Mark Knudson’s 3 Strikes: Avalanche still have work to do, Gordon is still RB1 for the Broncos, Nuggets should bring in Sue Bird

Jun 18, 2022; Denver, Colorado, USA; Colorado Avalanche players celebrate a goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the third period of game two of the 2022 Stanley Cup Final at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Strike One: The Colorado Avalanche may be – appear to be – an unstoppable force, rolling downhill at breakneck speed toward a Stanley Cup parade through downtown. But as the man once said, it aint over ‘till it’s over.

You can bet that’s what the Avs coaching staff and front office believe right now. They’re taking nothing for granted.

After destroying the defending Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning 7-0 to take a 2-0 series lead, Avs faithful can be excused for feeling like a coronation is only days away. However, inside the organization and in the locker room, the team is taking note that the Lightning were down 2-0 in their last series against New York. Tampa hasn’t been the most successful team in the NHL over the past three years because they lay down and quit when they’re behind.

Remember, experts like to say a series doesn’t really get started until a road team wins a game. That means that in Game 3 in the Sunshine State, the Avs can effectively start and pretty much end the series the same night. Win Game 3 in Tampa, and Colorado will have short circuited the Lightning. Hard to envision any team on this planet beating the Avalanche four straight times, including twice at rollicking Ball Arena. So Game 3 is pivotal to both squads, not just the guys who are trailing in the series.

This is the spot where coaching a team full of star players becomes almost more difficult than trying to squeeze out all you can out of a limited roster (the way Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone had to do this past season.) Avs head coach Jared Bednar has to keep his star studded roster focused on staying aggressive and not letting up before they’ve truly secured the series. There are plenty of distractions out there. Tampa’s going to be a wild and crazy place. Maybe not as outright dangerous as dealing with the crazies in St. Louis, but certainly more so than Edmonton was during the Avs Western Conference Finals sweep. While it’s fine to take satisfaction in what they’ve already accomplished – which is one of the most dominating runs in NHL playoff history – the job isn’t finished, and that message is being driven home again and again by coaches and team leaders during their “business class” trip to Florida.

You can just imagine what New York Rangers fans were feeling during the Eastern Conference Finals when they had Tampa down 2-0. There were Rangers fans already looking ahead to playing the Avalanche, wondering how they were going to be able to slow down MacKinnon and company.

They never got the chance. Looking too far ahead can force you to take your eyes off the more immediate goal.

You can rest assured the Avalanche coaches aren’t letting the players make that same kind of mistake.

Strike Two: Like it or not, Melvin Gordon was the Denver Broncos best running back a season ago. Go ahead and look it up. Bringing him back for 2022 was a no-brainer.

Yes, last year’s rookie sensation Javonte Williams was – and is – a wonderful young talent who showed tremendous upside and could become the starter and a Pro Bowler in the not too distant future. He became a fan favorite with his relentless running style, leading many to dismiss Gordon and label him as dispensable.

Not so fast folks. In 2021, Gordon had more yards (918 to 903) and an ever so slightly better yard per carry average than the hyped rookie. He scored more touchdowns (10 to 7) too. Ironically, both Gordon and Williams had exactly 203 rushing attempts last season.

And while his staunchest critics love to point at Gordon’s fumbles – as ill-timed as they were last season – he put it on the ground just three times in 231 touches. Williams dropped the ball twice himself. Not a big difference there. Five total fumbles between them in 477 touches. You’d like that number to be closer to zero of course, but it’s not terrible, either.

They are clearly best as a tandem – a one-two punch, regardless of who’s getting the first or last carry. Combined they had almost 2,000 yards rushing for a conservative (at best) offense last season. In the era of rotating running backs, the two Broncos were among the best pairs in the NFL. Still, almost to a man/woman/child, Broncos Country wants – expects – Williams to be the man this season.

It’s actually a mystery as to why so many folks want to show Gordon the door. More importantly, why does Gordon himself make decisions – like skipping voluntary offseason workouts – that add fuel to the fire and set him back? Gordon says he’s “not going to lay down” in the competition, and badly wants to be the starter again, which is great. Says he’ll prove himself worthy. Fine. But during a time he could have been immersed in new HC Nathaniel Hackett’s playbook, he was a no-show. He’s already placed himself in distant second in the RB1 derby going into training camp in the eyes of most who follow the team.

Perhaps Gordon needs that extra motivation. Perhaps the former first-round draft pick and two-time Pro Bowler needs to feel like an underdog in order to bring out his best. Broncos fans should hope that’s the case, that a highly motivated Gordon comes to Dove Valley really ready to rumble. That’s because the combo of Gordon and Williams is Denver’s best chance for success in Hackett’s new-look offense.

Strike Three: The Denver Nuggets promoted from within when team president Tim Connelly left for Minnesota. Calvin Booth got promoted to that position after taking over as general manager in 2021, but who replaced him as the assistant GM?

Technically, that gig became the property of young Tommy Balcetis, a native of Lithuania who has been with the team in an analytics role for the past decade. He too, was promoted from within. But that means there’s still one less front office executive at Nuggets HQ than there was when Connelly was still around. There’s a job that needs to be filled.

Ironically, it’s Connelly who has already provided Denver an up close and first-hand look at the right person to be added to the front office mix: It’s retiring WNBA legend Sue Bird.

Back in 2019, before the pandemic threw everything off course, Connelly had the foresight to invite Bird to be a temporary part of the Nuggets front office during the WNBA offseason. He gave her the title of “Basketball Operations Associate” and put her to work doing some scouting, draft analysis and even a little bit of point guard coaching. She was still an active player of course, so her role had to be limited, but it gave her a taste of what a front office gig would be like, and by all accounts she liked it and was good at it.

Bird announced her retirement last week, after 19 seasons as a member of the Seattle Storm. She’s won four championships and five Olympic Gold medals. Her accolades stretch the length of her arm, including winning multiple championships overseas. Now she’s about to embark on Chapter Two. Could that start in Denver?

There was just the one front office partial season with the Nuggets in 2019, because the pandemic forced everything to change the following year. Now Bird, arguably the best player in WNBA history, is on the verge of hanging up her Air Jordan’s in a few weeks and choosing what post-playing days career path she’d like to follow. She could go into broadcasting (the easiest path of course) coaching or front office work. The only thing she is reportedly locked in on is that she plans on remaining involved in the game.

The Nuggets could make that happen by offering Bird a well-paying, full-time front office position, like, yesterday.

Nothing against Balcetis, who has provided valuable analytical data to the team. But the Harvard grad’s playing experience is very limited, and it could be very valuable for the organization to also have someone with Bird’s on-court expertise and playing experience available to help Booth and the coaching staff.

This isn’t about getting a pat on the back for hiring a female front office executive. Bird would not be the first female NBA exec. Instead, it would be about hiring the best person available for an important job, a person with incredible basketball acumen and communication skills. It would be about bringing in a set of eyes with a perspective that’s rare – if not unique – in the NBA. It could help the Nuggets win. That’s the only thing that matters.

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