DENVER — It wasn’t that long ago they burned his jersey and bid LeBron James a bitter farewell. Now if you ask around, a solid chunk of NBA fans root for his Cavaliers to upset the Warriors in the NBA Finals.
It wasn’t long ago, either, the Warriors were the people’s choice, offering hope to skinny, 6-foot-3 gunners from low-majors and church leagues everywhere. Then along came flip-flopping mercenary Kevin Durant and the super-team label; now it's the Warriors who are viewed as the bad guys.
In the NBA, where opinions dissect with each timeout, perception turns quicker than a Kyrie Irving crossover. How do the Nuggets graduate from a team with a chance to a playoff outfit with title aspirations down the road?
July must be their new June.
The draft is June 22. It’s where the Nuggets have made their move. Over the past three years Denver has skillfully built a reputation as one of the sharpest drafting teams in the league. From Nikola Jokic to Gary Harris to Juancho Hernangomez (at 21, Juancho "Buckets" has been Mr. Automatic from 3-point range in offseason workouts in the auxiliary gym at Pepsi Center) to the hardly-knew-ye era of Jusuf Nurkic, the front office has shown an eye for identifying young, hidden talent as well as anyone in the business.
But July means free agency, a trick no Nuggets front office has mastered. This year's is a funky class with a bunch of solid players who will be overpaid, but one name matches the veteran know-how the Nuggets are looking for at a position they are looking to upgrade: Blake Griffin. He’s 28, even while it seems the Clippers star came in with Juwan Howard. He’s often been sidelined with injury. But doesn't that suggest Griffin has less mileage on his body? He’s an unrestricted free agent who’s probably going back to L.A. — unless things get weird and Chris Paul jumps ship for the Spurs, the Clippers realize it’s time to move on, or Griffin believes his career could benefit from a change of scenery.
Yes, Denver will need some help from outside its control to land Griffin.
But if Griffin becomes truly available, the Nuggets should pounce. Perhaps it's merely wishful thinking, but Jokic and his sweet passing skills should make Colorado a desirable destination for free agents looking to up their scoring average, to be The Man alongside the rare star (Jokic) who has no interest in being The Man. “Big Honey” Jokic recently purchased a race horse — a “trotter,” according to a well-placed source close to the prodigal center — in his homeland of Serbia. Adding Griffin would pick up the pace of Denver’s reconstruction. Pairing Griffin and Jokic would give the Nuggets 12 assists from their starting bigs, a significant and immediate boost in season-ticket sales and a roster that wins 50 games as soon as next season.
The injury concerns are valid. So is the notion that, after a while, standing water starts to stink. The Nuggets can wait until the two superteams who continue the NBA Finals on Sunday have disbanded to make their move, or they could make a move now to prove they are in the business of winning big later.
Sure, there are other names worth a gander. Atlanta Hawks forward Paul Millsap also has the Nuggets’ attention, and the veteran's professionalism would be a welcome addition to a young locker room. And I watched too many Utah Jazz games for a Colorado guy’s liking — hey, I’m a sucker for quality hoops — but Australian forward Joe Ingles also should be on the short list. The Nuggets need more guys unafraid to get under an opponent’s skin, and Ingles was almost a Nugget, anyway: as a newcomer, the Australia native chose between the Clippers and Nuggets training camps, calling Denver at the last minute to send his regrets. What could have been, mate.
Yes, Jazz forward Gordon Hayward has fluid, versatile hair and the game to match. But count me as surprised if any team prevents Hayward from moving to Boston to rejoin his college coach, Brad Stevens. As for Denver's own, the Gallo ship should sail. Danilo Gallinari has never tested free agency, and the Rooster should shoot his shot and break the bank. The Nuggets should let him roll.
Overpaying for a veteran free agent wouldn’t doom the Nuggets, if it sends the message to future All-Stars Jokic and Jamal Murray that the franchise is committed to spending on a brighter future. It's OK to swing and miss. But it's a dangerous message to send a promising core if they don't swing at all.
In this never-ending quest for a Nuggets championship, my hoop dreams this offseason include three wishes, most notably: Griffin, a return to the rainbow-skyline uniforms, and a draft that starts with Gonzaga freshman Zach Collins, a skilled, 19-year-old shot-blocker who plays angry, like someone kicked his dog.
They are moves that would change the perception of the Nuggets. It's a process that doesn't always take long.