In Denver, an NBA franchise is trying to break the trend, go against the mold and defy the conventional wisdom. In a league where winning a championship seemingly depends on having a bona fide superstar on the roster, the Nuggets are trying to prove that a team can advance deep into the playoffs without a future Hall of Fame player in the lineup.
Despite not having a Magic or Larry, a Michael or Hakeem, a LeBron or Kobe, the Nuggets think they can win big. The powers that be in the front office, from Josh Kroenke to Masai Ujiri to George Karl, believe it’s possible to create a championship formula even without an all-time great.
History would suggest otherwise, however. In the past 30 years, only eight franchises have won an NBA title. And almost all of them had an all-time great in the lineup. But the Nuggets believe in that the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts. Instead of having one person to rely on, Denver wants to have a locker room full of players who can contribute to the cause.
Their theory sounds great. It’s built upon principles that fans can get behind. After all, who doesn’t want to root for a team that works hard, plays an unselfish brand of basketball and puts the interests of the group over those of the individuals?
But this notion is completely dependent on one incredibly critical factor: Everyone must buy into the concept. If one person falters, if one part of the team veers from the plan, the whole thing falls apart.
In order for a group of good players to accomplish more than seems possible on paper, they all have to be on the same page. They have to share a common mission. They have to be striving for a common goal.
For an example, consider the greatest upset in sports history. The 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team had no business competing with the vaunted Russian squad, but they were able to win because they performed as one cohesive unit. Team overcame talent.
But it doesn’t happen often. And it’s even more rare in the NBA.
Yet the Nuggets have spent the nearly two years since they traded Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks trying to convince everyone that it’s possible. They don’t need a go-to guy. They don’t need a finisher. They don’t need a superstar. They can win as a team.
But just when it started to look like it might be true, just when everyone in Denver was starting to believe that perhaps there was something to the theory of a team being better than a bunch of individuals, it began to unravel. And it came apart from within.
“You can’t win a championship (without a superstar); I don’t even think you can even advance in the playoffs without that marquee player.”
Those were the words of Andre Miller, the Nuggets backup point guard and one of the team’s supposed veteran leaders, in an interview with the Colorado Springs Gazette last week.
“I think we have enough here to play well during the (regular) season. The goal right now is to position ourselves for home-court advantage (in the playoffs). Maybe that will help; I’m not sure.”
Coming from a player in his 14th season, a guy who has seen his share of NBA battles, these comments carry a tremendous amount of weight. And they send one very clear message: The Nuggets are fighting a losing battle.
But it’s not for the reason Miller believes.
Denver isn’t facing an impossible mission because they don’t have a superstar. They have no chance because the key ingredient to their recipe is missing; everyone in their locker room isn’t buying into the concept.
Even with every player, coach and member of the front office on board, the Nuggets faced an uphill battle; they were defying a three-decade long trend. But at least they had a chance; at least there was hope.
Now, there’s little reason to believe playoff success is possible. The only thing making it possible – a collective belief that it could be done – is gone.
Ultimately, Andre Miller may prove to be prophetic. But his foresight will be of the self-fulfilled variety.
His doubt, and perhaps that of some teammates, is what’s standing in Denver’s way. That’s the Nuggets biggest hurdle.
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