• The uphill climb in the West is a perilous one. Given that top-heavy setup, can teams like the Nuggets survive and prosper?
By Andrew Sharp
September 20, 2017

On Monday, the Nuggets signed Mason Plumlee to a 3-year, $41 million extension. That news came with Adrian Wojnarowski's report that over the next few weeks they will continue to work on an extension with Gary Harris, who may command up to $20 million-per-year on a new deal. Over the summer, Denver signed Paul Millsap to a three-year, $90 million deal.

And all this comes after Nikola Jokic emerged last year as one of the most intriguing young players in the NBA. He'll be due a max contract sometime within the next two years. For now, the whole team is entering the new year with a dangerous combination of real hope, and very real expectations. So as everyone gets paid and the future comes into focus, it seems like a good time to ask: Can this work?

I'm conflicted. There are reasons to love what the Nuggets are doing. There are also reasons to worry.

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First, the love. In many ways the current version of the Nuggets is the platonic ideal of the NBA cult favorite. Dreaming about the Nuggets in the abstract gives you all kinds of possibilities and strange pieces to work with, and while most well-adjusted humans do not have passionate Juancho Hernangomez takes, that fact only makes this team more appealing to League Pass diehards. There are also great throwbacks, there is a coach who used Rosetta Stone to yell at his center in Serbian, and a snakebitten franchise history that's make them more endearing. Again, we're checking all the hipster boxes here. But I think the big difference in Denver is that this team's actually as fun to watch as they are to think about. 

Unlike other cult heroes of the past few years—Sixers, Bucks, Wolves, or Lakers—as of last December the Nuggets became a team of intriguing young players who actually fit together. They have cool young weapons and reliable veterans, with an offense that can put up 130 points without blinking. And when it clicks, it's a show with a mass appeal. Even fans who don't care about Malik Beasley's D-League numbers can bug out watching Jokic do a Magic Johnson impression at 260 pounds:

With Jokic as the catalyst, the Nuggets were transformed over the final four months of last season. They came within a game of the playoffs. Their offense was a dizzying array of back-door cuts and threes, and while they couldn't really guard anyone, on a lot of nights it didn't matter.

This year should be better. Millsap will help solidify the defense, while the passing and spacing he provides on the other end should keep the offense close to as outrageous as it was last year. The Emmanuel Mudiay starting point guard experiment appears to be mercifully winding down, and the "But maybe we should start Jusuf Nurkic?" experiment that colored the first month of last season won't happen again. Jamal Murray should have every opportunity to break out in Year 2. Harris is healthy, and when Harris returned to the starting lineup last year, he was awesome. There's a lot to like.

They still have delightful veteran bucket-getters to fill out the rotation (Wilson Chandler, Will Barton), Jameer Nelson as a steadying hand in the backcourt, and Hernangomez as a jolt of energy off the bench. All of this should translate to more winning this year, and probably a playoff spot.

Rocky Widner/Getty Images

But I'm worried, too. If playoffs are the standard by which this team will be judged, weaknesses will matter more than long-term potential this year. In that case, the point guard position is an issue. Murray is still pretty raw, Nelson is pretty old, and Mudiay is consistently frustrating. I'm worried that I'm going to spend the entire NBA season wishing that Milos Teodosic had signed here instead of L.A.

I'm also worried about paying Plumlee like he's a starter. Likewise, with no less than five power forwards on the roster, it'll be interesting to see whether they can trade Kenneth Faried after 18 months of trying. But these are admittedly petty concerns.

There are two worries that go beyond this season.

1. I may spend the next five years intermittently wondering what the Nuggets were thinking during the 2017 draft. They traded the 13th pick to Utah for Trey Lyles and Tyler Lydon, and it's perplexing for a few different reasons. It added two mediocre power forward prospects who struggle on defense to a team that needed defensive reinforcements more than offense. It also added two power forwards to a team that was about to spend $90 million on Millsap. And finally, it meant forsaking the chance to draft Donovan Mitchell, who responded by lighting up summer league two weeks later.

Six months later, can anyone explain where Lydon and Lyles fit in the Denver rotation? And can you imagine how much more exciting the Nuggets future would look with Mitchell slotted in next to Harris and Murray?

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2. The Nuggets have good young players that they've surrounded with good veterans. This is how team-building should work. But they're in the West. The top half of the conference is loaded, and I'm not sure that will change over the next few years. The Wolves are coming, the Rockets reload every year, the Warriors will be around for a decade. Even if you talk yourselves into an OKC collapse or the Spurs finally taking a step back in a few years, the Lakers are a sleeping giant that could always leapfrog everyone.

In that case, as Denver pays Plumlee and Millsap $130 over the next three years, considers Harris at anywhere from $15-20 million-per-year, and waits to max out Jokic ... that core is good enough to keep them out of the lottery. But is it good enough to contend and attract one more star over the next few years? If not, how does Denver ever crack the top half of the playoff bracket?

It's fine and probably smart to enjoy what the Nuggets have built thus far and what could they do this year. Jokic is good enough to make the whole league pay attention. No need to overthink it. I just can't look at this team without thinking about Gordon Hayward bailing on a good Utah situation, or Kyrie Irving pushing his way to Boston instead of entertaining the uphill battles in Denver, and how impossible it must feel to try building a contender in the West.

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The Wolves appear to be on the brink of solving that riddle, sure. But the Minnesota blueprint took three top five picks and 13 years outside the playoffs. The Thunder needed three top five picks of their own, and even then it got complicated by mistakes that will haunt them for decades. The Warriors are a success story, obviously. They were able to navigate this landscape by drafting a Hall of Fame point guard and getting everything else exactly right, sometimes by accident. They landed Andre Iguodala when their pursuit of Dwight Howard failed, they guessed right on the Klay Thompson-Kevin Love trade, and then a David Lee injury turned into Draymond Green and a smallball revolution.  

The Nuggets have done most things right, and the roster is filled with players every basketball nerd can love. But even if you think Jokic is a future superstar, there aren't many other players who look like obvious All-Star counterparts. And how does anyone contend in the West without two or three stars? How does a young team grow up when they're surrounded on all sides by full grown killers? And if "get historically lucky and get everything right" is the blueprint for West team-building? 

The Nuggets will be all kinds of fun on the court this season, but beyond that, the future looks treacherous. If we're betting on the Denver ever contending with this nucleus, the smart money probably says no. 

Then again, that's one more reason they are perfect cult heroes. Everyone loves an underdog.

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