The Nuggets are broken, their window of opportunity to win the NBA championship exposed to be as fragile as the brittle shards in Michael Porter Jr.’s ailing back.
It seems bad injury luck has stalked this franchise since David Thompson fell from the sky with an ugly splat way back in the 1980s. Why can’t the Nuggets catch a break?
Hey, the dream of winning a championship with Nikola Jokic seemed like a solid plan. But now the basketball gods laugh at our pain.
What has happened to the Nuggets, mired in a six-game losing streak as they begin an arduous seven-game road trip, is a cruel twist of fate that cuts like a knife in the knee of Jamal Murray, the back of MPJ and the wrist of Jokic.
“Our margin for error right now,” coach Michael Malone admits, “is maybe non-existent.”
The Nuggets are in a heap of trouble. So what do they do now?
There’s a temptation to curse the decision of front-office executive Tim Connelly to sink nearly $150 million in guaranteed money for a contract extension to Porter, when the Nuggets knew full well there was no guarantee he could stay healthy for five months, let alone the next five years.
With a 9-10 record in the rugged Western Conference, with the rejuvenated Warriors and the rising Suns barely within view of the sad spot the Nuggets find themselves in, I’ve wondered if perhaps tanking the remainder of this season and hoping for luck in the NBA draft lottery might be less frustrating than trying to dig out of a deep hole.
But tanking is for losers. So stop, just stop, with the tank talk.
There’s one big reason Denver would be crazy to throw in the crying towel and quit.
Jokic is the reigning MVP, playing at a level that draws comparisons to Larry Bird and the greatest players to ever lace up sneakers. He can carry the Nuggets to the playoffs by himself.
But it’s also time for Connelly and Malone to privately admit Denver isn’t winning the championship this season, even if Murray recovers from a torn ACL well ahead of schedule.
What this team needs to do is something the Nuggets should have done months ago: Admit that trying to build a championship foundation on the creaky back of MPJ was a mistake and start the process of re-inventing themselves.
A franchise that has taken great pride in never skipping steps since deciding five years ago it could build a contender around a Serbian center must now humble itself and take two steps back.
With all due respect to 35-year-old Jeff Green, 31-year-old JaMychal Green and 30-year-old Facundo Campazzo, they are not the future of this team. If Malone leans on Facu and the J-Green tag team in pursuit of the seventh or eighth seed in the West, the Nuggets are doing it all wrong.
Now is the time for the Nuggets to trust Connelly’s proven ability to draft talent and Malone’s solid track record of developing young players.
As soon as his twisted ankle heals, Bones Hyland needs to be on the court 25 minutes per game. Malone must live with the rookie guard’s mistakes and give teammates a chance to vibe off Hyland’s energy. When the Warriors were so beat up they were forced to play young guard Jordan Poole two years ago, his difficult initiation to the pros became the first steps to becoming a significant contributor to a team that again owns the league’s best record.
Zeke Nnaji and Vlatko Cancar are raw, young forwards. They certainly aren’t as polished as Jeff or JaMychal Green. But the Nuggets won’t discover how much real upside Nnaji and Cancar possess by forcing them to watch from the bench. The two Greens are currently devouring 40-45 minutes of court time per game. The vets need to take a seat more often to allow Nnaji and Cancar a real taste of NBA action.
And now we address the mystery of Bol Bol. He has skills uncommon in a 7-foot-2 center. The problem? He too often plays like a 6-2 guard. While I’m all for giving talent a chance to learn through trial and error, what perplexes me is the 22-year-old Bol’s tendency to display the focus of a 12-year-old. The Nuggets, however, need to decide if there’s any role for him or move on.
What the Nuggets need to do now is act like MPJ might never come back and treat it as a bonus if the world has enough duct tape to hold him together for a handful of productive NBA seasons.
What Jokic does best is make everyone around him better.
So what the Nuggets should do now is audition young players alongside him and let Joker show us if Hyland, Nnaji or Bol has any real star power.