It doesn’t seem that long ago, does it?
In 2012, the Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors two faced off in the first round of the playoffs – Denver as the fourth-seed after a franchise record 57 -win season and Golden State in the playoffs for the first time in five years.
We know what happened then. Golden State ended the Nuggets season and the George Karl era (et tu, Andre?). Since then, they’ve been on one of the most exciting teams in the NBA – and if their best in the league 32-6 record this year is any indication, a legitimate title threat.
The Nuggets, meanwhile, have been trending downwards, and Monday’s 122-79 loss to (no surprise) the Warriors might be the low water mark. Monday goes down as one of the worst losses in franchise history – as Chris Dempsey of the Denver Post points out, along with some illuminating quotes from head coach Brian Shaw about the level of effort he received from his team. Ty Lawson had 19 points and six assists. Jameer Nelson had 14 points and five assists. Those two, and maybe Alonzo Gee, were the only Nuggets who showed an ounce of effectiveness. Lawson led Denver’s starters with a +/- of -19. The Nuggets shot under 35 percent. Only 63 percent from the free throw line. The list goes on.
It’s no exaggeration to say the loss was the worst of the season. The Nuggets played poorly, Golden State played well, and it won’t be the last time the Warriors grind a team into oblivion at home. And it’s very easy to overreact to one loss and one victory. But Monday afternoon still served as a stark reminder of where the Nuggets sit in Western Conference hierarchy.
At 18-23 almost halfway into the season, a playoff berth looks like a virtual impossibility. Given that there are 12 teams right now with a worse record than Denver, so too does a decent shot at a top three lottery pick. The one-and-done teams of the tail end of the Karl-lead era have been replaced by the sub-.500 squads of the new one, but the Nuggets are still stuck in the same NBA purgatory. And just like last time the team felt static, a loss to Golden State might be the catalyst for change.
That’s all that makes sense at this point. It’s easy to suggest holding a fire sale, harder to pull it off. But the Nuggets don’t need to hold an open house. With the Timofey Mozgov trade, Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly has already shown he can be patient and pull off a deal with an eye on the long-term health of the franchise. He’s also spoken realistically about the Nuggets chances this season, and what that would mean for the future of the roster. The plan might already be in motion, but it’s past time to see evidence of it on the court.
It’s time to see Jusuf Nurkic play big minutes, including in the fourth quarter. It’s time for Ty Lawson to stop playing 37.2 minutes per-game, the fourth-highest mark(!) in the NBA. Hopefully that means a little more Gary Harris and Erick Green, even if it comes at the expense of the newly acquired Nelson. Nelson is a proven NBA-veteran with playoff experience and is more than capable of running an offense – a Shaw-style point guard in other words. But putting all the worry about the rotation and minutes aside, Shaw has a reputation – or at least he did when the Nuggets hired him – of nurturing young players. Leaning on rookies might lead to some ugly moments, but after Monday, how much worse can things get? Let’s see if he can develop the team’s rookies into a group that can fit around Lawson and Kenneth Faried. That should, if the franchise is realistic, be a more important part of his job description at the moment than the team’s final record.
It’s admirable that the Nuggets want to win right away. Yet things have gone awry. If the front office is working on a new plan, it would be nice to see it on display on the court, instead of the chaos that occurred against Golden State.
Two years ago, the Warriors and Nuggets crossed paths – one team ascending, the other slipping, even if it wasn’t obvious at the time. Who knows, in another two years, they could cross paths again. If there’s any silver lining to Monday’s loss, it’s that there’s only one direction for the Nuggets to go – up.