DENVER — Horse racing is an offseason thing. His steed, “Dream Catcher,” stays in Serbia, and Nikola Jokic has no designs on bringing his first big purchase to the States.
So this summer the basketball hero Colorado deserves began a new hobby: flying drones. (Idle hands are the devil’s workshop, all that.) His maiden flight took place over a neighborhood in northwest Denver — Sloan’s Lake — and gave the Nuggets’ 22-year-old center a big-picture perspective of the city where he desires to spend the entirety of his playing career.
“It’s fun, because you can look at different things from a ... how do you say ... bird ...” Jokic told me prior to the season opener Wednesday at Utah.
“Yes. I look tiny.”
That’s a first. Here’s another: don't look now, but the Nuggets are starting to behave like a big-boy franchise. They dished $90 million at All-Star forward Paul Millsap, a frontcourt wingman to pair with Jokic. They tossed $84 million in the direction of shooting guard Gary Harris, who was smart enough to take advantage of Jokic’s surreal passing and cut to the basket of riches. Yes, at the center of every major decision is Jokic.
His third season as a pro is the very definition of playoffs-or-bust. But for the Nuggets to avoid a plateau and take the step from fun story to lead story, it’s not Jokic who must take a significant leap. It’s everyone else.
Other than injuries, there’s no good reason Denver should miss the playoffs. Here’s a “3D” game plan that will boost the Nuggets toward their goal of ultimately sliding into a championship window at the same time the Western Conference superteams are on their final leg:
— DEFENSE: Is it better for the Nuggets if lonesome small forward Wilson Chandler devotes his energy to leading the team in scoring or leading the team on defense? “For the team, it’s better if I was the elite defender,” Chandler said. We’re not asking for the 2004 Pistons here. To balance a juggernaut 'O,' Denver simply must be middle-of-the-pack on ‘D.’ Last season the Nuggets ranked 29th in defensive efficiency. If they leap to 17th in the league — hey, if James Harden’s Rockets can do it, the Nuggets surely can — they will steal a few wins on the nights their beautiful offense has a bad hair day.
— DEFEND HOME COURT: On the day he learned his No. 12 jersey would hang from the rafters at Pepsi Center, Nuggets great Fat Lever recalled a rip-roaring era when visiting teams brought oxygen masks as part of their road uniform at altitude. “We knew that if we played up and down, eventually it was going to catch up to them,” Lever said. The Nuggets went 22-19 at home in 2016-17. That’s not proud enough. During a decade of playoff appearances under George Karl, Denver averaged 31 home wins. Want to sell tickets and bump up the NBA’s worst attendance? Go 31-10 at The Can. That’s doable.
— DRAMA FREE: Marijuana dispensaries are so 2014. There’s a new way to make millions in Colorado: fall in line behind Jokic, cut to the basket and know your role. Ask Gary Harris, who quietly went about his business all the way to the bank. After Jusuf Nurkic threw a hissy fit and forced his way out, the Nuggets are due for a drama-free season. Plus, you don’t see general managers falling over themselves to lure enigmatic DeMarcus Cousins onto their superteam; accepting a role is the NBA’s new road map to finance and fame.
The NBA doesn’t like something until somebody else does it. That makes the Nuggets a tough mark. Their unorthodox and admirable approach to building a title contender begins with a goofy, 6-foot-11 Serbian who would rather be harness racing than driving the car he shares with his brothers, or watching his favorite episodes from his "Friends" boxed set, than almost anything else.
“People always try to pigeonhole people: 'He’s this, he’s that,'” as coach Michael Malone said.
Identity politics are for simple minds, anyway.
"I think he can be a superstar," Chandler said of Jokic. "I don't think it; I believe it."
Oh, yeah. Back to Jokic. He's the show here. What’s the next step for him?
“In basketball?” he replied.
Sure, or life.
“One more horse.”
These are the new Nuggets: unusual, undefined and closing the gap on the home stretch.