The Denver Nuggets are suddenly steering their way through uncharted waters.
After over five years comprised of rebuilding the roster, reconfiguring the play style, overhauling the front office, developing a stronger culture, bettering the national understanding of the team, two different head coaches, and entirely rebranding the franchise, it is finally time for Denver to reintroduce itself to playoff basketball and that is exactly what the expectation is from Josh Kroenke, the Vice Chairman of Kroenke Sports and Entertainment.
“Jersey or no jersey, playoffs are a firm goal of ours next year; and making noise in those playoffs once we get there,” Kroenke confidently stated after the release of the complete rebrand of the Nuggets.
This creates a very interesting situation that could alter this era of Nuggets basketball entirely.
All of last year, from training camp until exit interviews, president of basketball operations Tim Connelly and head coach Michael Malone were in lockstep as they promoted the goal of the 2017-18 season as improvement, and not a playoff berth. Now, for the first time in the past five years, there are very real expectations set on the Nuggets franchise and if those expectations are not met, there also could be undeniably real repercussions.
Malone is entering the final year of his contract as head coach of the Nuggets and now needs to prove he can get this Denver team to the playoffs — something he has never done as a head coach in the NBA. Malone is essentially coaching for an extension to continue as the head coach of the Nuggets beyond this upcoming season.
Connelly, who sources tell Mile High Sports has been a supporter of Malone, will also feel some pressure. For years, Connelly has had the buoyancy of his phenomenal work finding talent through the draft such as Gary Harris, Nikola Jokic, and Jamal Murray. While it is without a doubt true that the Nuggets would not be in the position of potential success without the drafting acumen of Connelly, it is now time for him to prove that he can make a similar savvy moves throughout free agency and through the use of trades to better the roster in ways it needs it most — particularly on defense.
The Nuggets are in the cusp of building a team that can be truly frightening, and it is time for all the parts to come together resulting in a playoff berth. Nothing else will be accepted as a passing grade. The Nuggets franchise is now in a playoff-or-bust situation.
Taking the next step into playoff relevance will not be easy either. There are very few players on the Nuggets roster who have taken this step before. Being that the Nuggets are likely to lose both Richard Jefferson and Devin Harris to unrestricted free agency, there are very few players on the roster with any real experience participating in the playoffs. Of the players expected to be on the Nuggets’ roster next year, only five have played actual minutes in the the postseason — two of which are not expected to be in the rotation at all and another who could be off the roster entirely once free agency kicks off.
Both Kenneth Faried and Darrell Arthur have played a combined 40 playoff games, but are likely to be non-factors in the looming playoff pursuit after falling completely out of the rotation last season. Wilson Chandler has played in 10 playoff games over two years, but he has a player option that he could choose to opt out of if he wants to sign on a contender looking for a strong and switchable wing. Still, Chandler has 11 playoff games under his belt and played 29.1 minutes per playoff game. He would be helpful in a playoff environment. Trey Lyles has also played in two playoff games, but logged just ten total minutes of playing time so he cannot be relied on to help steer the ship when the going gets tough.
That leaves Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee as the only two players on the Nuggets roster with any tangible playoff experience that can be relied on and who will also be on the roster by the start of the 2018-19 NBA season — barring any major surprises. Millsap has over 2,500 playoff minutes logged spanning over nine seasons while Plumlee participated in 27 playoff games during his time as the starting center in Portland. That is not necessarily a fruitful well of playoff understanding and experience for the younger players on the roster to drink from outside of Millsap.
Still, regardless of any circumstance, Kroenke has playoff expectations and that is the end of the conversation. He feels it is time to take the next step, and there is no argument to be made to dissuade him — and rightfully so.
“Without a doubt,” Kroenke said without any hesitation when asked if playoffs are the goal for the 2018-19 season. “We are going to see how things evolve over the draft and free agency, but the playoffs — we felt that we should have been there not this past season, but the year prior. We fell one game short this year, but we also fell one game short a year ago. These guys have a sizable chip on their shoulder.”
Kroenke clearly is no longer interested in just simply seeing improvement from the start of the season to the conclusion of the year. Instead, it is time for the results to catch up with the talent that has been assembled and paid for. That is not to say that he doesn’t understand that the young roster still has maturing to do.
An important point to make is that Kroenke has been heavily involved with the Nuggets organization and was even in Minnesota on for the Denver’s de facto play-in playoff game on the final day of the regular season. He understands the context surrounding his team and is not acting in any random fashion. This is the exact opposite of a rouge owner making arbitrary decisions. He has spent the necessary time to fully understand the team and where they need to go from here. Think of this new firm goal of making the playoffs as more of a nudge in a certain direction as opposed to an all-out threat — which it is not meant to be.
This perspective played itself out when Kroenke was explaining his feelings after watching Denver fall to the Timberwolves on the final day of the regular season to eliminate the Nuggets from the playoffs. While “disappointment” was the first word out of his mouth, it was the positivity that he explained afterwards that was really telling.
“Disappointment,” Kroenke said as he explained his feelings after losing on the final day of the season to miss the playoffs by just a single game for the second year in a row. “I think that it is healthy to feel disappointment in the moment of what you are dealing with, but Tim, Arturas, coach Malone, and I were very encouraged by particular facets of what was going on on the court as the big moments unfolded. What you saw was a couple of guys; particularly, I’ll name Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray who are some of our younger players that we hope to keep around here for a long time, they did not shy away from the moment — they actively sought out that moment. Those guys — it is a unique thing that comes with athletes when they seek out the big moments, and to have guys like that on our team will only benefit us going forward when those big moments do come in the playoffs.”
That wasn’t the only positive that Kroenke took away from the 82nd and final game of the regular season either. It was also his franchise cornerstone — Nikola Jokic — who gave Kroenke even more reason for excitement when looking to the future.
“To see Nikola out there embracing the moment but also being knocked back a bit only gives me more excitement because I think that he will learn from it knowing the player he is and the person he is,” Kroenke explained. “I have seen him make adjustments in-game as players are guarding him. I think — as he gains experience, gets in better shape, and grows into his body — the sky is the limit for Nikola.”
While the potential losses of Barton, Torrey Craig, and Chandler without direct replacements will clearly set the Nuggets back, that has not changed Kroenke’s outlook on the future of this team.
When Kroenke was thinking about what could have been if Millsap does not have to have his wrist surgically repaired or Gary Harris not hurting his knee late in the year, Kroenke sees the form of not just a playoff team, but a team that has the talent to earn home-court advantage as well as reach 50 wins for the first time since the infamous 2012-13 season that resulted in a franchise-best 57 wins.
“We are sitting here with the narrative that we just missed out but I am also very confident in this group because I can sit here and tell you guys that, without an injury or two, I think we are firmly the three-seed in the West and we’ve won 50 games,” Kroenke said. “That is with the group that we currently have without any internal improvement or outside additions. We are very confident in the group we have.”
This is no longer a Nuggets team that should be considered up-and-coming. From this point forward, the Nuggets are operating as a playoff team and as a team looking to win at all costs. The only real discussions are if the team can live up to Kroenke’s expectations and what will happen if they fall short.
Regardless, the upcoming Nuggets’ season will be a defining year for this new era of Denver basketball and the reverberations will be felt for years to come. Get ready for a hyper-intense 2018-19 season.