Amid a Conference of Bullies, Nuggets Out to Prove They Belong

You may not have known this, but the Nuggets are kicking off their 2017-18 season tonight. They’ll be wearing new uniforms and featuring a new star player, hoping that they actually register on the NBA’s radar this season. They are definitely already on mine.

For the second straight year, I’m predicting that the Nuggets will find themselves back in the playoffs for the first time since George Karl was roaming the Denver bench. But what does making the playoffs even mean in the NBA anymore? I suppose it’s all about perspective.

Oh, and yes that is Nikola Jokic messing around with Paul Millsap in the photo above. If that doesn’t get you excited for this season, I’m not sure anything I can say is going to do the trick. But I’ll try anyway.

Take Oklahoma City, for example. Getting into the playoffs is the expectation, not the goal. They’ve already been doing that for most of their existence, even last year when Russell Westbrook was having the time of his life because he didn’t have to pass to anyone. Now they went and robbed the Pacers at gunpoint to get Paul George acquired Paul George and Carmelo Anthony so that they can make a run at the Warriors. For the Thunder, anything less than a serious push for a title is a failure. Same goes for the Rockets, who will try to configure a way to have two balls on the court in order to please both James Harden and Chris Paul.

The Nuggets aren’t ready to be that ambitious yet. They need to prove that they can even reach the postseason before they’re allowed to dream about confetti falling from the rafters of the Pepsi Center and a champagne bath in those fancy new locker rooms. There’s a pecking order to these things and one cannot happen before the other.

So if they can’t compete for a championship, then why should casual fans become reinvested? Why should the Nuggets expect not to rank dead last in attendance again? In a city that is typically all-things Broncos, save for those warm summer nights at 20th and Blake and those special fall evenings when the aroma of Rocktober permeates through the air, there isn’t a whole lot of attention left for Mile High Basketball. So if a Nuggets’ playoff appearance serves only to provide the Warriors, Thunder or Rockets with an obligatory first-round victim in order for them to advance, then why does any of this even matter?

Again, it’s all about perspective. Did you know that the three major Denver sports teams other than the Broncos have only made four playoff appearances since 2011? Two of those were by the Nuggets! It matters that the current iteration makes it back, if only to remind the rest of the nation that, “Oh yeah, Denver does have a pro basketball team.”

Paul Millsap is the first big-time free agent to sign with the Nuggets since I was in middle school. I’ve already covered the impact that his arrival could have on the organization, but I’d like to reiterate that if the team does well this year and other free agents are asking him about Denver, he’s likely to give them a glowing recommendation. It matters.

There is as much promising young talent on this roster as there has been since… well, maybe ever. Nikola Jokic drops dimes and triple doubles at will while Gary Harris, Jamal Murray and Juancho Hernangomez cut to the rim for easy buckets and make it rain from beyond the arc. The ball is shared so frequently that it practically apparates around the court. Do you know how rare it is to witness such an unselfish brand of basketball in the NBA? It matters.

For their 50th anniversary, the Nuggets are making a considerable effort to bring former stars back into the fold, whether it’s honoring past greats like Dikembe Mutombo and Alex English, or retiring Lafayette “Fat” Lever’s jersey this December so that his number can join theirs up in the rafters. Trust me, for a team that has long been reluctant to embrace its history but that is almost as deeply rooted in this city as the football team that plays on the other side of I-25, this kind of shit matters.

The Western Conference is as stacked as ever, and the Nuggets will have to prove they can hang with the bullies before they can kick them off the playground. That doesn’t happen in one season, but a playoff berth this year would go a long towards planting that seed for the seasons to come. It would remind the good people of Denver that yes, the Nuggets can be exciting and entertaining, even if they won’t get so much as a glimpse of the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

And I don’t have a crystal ball, so who knows how good the young players will actually turn out to be and which top free agents Millsap and Jokic could bring into the fold. But get this team into the playoffs and for the first time in a long time, the Nuggets can hope that someday they’ll be the bully on the playground with all the new kids trying to kick them off. Sometimes, that’s all you need to start making your way to the top of the Association.

Your perspective is your own. For the Nuggets and their fans? The playoffs definitely matter.

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