The Western Conference is good. Ridiculously good. I’d wager that nearly each of the Western conference playoff teams would beat all but 3 Eastern Conference playoff teams in a best of 7 series. The Spurs are reloading after slowly losing their legendary stars over the past few years, Donovan Mitchell and the Utah Jazz look to be a constant post season threat and the obvious contenders like Portland, Houston and even a Kevin Durant-less Golden State won’t be bowing out any time soon. So with a conference as loaded as the West, why would anyone be so confident the Nuggets will win it all next season? Time. That’s it. It was the same story for the Warriors and it will be the same for Denver. Other than GS, Denver has the best roster position by position and with the question marks surrounding KD, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green the Mile High crew might soon have the best group of players in the NBA. Yes, Houston has 2 super stars. OKC has 2 superstars, Portland has 2 star guards and a healing stud big man but 1 through 5 and 3 deep on the bench, The Denver Nuggets are in a great spot to climb the ranks yet again and next time, they could and should win it all.
Golden State didn’t become champs over night. In fact, they suffered second and first round exits in Steph Curry and company’s first 2 years in the playoffs. At their best they run their offense with such fluidity it almost looks too easy. That didn’t happen over night. Even their misses look planned as their shooters can time out shots with where the offensive rebounders are, giving them more confidence to take long 3’s. That comes from years of practice, developing chemistry and working on every possible thing that might come up in big playoff game. Knowing your teammates moves, with good teams, is nearly as important as knowing your own. Take Curry for example. He works through screens and switches in order to get open. While he’s finding his spot, you’ll often see Warriors bigs get into position for an offensive rebound. Curry has the skill set to pump fake and take a solid shot but almost more importantly, he pump fakes, allowing his bigs an opportunity to board. That’s a small detail they’ve utilized in the Portland series and it’s paid off in a big way. All that takes time.
Nikola Jokic thinks like the Warriors do or rather, he thinks like the coaches that perfect their offense. As our Nuggets insider Chris Dempsey of Altitude TV said, “Jokic is such a basketball purist he truly doesn’t care how the baskets are scored.” Whatever it takes to get the ball in the hoop, the Joker will find a way. If he feels his free throw line extended shot has about a 40% chance of going in at the time, he’ll search for a cutter, an open corner or the assist to the assist (Should they start tracking that stat?) His teammates are learning his tendencies too. Gary Harris, Jamal Murray and Will Barton know that if they move around offensively, they will likely get the ball in an easy scoring position. 82 games seems like a lot, but in order to truly know a teammates tendencies, strengths, weaknesses and what makes them tick, you need 4, 5 or even 6 years to do what Golden State has done. Sure, LeBron James can take a team to a title with only a year or 2 of “togetherness” but there aren’t exactly James’, Jordan’s and Bryant’s growing on trees. As much as we talk about 1 or 2 stars needed for a title, nearly half of the championships in the past 20 years have come from team oriented groups. Since 1999, The Warriors and the Spurs combined have 8 titles. Those teams drafted their stars, worked with them and integrated others around what worked best for 2 or 3 studs. Not many people called the Spurs a Big 3 type team. But that’s exactly what they were. It just wasn’t as headline worthy as LeBron going to Miami or Boston’s Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. San Antonio was unselfish and played within the system. Golden State’s 3 point fame makes them a bit more noticeable and perhaps more famous but like San Antonio, the Warriors play within a system and for the most part are very unselfish. I’m beginning to think that championships aren’t bought as much now days…they are grown with a sprinkle of free agency to take a team over the top.
Enter the Denver Nuggets. Tim Connelly found a diamond in the rough in Jokic but once they determined he was a star, it was time to build around him and insure those already in place could work within the necessary system. Jamal Murray is becoming a top PG before our eyes while Gary Harris is one of the best defensive players in the NBA. At 23, 23, and 21, Jokic, Harris and Murray can only get better next season. Sure sounds like the makings of a Big 3 to me. Like those 1999-2014 Spurs and what we’ve seen with the Warriors since 2015, Denver has built a team through the draft, found a star or 2 and a coach (Mike Malone) that can get the best out of the individual.
KD will not be a Warrior next season. Klay Thompson and Green want to get big time money. Chris Paul (Houston) isn’t getting any younger and the Spurs, while getting better, just don’t look to be a championship contender with the current makeup of their roster. Portland is at their ceiling. Even with Jusuf Nurkic back from injury next season, the Trail Blazers likely won’t find it’s way into the top 3 in the West any time soon. So while the West is still very good, it’s getting older and its stars are spreading out. The Nuggets are just about to hit their championship window with their main guys very much intact. Hold onto your butts boys and girls. The Mile High crew is title bound in 2020 and that won’t be the last for the Joker and his pals.