The first round of the playoffs ended yesterday, and for the first time in a long time, the Denver Nuggets weren’t prematurely eliminated. Of course, to be eliminated, they had to have been in the playoffs, a feat at which they failed spectacularly this year.
It’s quite the reversal of fortune from last season in which the Nuggets won a franchise-record 57 games, evolving from a hodgepodge, discombobulated roster to a dark-horse title contender. But this is what happens when an owner becomes dissatisfied with the status quo, however successful it may be, and suddenly decides adjustments are in order.
Making sweeping changes to a meticulously constructed foundation because of an Aristotelean confluence of events – Danilo Gallinari tearing his ACL just before the playoffs, ruining Denver’s rotation without ample adjustment time; Draymond Green sporting a 70% effective field goal percentage and Steph Curry shooting approximately 600% on pull-up three-pointers – is a mark of impatience; the urge to Do Something even though nothing needed to be done.
The Nuggets enjoyed immense success under George Karl, and while he only made it out of the first round once, leading the Nuggets to the Western Conference Finals in 2009, ten straight years in the playoffs is a status quo that would thrill most teams. Yet success is so often oddly measured in the NBA. After a while, “consistently making the playoffs” gets reframed as “consistently gets knocked out of the first round.”
Why last year’s first-round exit was what finally induced the reframe, at least in the mind of Kroenke, is uncertain. Money, the usual culprit, certainly played a part, as Karl wanted a new contract and Masai Ujiri, freshly minted as the Executive of the Year, received a godfather offer from the Toronto Raptors.
Perhaps Kroenke no longer believed in the vision of Ujiri and Karl. If that’s the case, then the problem isn’t that Kroenke went too far in letting the Executive and Coach of the Year walk, it’s that he didn’t go far enough. It would be one thing if Kroenke had razed the foundation to the ground. Instead, it was more like he fired one set of contractor and architect, then hired another to come in and build on top of it.
Unfortunately, this roster didn’t fit the ideals of the new contractor, Brian Shaw. It was built for speed, not size, something Shaw took a bit too long to realize. Injuries certainly played a part in their woeful season, but any team that relies on JaVale McGee as a cornerstone is in dire need of self-reflection.
Maybe it was a mandate from Kroenke to not go into a full rebuild, or maybe sacrificing the present for a better future isn’t in Tim Connelly’s managerial ethos. Either way, the Nuggets find themselves in the exact situation they hoped to avoid: out of the playoffs, no cap flexibility, and a roster ill-fit to its coach’s desires. It’s true we have yet to see what a fully healthy Nuggets team looks like under Brian Shaw. But with the lack of attractive assets and limited cap flexibility, next year’s roster will likely look exactly the same as their current iteration. And where does that leave them? Little more than first-round fodder – the exact fate the organization hoped to avoid.