While watching the NBA Conference Finals, it’s hard to see much of the Denver Nuggets in any of the remaining teams. Sure, the names of former Nuggets litter the rosters: J.R. Smith, Andre Iguodala, Nene, Mike D’Antoni and JaVale McGee. But the current Nuggets don’t strongly resemble any of the four teams.
The Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors all have one thing that the Nuggets are struggling to find as a franchise: each team operates with a plan in mind, organized around principles set forth by the front office, and executed by the coach.
The Nuggets don’t have a plan that is easy to identify.
The Nuggets’ current cap salary situation hints at disorganization. The Nuggets have spent so much on other players that keeping Nikola Jokic is not guaranteed. Their best bench player, Will Barton, is a goner because of salary cap issues. The current situation will likely keep the Nuggets from improving in the offseason with free-agent signings.
The roster’s construction itself is perplexing—another sign of a team without a plan. They spent a lot of money on long-term contracts for veterans who never did or no longer contribute significantly to the team’s success. They also have young players who are not yet at a stage in their development where they can help the team enough to play regularly.
The Nuggets also have on-court problems. The flow of the team has been an inconsistent compromise that hasn’t always put Jokic as the centerpiece of the game. Lastly, coach Michael Malone seems to have trouble communicating with his players at times and managing his rotation.
It’s clear that the Nuggets are keeping the hand they have with a front office run by Tim Connelly and Artūras Karnišovas overseeing Malone. So the changes will have to be pushed by this group. While watching each team in the NBA Final Four, the Nuggets can take a lesson on how to build the foundation of an organizational plan—since acquiring the assets will be tricky.
The Warriors’ Way
The Nuggets would benefit from a team culture like what Steve Kerr has created for the Warriors. Kerr played for Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich. He played with Michael Jordan and Tim Duncan. He was a general manager overseeing D’Antoni. If anyone could learn to keep the peace on a talented roster, it’s Kerr. It’s a marvel to watch him pull it off.
Kerr is good at deflecting attention away from the players and onto himself to let them occupy their own space. His comments on social issues and his lighthearted nature on basketball issues allows players to take the spotlight only when they want to say something. Kerr empowers his players to have conversations among themselves and figure things out on their own.
If the Nuggets were to focus purely on culture, the Warriors have the blueprint. Foster an open communication style between players and coaches where the coach is always thinking in terms of putting his players in the best mindset to win.
The Rockets’ Way
The Rockets were built for coach Mike D’Antoni because his style best facilitated Houston’s star, James Harden. D’Antoni took the pieces he had and adjusted his system where necessary. The Rockets’ run-and-shoot style helped them secure the top seed in the West.
The Nuggets could work on creating a two-way street between the players and coach with a system that finds players whose strengths fit with how the coach wants the team to play. It would create a blueprint for a ‘Nuggets style’.
The Cavaliers’ Way
The Cavaliers take the Warriors plan one step forward. They have outfitted themselves as a team ready to evolve to meet the needs of LeBron James in order to win a championship.
For the Nuggets to follow this approach, they would need to cater to the skills of their top players. Every decision would help Jokic, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris get better.
This strategy makes sense if the Nuggets believe that they have a core that can develop into superstar talent. This modified strategy would hopefully help that core like Cleveland does with James.
The Celtics’ Way
To do things the Celtics’ way, the Denver Nuggets will have to evolve. The Celtics appear to be in a category with only the New England Patriots in the NFL. This year, the Celtics pulled off great trades, signed big free agents and drafted well. Coach Brad Stevens obviously makes players better. Stevens adapts his strategy to exploit opponents’ weaknesses and amplify his player’s strengths He sees both sides of the chess board—like Bill Belichick.
I would love for the Nuggets to emulate the Celtics. The Avalanche, Rockies and Broncos should also become like the Celtics.
This is the best way to run a franchise. Unfortunately, the Nuggets and almost every other pro franchise can’t figure out how to make this work.