It was a warm day in June 2013 when the Denver Nuggets made the difficult decision to fire George Karl, the 2012/2013 NBA Coach of the Year. Nuggets President, Josh Kroenke, made the call to move on from a coach who just won 57 games, but failed to get past the first round of the playoffs. Since he was hired in 2005, Karl led the Denver Nuggets to the playoffs every year but only made it past the first round once. Karl was commended for his work in Denver and even more so when he didn’t miss a beat after Mello bailed for New York. But simply making it into the playoffs was just not good enough. Not in a city that will only shift its focus from the Broncos if the word “championship” is uttered. So the Nuggets went looking for a guy that could bring them past the first round, a guy that could choreograph a half court offense, something Karl’s up tempo Nuggets only really had when Chauncey Billups played point guard. Oh yeah, one more thing; The Nuggets would also be in the market for a new lead executive as Masai Ujiri, the 2012/2013 NBA Executive of the year (Man it was a great season for Denver…damn Warriors), would leave Denver for the Toronto Raptors. Yes, Denver was taking a big risk; stay the course with Karl and you’d probably keep making it into the playoffs but remain very much a middle of the road team. Fire Karl and enter the unknown….scary times awaited.
The first thing the Nuggets did was hire the previous assistant GM in New Orleans, Tim Connelly. Kroenke wanted a guy he felt comfortable working with hand in hand, and when the time came, turn over more and more responsibility. So what would the new GM of the Denver Nuggets do first?
Enter Brian Shaw; a guy that played with Kobe Bryant and helped coach him. A guy that assisted one of the hottest teams in the Eastern Conference at the time in the Pacers. A guy that, most importantly was supposed to bring a sense of control to this offense. Well…no need to rehash everything. After nearly 2 seasons in Denver, Brian Shaw was fired after going 56-85. The fans never saw that playoff half-court offense, they so pined for.
Next up: Mike Malone. A coach that was fired by the Kings after starting the 2014/2015 season at 11-13. The standards in Sacramento right? They demand excellence……or something like that. Malone and Connelly would be tasked with bringing Denver back to the playoffs.
Since Shaw’s Nuggets were so bad, Denver was able to start building some young talent through the draft. Emanuel Mudiay didn’t work out, as he was just traded to New York. The mix of Jokic, Harris and Murray has allowed this team to grow organically for the most part, adding in some nice pieces along the way such as: Will Barton, Mason Plumlee, and Paul Millsap, the biggest free agent acquisition in Nuggets history.
The issues in Denver while George Karl was coaching are well documented. Once Carmelo Anthony left, would Denver be able to attract big enough stars to take them to new heights? Could they be anything more than just a really good, fun regular season team? Could they find a future superstar in the NBA draft post Mello?
Fast forward to the NBA All-Star break 2018 and Denver sits in 6th place in the Western Conference playoff race with a 32-26 record. All this, by the way, is without Paul Millsap who is nursing a wrist injury (should be back late February). Yes, still a lot of season to go, but barring a major collapse, the Nuggets should make their way back to the playoffs for the first time in 4 years.
I’d say we are starting to answer some of those burning questions: Could they attract a big star? Yes, Millsap came to Denver to play with a guy like Nikola Jokic. Are they more than an uptempo style of team? Sure, they can run with the best of them but this offense is based on superior shooting, a big man that can stretch the floor and several players that aren’t afraid to drive the lane to create something. Finally, can they win in the draft? Right now, they have the poor man’s version of a “big 3” in Jokic, Murray and Harris (Millsap will soon make it a big 4). Please don’t take the word “poor” to mean anything more than the fact that they are young and will only get better.
Was the plan to rid themselves of a solid coach, then hire an “in-between” guy in Shaw? One who didn’t tank, but lost enough games to draft at seven, two years in a row? Then finally bring in a coach that could put it all together? Sometimes all it takes is for a team to take a look in the mirror and call it like it is. And in 2013, Denver was a great regular season team that just couldn’t get over the hump. Josh Kroenke made a tough call and moved on from George Karl. It was met with backlash, ridicule, and failure. But because of that fire, the Nuggets found themselves in a position to acquire some key players now, and hopefully for years to come.