DENVER — Where the Nuggets missed the mark was not applying a catchy name to their grand plan of building a championship contender. Something like “trust the process,” if that's not already taken.
Oh, it is?
Well, in that case, the Philadelphia 76ers should loan the slogan to Denver. How the Nuggets are going about their escape from the NBA’s netherworld is more impressive, anyway. With a nod of appreciation for old-school talent evaluation, the Nuggets are returning action ball to Pepsi Center without the benefit of top-three draft picks or the powerful draw of a bright-lights market.
All that’s missing in Denver's long game is a redshirt program and maybe a graduate transfer or two. The Nuggets are more Gonzaga than Kentucky, if we're being real.
Count me in the minority who believe in what the Nuggets are doing — and how they are going about doing it. Yes, they need a reliable point guard to emerge, either through the continued development of Jamal Murray, who was so injured while playing all 82 games last season he told me it hurt to get out of bed, or via trade at the February deadline. Their decision to waive veteran Jameer Nelson lit a flame under Michael Malone’s seat that wasn’t fair to him. You’d need a full hand to count the number of wins Denver could add to its 16-14 record if Nelson was here to navigate the young’uns through close games. But that's life as a coach.
Hate to say it, because I dig the man's spirit. But Emmanuel Mudiay isn’t the answer. They should move on before the element of mystery fades away and “former lottery pick” is no longer an attribute his next team can sell to its fanbase.
But everywhere else? If you buy into my idea this was always going to be a process, there’s a lot to like everywhere else.
Despite missing Nikola Jokic or Paul Millsap for more than half of their 30 games — the Nos. 1 and 1A best players on the roster — the Nuggets host the Timberwolves on Wednesday in the thick of the playoff race in the Western Conference. This is a team that in recent years handled adversity with all the grace of a food fight. Now it’s an organization that’s starting to mature.
Here’s the best way I can put it: these Nuggets are funstrating. The word originated Monday night when the Nuggets fell way behind the Thunder and hustled back to take the lead behind a combination of toughness and solid defense. They lost, 95-94, when league MVP Russell Westbrook found a new way beat them. What does that guy have against Colorado, anyway?
Thirty games in, is this season more fun or more frustrating for the coach assigned to lead them back to the playoffs?
“A lot more fun,” Malone said Tuesday after practice at Pepsi Center.
“Our late-game execution was frustrating. But it’s (been) much more positive, in my opinion,” he added. “For that to be the one time in 30 games — for a young team with as many injuries as we’ve had — is pretty good.”
From now until the end of basketball, it will be premature to say the Nuggets have arrived as a legitimately dangerous team until they can win on the road. They’re 11-2 at Pepsi Center and 5-12 in places that aren't as cool. Until one number starts to look more like the other, you can stash the Nuggets into a pod of five or six other teams that are scrapping for the right to lose to Golden State, Houston or San Antonio in the postseason. That’s frustrating.
This is where it gets fun: Torrey Craig. Before the Nuggets gave him a call, the highlight on Craig’s resume was Atlantic Sun Conference player of the year. Craig was toiling away in something called the “QBL,” a men's and women's semi-pro basketball league in Australia, where he bounced between the Wellington Saints and Brisbane Spartans. It was Joe Connelly — the brother of Tim Connelly, Denver's president of basketball operations — who politely suggested the Nuggets should take a peep at this guy down under.
Now we’re a week or two away from “Torrey Craig vs. The World” t-shirts popping up around Pepsi Center. The 6-foot-6 small forward has started the past two games for the Nuggets. Better yet, Craig looks like he belongs. I guess when you’ve dribbled between New Zealand and Australia to draw a paycheck, volunteering to defend Russell Westbrook becomes a no-brainer.
“(When the Nuggets called) I was trying to get my citizenship in Australia,” Craig told me on Tuesday. “I know you only get one shot at this NBA thing. It was really a ‘now or never’ type of thing.”
The Nuggets are far from a finished product. But past editions that were saddled with 12 different starting lineups before New Year’s Eve would have been cooked like the Griswold family turkey, full of hot air and little more.
Why do I think this bunch has a chance to stick around the playoff crowd for a while? It's Connelly and his merry band of talent evaluators. Seriously, these guys could spot a player on Christmas Eve in Cherry Creek mall: Jokic, the second-round pick sent from heaven; Gary Harris, whose career-high scoring average of 16 points exceeds anyone's expectations; Craig, who had zero high-major scholarship offers before he spent four years at South Carolina-Upstate.
“I believe in Torrey Craig,” Malone said.
And I believe this process is worth trusting, with or without a catchy slogan that gets people's attention.