AFTER AN EARLY November 2017 home game -- with the revamped Denver Nuggets hovering at .500 -- I sat down for food and drinks with several members of the team's brain trust.
Calvin Booth, then the team's assistant general manager and the newest member of Denver's front office, posed a question: If you could have one for the next decade, who would you pick among Nikola Jokic, Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis?
Jokic by that point had finished third in Rookie of the Year (behind Towns and Porzingis) and started more than 100 games -- dozens of which came alongside fellow center Jusuf Nurkic before Jokic once and for all won the starting spot solo on Dec. 15, 2016, a day now known within the team and around the city as "Jokmas."
Less than two months after Jokmas, the Nuggets traded Nurkic and a first-round pick to the Portland Trail Blazers for Mason Plumlee. In a critical late March game that season with the No. 8 seed potentially at stake, Nurkic lit up the Nuggets with 33 points and 16 rebounds -- and crowed afterward. "They know definitely what they're missing," Nurkic told reporters. "I wish those guys a happy summer."
The Nuggets missed the playoffs, and for some in the organization, it was the first moment they began to wonder if Tim Connelly, then the team's head of basketball operations, would move on from his fiery head coach Michael Malone. Connelly stuck by Malone, trusting Malone's feel for how hard he could coach the team and its young star -- and in Malone's commitment to building a defense that would one day be good enough to win the title.
That offseason, the Nuggets snared Paul Millsap away from the Atlanta Hawks in free agency, selling Millsap on his importance as a centerpiece in that defensive reconstruction.
Ten games into that 2017-18 season, as Booth posed his question, the defense was better but the offense was clunky as the Nuggets incorporated Millsap. Malone that week had threatened to kick Jokic out of a practice after Jokic was slow getting back in transition defense. "I jumped him very vocally," Malone told ESPN then.
Jamal Murray, the team's second-year starting point guard, was in a slump -- skittish, uncertain, passing up open jumpers, scattershot in learning point guard reads after splitting the position the year before with Jameer Nelson. (The Nuggets wanted Murray at No. 7 in the 2016 draft, but had to sweat out the Chicago Bulls and New Orleans Pelicans picking in the slots ahead of them; Denver viewed both as Murray threats, sources said. The Minnesota Timberwolves took Kris Dunn. New Orleans selected Buddy Hield.)
When I went to interview Murray, I found him shooting alone after practice, searching for his game. "Last year, I had Jameer out there with me, and I was coming off pindowns," he said then. "I'm trying to figure it all out."
(The Nuggets waived Nelson before that 2017-18 season, in part to clear playing time for Murray and Emmanuel Mudiay. They had chances to trade Nelson to at least one noncontender, but Connelly didn't think it was right to send Nelson somewhere he didn't want to be, sources told ESPN then. That move echoes today; Denver this season had the chance to move backup point guard Ish Smith, but coaches and players protested when front office officials presented them with the option: Smith was too important to their culture, their practices, their harmony. Everyone agreed to keep Smith, and he has served an important behind-the-scenes role -- including mimicking the Miami Heat's playbook as part of Denver's scout team at practices.)
Those were the vibes when Booth polled the table. There was much hemming and hawing. Porzingis' rim protection was intriguing. Towns looked to be an all-time shooter. Everyone was still digesting Jokic's unusual passing: How real was this? How would it translate against elite competition?
Booth stopped the discussion: It was Jokic, he told the group, and it was not going to be close.