If tamping down expectations is any part of the narrative coming from the Nuggets organization prior to, and during, this season, it will be as difficult a task as they’ve had to undertake.
The buzz around these Nuggets is the highest it’s been in at least five years, going all the way back to 2012-13, the final year of the George Karl regime. Playoffs were expected then, and most everyone closely watching the Nuggets are expecting the same this season.
And this is not just a local trend.
Recently, the oddsmakers in Las Vegas set the Nuggets’ over/under win total at 45.5. Last season, 45 wins would not only have gotten the Nuggets into the playoffs, they’d have been the No. 7 seed. Hit the over this season, and it’s realistic to expect a similar result.
This week, ESPN vaulted the Nuggets into the top 10 of their “future rankings,” a formula-driven evaluation of how each franchise is expected to perform over the next three seasons. The Nuggets made the biggest jump in overall ranking from last year (17) to this (8), with the expectation that they’ll become a fixture in the Western Conference playoffs.
Management’s performance is one of the criteria. This is what ESPN had to say about how the Nuggets front office has done: “Denver moves eight spots to No. 14 based on (president of basketball operations) Tim Connelly and his basketball staff’s ability to attract free agents (Paul Millsap) and identifying under-the-radar talent in the draft, something that should continue in the future.”
High praise from the same sports news organization that, in 2014, couldn’t let a still newly-minted Connelly get his feet under him in his new job before writing he was stumbling over them. Locally, there were several individuals and media outlets that celebrated the several thousand-word takedown piece, which came just five months after Connelly had drafted… Nikola Jokić. Oops.
Jokić is not only the centerpiece of the team, but expected to be the subject of several national think pieces and profiles by the biggest of news organizations even before the season begins. He kept a low profile this summer, working out in Denver and in Serbia, while opting to skip playing for his national team in the EuroBasket 2017 tournament in order to be fully healed and rested coming into this pivotal season.
The Nuggets, by extension, are a hot pick for a team on the rise. Pundits have always been fond of coach Michael Malone’s no-nonsense approach. And Connelly, team president Josh Kroenke, and general manager Arturas Karnisovas have crafted a roster that NBA observers from coast-to-coast agree is playoff caliber.
Now, the Nuggets must prove it. They won’t sneak up on anyone this season. They’re a known, and respected, commodity, and will be played as such on a nightly basis.
By the end of this season, it will have been five years since the Nuggets’ last playoff appearance. Since then, there hasn’t been more optimism surrounding what they can be coming into a season until now. The Nuggets had their splashiest summer in a long time, headlined by the addition of four-time All-Star Paul Millsap. A healthy Jamal Murray enters his second season coming off an all-rookie 2016-17, and the continued growth of players like Will Barton, Emmanuel Mudiay, Gary Harris, and Juancho Hernangomez have predictions for these Nuggets all ending with one word: postseason.
Nuggets players and brass did not run from playoff talk last season, even if they initially wanted it to be more of a whisper than a primal scream. They’ll not run from it this season, either. It might be impossible to do even if they wanted to. Yet, everyone in the organization will – correctly – point out that just because most expect a playoff ending, there is still tons of work to do to get there.
Like their pro football counterpart in town, the Broncos, the Nuggets can easily make the case they play in the NBA’s toughest division, the Northwest. That means running a 16-game gauntlet against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Utah Jazz, Portland Trail Blazers, and the Minnesota Timberwolves, who are perhaps the most popular pick to jump into the postseason fray this season.
Still, add it all up and this is different. The pieces for a solid season are in place. All that’s left for the Nuggets is one critical task: