The Denver Nuggets are sliding. Not just in the standings, though a six-game losing streak has pushed them into sub-.500 territory again. This is more than a rough stretch of schedule or a few ill-timed injuries. The Nuggets stand on the cusp of a new evaluation, and for the first time in a decade, they don’t seem to know how to adapt.
Denver first found its identity in Carmelo Anthony; the Nuggets missed the playoffs eight straight seasons from the late 1990s to the early 2000s, but they haven’t missed the postseason once since drafting the superstar in June of 2003. Still, the success brought about new expectations, and outside of a trip to the West finals in 2009, each of Denver’s recent playoff trips have ended in the first round. Melo’s sixth early exit, in 2010, all but ensured his departure.
The post-Melo Nuggets ushered in a new era, and also a new approach. Armed with a king’s ransom obtained from the New York Knicks in exchange for Anthony, the team became a collective, an egalitarian-esque approach to what before tended to be autocratic, with Melo the despot of the offense. The very nature of George Karl’s dribble-drive motion offense called for constant flow and ball movement, a complete turnaround from the isolation-based play that so wholly defined the Anthony era.
Rising beyond all conceivable expectations, Denver immediately acquired its new identity: a place where the collective would supercede the individual.
But after earning the No. 3 seed last postseason, the era culminated quickly in another disastrous first-round loss. The Nuggets soon lost Andre Iguodala (to the Golden State Warriors) and general manager Masai Ujiri (to the Toronto Raptors), and fired Karl. Less than three seasons after trading Anthony, Denver was moving on again.
Now that the dust has settled and the next phase has begun, the newfound stability has wrought a certain amount of aimlessness. Despite the failings of the teams under Carmelo and the ones after him, those Nuggets were always able to unfurl a road map to success. The current team now finds itself in uncharted territory, a roster with no star or identity to fall back on.
Karl’s shadow still hangs over the makeup of the team; it remains one tailored to his basketball sensibilities. Rookie head coach Brian Shaw has picked his battles, but the goal is to build the Nuggets to fit his ideals. He has conceded that this team was born to run and has pushed for an increased urgency in transition. But he has also fought the team’s ingrained obsession with driving to the rim, encouraging players to take the open shot in the flow of the offense as opposed to the drive-and-kicks Karl’s system encouraged.
Since trading Carmelo, the buzzword in and around this team has been “talent.” The roster may not contain a prototypical star, but it remains chock-full of “talented” players. That now appears to be an outdated conceit; the whole no longer seems greater than the sum of its parts.
Ty Lawson certainly has rare ability, but he has yet to achieve the consistency that usually defines stars. The rest of the roster is made up of role players. Some have been so for their entire careers while others have yet to display enough to shake off that label, and perhaps never will.
The result: A team attempting to surge out of the middle of the conference has quickly fallen toward the back of the pack.
The questions that surrounded this team at the start of the season simply still haven’t been answered more than a third of the way through. How much stock can be put into this iteration of the roster, with both JaVale McGee and Danilo Gallinari still injured? How much longer can the team keep trotting out a starting lineup that’s a net-negative on the season? Is there any value to be found on a .500 roster that nearly maxes out the cap sheet for the next three years?
The present for the Nuggets seems murky at best, but the future may be more secure than anyone dared hope entering the season. Denver has outsourced its tanking to the Knicks, whose 2014 first-round draft pick they have the rights to swap with. So now every debacle for the Bockers, and thus Anthony, brings renewed hope for the Nuggets.
Perhaps that's the answer to Denver’s biggest problem: There is no better or immediate solution to non-contention like a pick in the lottery. But that future remains an ambiguous one, and something subject to change quickly. What remains is the present, one that finds the Nuggets at a crossroads. With the trade deadline on the horizon and a core that can double as a slew of movable assets in a moment’s notice, Denver is faced with the only question that truly matters:
Where are we going?
The Nuggets are not alone in this plight; it’s a familiar place for many NBA teams and one extremely difficult to navigate out of. But everything that made Denver unique is gone.
After a decade of direction, the Nuggets have become just another team in the crowd.