The Nuggets endured delayed debuts and numerous injuries to get to where they are today — the NBA Finals.
Patience: An ability or willingness to suppress restlessness or annoyance when confronted with delay, according to Dictionary.com.
It’s a quality that Denver Nuggets fans have practiced for as long as the franchise has existed. And while there were certainly times when the restlessness, annoyance, or straight-up anger at the team took centerstage, all of that is behind us with the Nuggets set to play in their first-ever NBA Finals against the Miami Heat.
It’s not that the revolving front office over the years hasn’t tried. In the 90s, they drafted Dikembe Mutombo and traded for Antonio McDyess. In the early 2000s, they drafted Carmelo Anthony and traded for a superstar teammate in Allen Iverson before sending Iverson to Detroit in exchange for Chauncey Billups two seasons later. But in between all of that? Journeyman players and periods of mediocrity, for the most part.
So excuse Nuggets fans for basking in the moment. The irony of it all is that while restlessness seemed to prevail recently, patience got the Nuggets to where they are today.
In an era in the NBA that demands immediate returns — leading to premature trades or requests — it’s almost a breath of fresh air to see Denver’s model of staying the course finding success.
Ahead of Game 1 on Thursday night, Boardroom breaks down how Denver has compiled a roster that required time to build. Not surprisingly, it all starts with two-time MVP Nikola Jokić.
Every one of Denver’s starters has required patience for the team to reap the benefits, but the biggest payout has been with Jokić. In hindsight, it’s easy to forget that Big Honey was drafted during a damn Taco Bell commercial in the second round of the 2014 NBA Draft.
First off, let’s take a moment to pay our respects to the quesarito, which Taco Bell recently discontinued. One of the better items on the menu for a time, it’s a travesty that the taco giant has decided to move away from a quality product.
More importantly, however, this was the genesis of Jokić’s career in Denver, and I’m not even sure the front office knew how good of a player they were getting in the Serbian. And they wouldn’t even get a glimpse at what the big man could do on an NBA court until the season after drafting him, as Jokić played one more season in the ABA, winning league MVP honors in the process. More waiting…
It wasn’t until 2015 that he donned a Nuggets uniform, and while he didn’t immediately put up nightly triple-doubles like he does these days, his efforts earned him a spot on the All-Rookie first team. The following season, the franchise got smart and made the decision to solely build around Jokić, trading Jusuf Nurkić and then-highly touted first-round pick Emmanuel Mudiay. But even then, it wasn’t a guarantee things would work out, with the front office, again, preaching patience.
Obviously, things more than worked out, with Jokić winning back-to-back MVPs (with many arguing he should have won a third consecutive award this year) and leading the team to an NBA Finals berth. From Taco Bell to answering the bell in the postseason, I’d bet Nuggets fans would be willing to go through the mid-to-late 2010s time and again to reach the end result of MVP Jokić.
Jamal Murry has been a stud since his high school days. A five-star prospect when he reclassified to play his lone collegiate season at Kentucky, Denver took Murray with the seventh pick of the 2016 NBA Draft. With fans eager to see what he can to, he didn’t exactly inspire confidence in the first few games of his pro career, evidenced by his quote below.
However, after canning his first triple, it didn’t take long for folks to see why Denver was so high on the electric guard, with his scoring output and shooting percentages improving nearly every season. He really burst onto the scene during the 2020 NBA Playoffs in the “bubble,” dueling with fellow guard Donovan Mitchell while averaging 31.6 points per game in a thrilling seven-game series. This was before Jokić really became Jokić and Murray was seemingly THE guy in Denver, despite the team falling in the conference finals in five games that year.
But then came the next season, which Murray was more than halfway finished with before tearing his ACL in April. He went on to have surgery and miss the postseason, then the entire 2021-22 campaign. It put the team’s and fans’ patience to the test. Even Murray himself was beginning to doubt if he’d be involved in Denver’s future plans.
Well, it’s a good thing Michael Malone and Co. held onto Murray because he’s making good on their decision this postseason. He’s returned to his 2020 form, averaging 27.2, 24.8, and 32.5 points per game, respectively, for the Nuggets in the three postseason series this year. In fact, despite missing the last two postseasons entirely, the Canadian has more postseason points than Carmelo.
Not too bad for “damaged goods,” eh?
Michael Porter Jr.
Similar to Murray, Michael Porter Jr. was in the spotlight from a young age. Maybe even more so, as MPJ was once viewed as a can’t-miss NBA prospect that teams would consider tanking for.
However, a lower back injury in college ultimately needed a microdiscectomy of his L3-L4 spinal discs. It led to Porter Jr. falling from the top spot to the Nuggets at No. 14 in the 2018 NBA Draft. The next month, the team announced he underwent a second back procedure, not only delaying his NBA career but also putting more doubt out there as to whether he would ever live up to his potential.
MPJ made his pro debut in the 2019-20 season, but really began to show his potential the next year. A man of his height (6-10) with the ability to stroke it from downtown at a 40%-plus clip? That’s tough to come by and Denver awarded him with a five-year, $172 million rookie extension.
However, fans grew worrisome when the very next season after paying him, MPJ’s back required a third surgery. He appeared in only nine games. Those worries were eased when he came back for the 2022-23 season healthy, appearing in 61 games and accepting a role that saw him as a perfect complement to his playmaking teammates.
Once again, patience paid off.
Rest of the Nuggets
The three players above tried the patience of fans and front office folks the most, but there were certainly other moves deemed questionable at the time.
- Trading draft capital for Aaron Gordon and then proceeding to hand him a four-year, $86.64 million contract extension just months after acquiring him from the Magic and without really knowing if the partnership was going to pay off.
- Trading well-liked and productive players in Monté Morris and Will Barton for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. (Ironically, KCP was part of a win-now trade with the Los Angeles Lakers for Russell Westbrook the previous season.)
- Signing Bruce Brown, who had a productive couple of seasons with the Brooklyn Nets but was certainly a gamble in a crowded backcourt.
(One notable omission from the above list that helps further paint the picture of Denver’s patience over the years: acquiring Bol Bol on draft night in 2019, despite the polarizing prospect having a foot injury that led to his slide to the second round.)
All of these moves have paid off for the Nuggets. And this isn’t to say that trading for the best players and operating in win-now mode can’t work. But in an age of immediate returns and overreactions, it’s nice to see a team reap the benefits of staying the course with the core players it set out to compete with.
To echo a phrase another team famously coined, the Nuggets trusted the process, and now they’re seeing the results.
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