic has proven that the Nuggets can get to this point every year, even with massive injuries, plagues of locusts and whatever basketball god curses have been placed. He’s done his part, and in the process maybe camouflaged too many of Denver’s weaknesses.

The next part will come when Denver takes a healthy roster and shapes it to prevent exactly what keeps happening in the playoffs. For years Denver has operated with the belief that if everything goes right they can win it all – and so far everything has not gone right. Expecting it all to go right in the future is poor planning, as well as a poor use of the time left with the greatest player ever to put on a Nuggets jersey. It’s time to take the fan posters off the wall above the fireplace and make the hard decisions so that real banners can hang in Ball Arena. Until then – no matter how much bad luck got us here – we’re all just watching greatness and killing time.

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