The Seesaw Effect

The Seesaw Effect

The year was 2013 (season of 2012/13):  The Denver Nuggets just won a franchise best 57 games and only lost 3 at the Pepsi Center.  A season good enough to lock up the 3rd seed in the NBA Western Conference and garner 2 very prestigious NBA honors; Executive of the year in Masai Ujiri and Head Coach of the year in George Karl.   Even after losing their best player, Danilo Gallinari, just a few games before the playoffs, it didn’t seem to shake the confidence that they would advance past the first round of the playoffs for only the second time since1993.  Ty Lawson’s speed, Wilson Chandler’s scoring, Kenneth Faried’s high flying energy and the skill set, leadership and star power of Andre Iguodala would certainly be enough to at least show some progress in the post season; progress the Nuggets fan base and front office desperately needed to see.  They were ready.

Their opponent?  The Golden State Warriors.  A team that hadn’t been to the playoffs since 2007.  Their young core of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and defensive juggernaut, Draymond Green were eager to prove they belonged in the postseason.  Head Coach Mark Jackson was the man tasked with welding these talented players together and he did a fine job of it as the Warriors piled up 47 wins.  Before 2012/13 Golden State had only managed 40 plus wins 3 times since 1994.  It was safe to say this new regime might just be the real deal.  All that being said the national consensus was that 2013 was not the year they would make any noise in the playoffs.

It was a strange series.  Game 1 was a complete shock as the Warriors nearly won in Denver which would have been rare as only 3 teams managed to win at the Pepsi Center that season.  It took a last second shot by Andre Miller to insure a 1-0 start against the underdog.  The next 3 games would not be so kind to Denver as they would find themselves down 3-1 in a series they were suppose to easily control.  Fans were getting frustrated and ticket sales slowed by the time game 5 rolled around.  Denver managed to win just 2 games in the series and the first round loss would set a series of moves in motion that would shape the Nuggets, for better or for worse for years to come.  The series win by Golden State launched the Warriors into stardom and forced their own front office to make some “next step” decisions.

The Warriors lost in the next round to the Spurs and in the first round the next season to the Clippers but they still felt strongly about their players.  So they parted ways with Mark Jackson, the man  responsible for getting the Warriors out of the Western Conference basement.  Enter Steve Kerr.  Even though he had no prior head coaching experience he was no stranger to championships and basketball strategy.  He won it all with the Warriors in his first season.  Then 2 more after that.  As an NBA head coach, he’s never missed a finals and has won 3 out of 4.  With Curry, Green, Thompson and free agent acquisitions Andre Iguodala and perhaps one of the best players of all time in Kevin Durant, the Warriors have created a dynasty the likes of which the NBA hasn’t quite seen before.  They may not be done either as they currently hold the #1 seed in the Western Conference with less than 10 games remaining on the schedule.  Is there no one that can challenge the superist (NEW WORD ALERT) of super teams?

Before Golden State became so Golden and eventually pulled off an upset over a #3 seed in the 2013 NBA playoffs, they had plenty of work to do.  For the Warriors, it started with the draft.  But what is so special about their process and perhaps a bit underrated is the fact they didn’t fill their roster with obvious future stars.  Stephen Curry was a first rounder, sure, but a 7th pick overall in 2009 wasn’t exactly a sure thing.  Klay Thompson came 2 years later and like Curry, was also a 1st round pick but he was taken at 11; even less of a sure thing than his fellow guard.  In 2012, Golden State found a unique talent in the 2nd round/35th pick named Draymond Green.  Nothing obvious about this crew.  After the 2012/13 season, the Warriors called on a former enemy in Andre Iguodala and managed to entice a consistent starter to leave Denver for a bench opportunity.  No easy task in the NBA; convincing a #1 depth chart guy to serve as a backup.  Later, he would win a finals MVP award in Kerr’s first title with the Warriors.  After losing to Cleveland in their second finals appearance, the Warriors called on one of the best to join their mission.  Since Kevin Durant sided with GS, they’ve won it all every season.

So while the Nuggets were content on just getting to the playoffs, the Warriors were building a super team that would win 3 out of the last 4 titles since 2015.  As GS was on the rise, Denver was about to tear it all down.  They fired their coach of the year, saw their executive of the year leave for greener pastures and one of their best players jump ship to the team that knocked them out of their last playoff appearance.  At first, the mile high crew thought they could simply change the man in charge.  Enter Brian Shaw.  Train wreck.  BUT it allowed Denver to start a process very, very similar to what Golden State was doing all those years ago.  Shaw’s Nuggets fell apart and it cost him his job.  He was fired with about 10-15 games left of his second season.  In the midst of the chaos, Tim Connelly, the man who took over when Ujiri left for Toronto, was quietly rebuilding Denver – brick by brick.  They did it without ever actually admitting they were in a rebuild.   One of the first attempts was a mild failure.  Emmanuel Mudiay was taken 7th in the 2015 draft but was soon replaced by the 2016 7th pick in Jamal Murray.  But it was the draft before Mudiay was taken that should prove to be the ultimate difference maker.   Denver drafted Doug McDermott but already traded the pick to Chicago and wanted the Bulls to go with the Michigan State star, Garry Harris.  Later in the second round (41st overall) the Nuggets found their diamond in the rough – Nikola Jokic, the 1st Nuggets all star since Mello.  It might not be a flashy BIG 3 but Denver built a very solid core in Jokic, Harris and Murray.  Like GS, they were abel to acquire a big name free agent in Paul Millsap.

So let’s get this straight;  The Warriors fired their coach because they didn’t think he was the right guy to get them to the next level.  The Nuggets did the same.  GS got their guy in the next hire with Kerr.  Denver had to go through Shaw first but it would appear now they they have their man (Mike Malone).  GS also once drafted a PG at pick #7.  Denver did that too.  The Warriors got another future star in the middle of a 1st round.  Again, the Nuggets mirrored that move.  GS later found a third all star in the second round. Again, copy and paste that move for the Nuggets.

Now here we are.  Denver will make their first playoff appearance since that historic 2012 season.  Are we seeing a replay?  Are the Nuggets on the rise while perhaps, after this season, Golden State will enter some adversity?  With Klay Thompson not in the books past this season and Kevin Durant staring at a player option, the future is certainly not as bright as it was 4 or 5 years ago.  Denver on the other hand has their all star locked up, their second best player in Harris locked up, Murray still in his rookie contract and Millsap for another season.  Funny how things (might) work out.  In 2012 these teams met and one was headed for greatness while the other was in the midst of destruction.  Now?  Golden State is still the team to beat until they prove otherwise.  But maybe we are seeing another elevator bypass, a changing of the guard, a seesaw effect.  Whatever you call it; the Denver Nuggets’ plan sure looks a lot like Golden States’…and we all know how that turned out.