A fortuitous draft pick and a sage free-agent pickup made the DENVER NUGGETS the Internet's favorite NBA team. Growing pains and injuries are teaching them that luck runs both ways, but those are just minor bumps on the road to seriously fun basketball
It's not often an NBA executive will be so blunt about their player evaluation process. Then again, Nuggets president Tim Connelly is not most NBA executives. The 41-going-on-31-year-old is excitable, energetic and has friendships ranging from inside NBA front offices all the way to Hollywood. And he has no qualms admitting how the Nuggets acquired their franchise centerpiece, slick-passing center Nikola Jokic.
"Pure luck," Connelly says of selecting Jokic with the 41st pick in the 2014 NBA draft. Connelly described the Serb as a flier, a project, someone who was selected in part because his girlfriend lived in the United States, which made him more likely to sign. By the end of last season Jokic was leading the No. 3 offense in the NBA—a fast-paced, ball-zipping, high-percentage-shooting, fun-as-hell offense.
"His development was so rapid," Connelly says, "it forced us to adjust how we want to build our team."
"WHAT'S A hipster basketball fan?," 23-year-old Gary Harris wonders aloud while seated next to his equally perplexed backcourt mate, 20-year-old Jamal Murray. To Harris and Murray's knowledge or not, the Nuggets' offensive transformation led by Jokic made Denver appealing to a certain type of basketball fan. The fans who subscribe to League Pass every year, the fans who see every petty Instagram comment, the fans who know every team's net rating. These were the people tuning in to watch the Nuggets every night.
As Denver scored and scored, it quickly became the basketball Internet's favorite team. Jokic was lauded for his Gretzky-level passing ability. Harris became the thinking man's most underrated player in the league, thanks to his ahead-of-his-years defense and lights-out shooting. Murray flashed the potential to become the point guard of the future. The Nuggets were the most entertaining team east of Oakland.
But Denver's front office wanted to be more than feel-good fun this season. Connelly and general manager Arturas Karnisovas, despite missing the playoffs in 2017, realized their core had serious potential. To bolster the roster, they aggressively pursued, and landed, four-time All-Star Paul Millsap. The Nuggets have never been a top destination for free agents, but Millsap signed in large part for the opportunity to play alongside Jokic.
"I have the tendency to take the game a little too serious," Millsap says. "Just being around him and watching the passes and shots. I threw it between a guy's legs in New Jersey. I've never done that before in my life."
Headed into this year, the pieces were in place for the Nuggets to make a leap. Jokic had become the unquestioned fulcrum of the offense, with a well-rounded big man playing next to him to keep the defense honest. Harris was given the security of a four-year, $84 million contract, and Murray was handed the keys to the car after the team let go of veteran point guard Jameer Nelson.
Then reality hit.
Millsap and Jokic needed time together to figure out how to best play off one another. Murray's growing pains became magnified under the starting spotlight. And Harris was no longer sneaking up on anyone. When it looked as if the Nuggets were beginning to turn a corner, Millsap injured his wrist, and underwent surgery that will keep him out for months.
Denver's future is still bright (and at 14--12, its present isn't so bad). Malone, who coached LeBron during his first stint in Cleveland and was with the Warriors and Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson before they were shooting their way to titles, knows perhaps better than anyone that the road from young and exciting to established and reliable is filled with obstacles. The front office is also preaching patience.
"I don't see any of those teams that are at that level now that have skipped steps," Connelly says. "The majority of teams that enjoy a level of sustainable success have done it the hard way."
The Nuggets haven't skipped any steps, and their selection of Jokic rightfully emboldened the front office to pick up the pace. What Denver is finding out now, however, is that luck can go both ways.
SI TV SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
UNDER THE COVER: DENVER NUGGETS
Behind the scenes with the NBA's fun bunch. Watch SI TV on Amazon Channels.