BOSTON — The Denver Nuggets limped into town just before daylight. They had been on the road for a week and a half, hopscotching the country from Dallas to the Northeast via the Midwest on a brutal six-game road trip. By the time they arrived at the Garden, they were already without their two best players — Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic — and the injury list was about to claim another key performer in Will Barton.
Still, the Nuggets were feeling good about themselves after beating the Pistons just hours earlier. The victory gave them a chance to break even on the trip, and that had coach Michael Malone both concerned and hopeful.
“You’re coming into the last game of a road trip and sometimes you exhale,” Malone said. “When you exhale, you get your ass kicked. Understand that we have a chance to go 3-3 on the road trip, and I don’t think anybody gave us a snowball’s chance in hell of that happening with the injuries we’ve had.”
Let the record show that while the Nuggets didn’t beat the Celtics, they didn’t get their asses kicked. Led by Gary Harris, who scored a career-high 36 points, they managed to hang around for four quarters before Boston was finally able to put them away down the stretch.
Afterward, Malone noted his team’s resilience, not only on Wednesday night, but throughout the road trip. Still, the Nuggets are trying to break out of the moral victory business. It’s been five years since they made the playoffs and with Millsap signing as a free agent to pair with Jokic, the time to compete is now.
In the absence of his two stars, Malone has worked the roster up and down, giving minutes and chances to players on an incredibly deep team that is split almost evenly between young pups and salty vets. With Jokic set to return soon, decisions will have to be made about playing time.
“Some guys are taking advantage of that opportunity, and just as revealing, some guys are not taking advantage of that opportunity,” Malone said. “Minutes are not going to be given just because you think you deserve them. Minutes have to be earned. If you’re not playing well, those minutes are not going to be there anymore.”
In other words, it’s time to figure out who the Nuggets are and what they’re trying to become.
There are few mysteries left in the NBA. Why do the Wolves melt down in the fourth quarter so much? Answer: Their starters play too many consecutive minutes. How did the Spurs prosper without Kawhi Leonard? Answer: They tailored their offense through LaMarcus Aldridge and received phenomenal production.
Basketball may be a mystical experience on some level, but the secrets of the NBA are generally revealed to anyone who takes the time to look. There is one perplexing issue that remains, however: Are the Denver Nuggets any good?
“The team can be extremely good,” veteran sage Richard Jefferson, who comes off the bench for the Nuggets, said. “It’s less to do with other people and more with what we do as individuals. We have plenty of talent.”
At times, they have been excellent. Denver is almost unbeatable at home, and the Nuggets ran through a 7-2 stretch earlier in the season right before Millsap tore a ligament in his wrist that will keep him out for several months. Their offense, which excelled in the second half of last season, has remained potent even with the injuries.
At other times, they have not been good at all. Their road struggles have been so pronounced that winning two out of six on this trip constituted a positive step forward. The defense has been mediocre at best and downright awful on occasion.
Perhaps the right word for this team is inconsistent. Ten of their wins have been by double digits and so have eight of their losses. Those are not the qualities one associates with a playoff team, but the Nuggets are right in the thick of a Western Conference race that has yet to settle.
A third of the way through the season, we know who the top three teams will be at the end: Golden State, Houston, and San Antonio. Four-through-nine is anyone’s guess. After years of incremental progress, the Nuggets are not just happy to be included among the postseason contenders.
“Going into the year, we were excited about the potential this team had,” Malone said. “We felt that adding Paul Millsap would help us defensively and offensively he would be a seamless fit. How we play is how he played in Atlanta when they had the best team in the East. If we’re healthy, I think we’re a very competitive team in the Western Conference.”
Losing Millsap in mid-November was a cruel blow. His free-agent signing was heralded as a major event for a team that felt like it was ready to turn the corner. The timing was also unfortunate. After an initial adjustment period, he and Jokic appeared to find the right groove.
Millsap is not expected back until February at the earliest. The Nuggets have admirably held it together, splitting the dozen games that he’s missed. That was not a surprise to the four-time All-Star.
“Knowing the level of competitors that we have and the amount of talent that we have, I’ve been a little impressed, but not too impressed,” Millsap said. “These guys can play given an opportunity.”
Then Jokic went down with a sprained ankle, and that looked like an impending disaster. Enter Will Barton, aka Thrill Will, a 27-year-old jack of all trades. With a versatile game and a willingness to accept any role, Barton is the quintessential Nugget. He’s a proven scorer both inside and out, a tough rebounder, and has proved to be a willing playmaker in Jokic’s absence.
“He means everything,” Malone said. “That guy is a complete basketball player.”
Barton’s stellar play has helped the Nuggets survive, but survival is not what they ultimately have in mind. Their evolution begins and ends with Jokic. A wonderfully talented passer — think a young Bill Walton mixed with a dash of Jason Williams’ funk — Jokic is the alpha and the omega of this team.
Jokic needs to be seen to be truly appreciated, but his impact stretches far and wide. He’s the fulcrum around whom all the other pieces need to mesh. The question is who will step forward to claim those roles.
The roster as assembled by general manager Tim Connelly is full of wings, power forwards, and tweeners of all shapes and sizes. There is not a traditional point guard, or even a standard three-man, but the sheer amount of talent is obvious.
Take Jamal Murray, a 20-year-old in his second season from Kentucky. Murray can play, but where? He’s a combo guard in the classic sense, and he’s been tasked with handling point guard responsibilities next to Harris, who is an off-guard from central casting. Individually, they’re intriguing talents. Together, they’re a plus-10 per 100 possessions in various lineup configurations. It shouldn’t work, but it does.
It works in part because Millsap and Jokic are not only their two best players, but also their best passers. Around them are a collection of proven vets in Wilson Chandler, Mason Plumlee, and Kenneth Faried, along with recent first-rounders such as Trey Lyles and Juan Hernangomez.
The latter pair have yet to carve out substantial roles, although Lyles has shown flashes of potential. The logjam is so pronounced that this year’s first-rounder, Tyler Lydon, has played all of two minutes, and veteran Darrell Arthur has appeared in only four games. How this shakes out during the course of the season will go a long way toward defining what kind of team the Nuggets will actually be once everyone gets healthy.
The good news is that Jokic should be back soon. He warmed up before Wednesday’s game, but Malone elected to hold him out after a pregame conversation with his young star.
“I didn’t think he was ready,” Malone said. “They (the training staff) might say he’s ready. But talking to him, it’s not just, ‘Is his ankle ready?’ Is his head ready? I didn’t think he was ready to play tonight so I wanted to protect him. I made that decision.”
Now there’s a metaphor worthy of this enigma of a team. Are the Nuggets ready? We’re about to find out.