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Paul Klee: Denver Nuggets season is playoffs or bust

By: Paul Klee
January 16, 2017 Updated: January 19, 2017 at 4:05 pm

DENVER — Your guess is as good as mine when it comes to this Nuggets experiment.

By the time the youngins are all grown up, it could blow up into an NBA title contender or blow up in their face. Neither endgame would surprise me. We are midway through the fourth season since the program was overhauled and the roster shows seven players who haven't turned 23 yet. There could be a bracket-busting mid-major team that makes a Final Four run with players older than half of Denver's roster.

But it looks good for now. On offense, in fact, it looks like a really fun video game and Nikola Jokic is the joystick: Monday's 125-112 win against the Orlando Magic at Pepsi Center made you consider the crazy idea the Nuggets are destined to become one of the most entertaining teams in the NBA. (They couldn't stop a rock from rolling uphill on defense, but that's been the M.O. for most of the good teams here.) Yes, their offense has been that overwhelming of late. Yes, it's because the 21-year-old Jokic is a Serbian magician.

"I think Nikola Jokic's game is rubbing off on some of our guys," coach Michael Malone said after the young center had 30 points, 11 rebounds and five assists.

But how it ends up — when Jokic, Emmanuel Mudiay, Gary Harris and Jamal Murray are no longer babies in NBA years and graduate from being bullied to being the bully?

No idea.

I know how this season needs to end up, though: in the playoffs. The Nuggets moved into a tie for the No. 8 seed on Monday. There should be no draft lottery and no excuses. The door is wide open for some plucky team to make the jump in the Western Conference, where the competition is more of a thumb war than a wrestling match, and now is when the Nuggets need to show tangible signs of progress. Those signs would be in the form of a playoff series against the Golden State Warriors, who will probably be the No. 1 seed.

No more next year. It's been long enough since the Pepsi Center brought April intrigue to LoDo with a playoff series, and the list of positives from making the postseason far outweighs the potential for adding another lottery pick to the roster. The Nuggets keep getting younger and younger. Now's the time they need to grow up and into a playoff team again. One, the fans here deserve to see some evidence of growth. You can only hear "yeah, but wait until Mudiay is 24 or 25" before you start to wonder if theirs is a roster of Benjamin Buttons who age backwards. Two, the final playoff spot in the West will go to one of the five teams whose median record at the moment is 16-25. This isn't your older brother's Western Conference where it took 50 wins just to flirt with the playoffs.

Finally — and this is the big one here — is what the experience of a playoff appearance, even if it's a sweep by Golden State, would mean to a roster in terms of positive affirmation.

"It's huge," veteran wing Will Barton said Monday. "When you take steps in your career — whether it's an individual or a team — it does something to your ego. You usually take a look at teams after their first time in the playoffs and they take another step. And another step. And another step."

You mean like Golden State a few years back?

"I was about to say that. Now look at them," Barton said. "And it's (true) for any team in the league. Look at Michael Jordan. After his first one, he was like, 'I want more and more.' It takes your team to another level. Everybody has more confidence."

The Nuggets have concerns, mainly on defense and at point guard. There are days like Monday when it seems D'shawn Schwartz and Sand Creek could break the century mark against the Nuggets, who treat defense as more of a necessary evil than a requirement. And while Mudiay revved their engine with 18 points and 13 assists in a dazzling show against the Magic, those performances have been too few and far between. He's the key here.

But the biggest concern with the Nuggets is that they can't allow the idea that losing is OK into their locker room. That happens. I think it happened here with Brian Shaw. When the bottom of the West is this vulnerable and when the Nuggets haven't seen the postseason in almost four years, they don't need to enter another offseason without knowing for sure they're going the right direction.

Malone is certainly coaching as if a postseason appearance is the endgame. Murray, the hot-shot rookie guard they drafted with the No. 7 pick, played only 5 minutes in the first half. On a slow trudge to the locker room, Murray, who is still a teenager at 19, shot a look at someone he knew in the crowd that said, "Yep, just 5 minutes. Again." The Nuggets somehow must find a way to get Murray on the court.

But it says something that he's not. It says Malone is riding the vets and coaching to win now. The coach also is already scoreboard watching around the West. Malone knew the Blazers — one of the teams stumbling toward the final playoff spot — had lost earlier.

"Our offensive numbers — ever since we made the lineup change (with Jokic as a starter) — are unbelievable," Malone said. "The challenge is can we play defense?"

The Nuggets offense is something to watch. Their defense is something you can't see.

Is it kind of enticing to know the Nuggets could slide into another lottery when the 2017 draft class is as deep as it's been in over a decade? Of course. The potential for adding one of the Pac-12's blue-chip freshmen, UCLA's Lonzo Ball or Washington's Markelle Fultz, is enough to make you think twice about winning.

Not now, though. The Nuggets are good enough as is and the benefits of earning a postseason spot that is there for the taking are too real. This year it's playoffs, or the season was a bust.

Twitter: @bypaulklee

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