DENVER — One of the more endearing exercises conducted by the Nuggets front office is the same kind of conversation you might hear at the neighborhood tavern that serves $2 PBRs.
"We do it all the time," president of basketball operations Tim Connelly told me, referring to the exercise, not the $2 PBRs. Along with general manager Arturas Karnisovas, coach Michael Malone and whoever else is in the room, Connelly whips out the rosters of the NBA's superteams — Golden State and Cleveland, for now — and tries to identify the point at which they will fizzle. Denver's decision-makers account for age and contract status, first and foremost, and align them with their own. The objective is for the Nuggets to peak when the superteams are at their end.
"It's completely subjective," Connelly said. "You say, 'There's a sweet spot this year, potentially this team is on a downward slide, (or) this team has some decisions to make financially.'"
See, they're just like us! OK, not entirely. The Gazette hasn't yet agreed to my proposal that a two-week tour through eastern Europe in search of the next Nikola Jokic is in the company's best interests. "There's only one hotel in his town, anyway," Karnisovas said. "And it only has 10 or 11 rooms."
But it's evidence the battle between the Haves (superteams) and Have-Nots (everyone else) wages at all levels of the NBA. How do the Nuggets narrow the gap — and at the "sweet spot," when LeBron James' Cavs and Kevin Durant's Warriors are in the twilight of their arranged marriages?
Keep doing what they've been doing. The Nuggets stand on the precipice of being relevant again, and it's because they mined the European landscape for Jokic, the 22-year-old Serbian who has superstar written all over him.
While the Haves pick and choose from the A-List of stars, the Nuggets should return fire with an E-List: Build a European superteam. For reasons known only to God and Phil Jackson, media reports on Tuesday said the Knicks are open to trading 7-foot-3, 21-year-old big man Kristaps Porzingis, a perfect Nugget if there's ever been one. If those reports are true, almost every franchise in the NBA should toss an offer New York's way.
Denver's could look like this: 2017 first-rounder, 2018 first-rounder, Gary Harris, Kenneth Faried and Emmanuel Mudiay in exchange for Porzingis. Then, in a couple of years, when the superteams are on their final leg, the Nuggets have their sweet spot with Jokic (24), Porzingis (23), Jamal Murray (22) and Juancho Hernangomez (23), a sharpshooter who's been a shining star in offseason workouts. And off to the 2019 Western Conference finals we go.
The Nuggets right now are a tightrope act, balancing a desire to make the playoffs next season in order to show tangible progress, while knowing the best mid-market teams usually are built over time.
"To expect a championship next year from our seat would be disingenuous," Connelly said. "But also to not expect continued improvement and have real expectations for a playoff berth would not be healthy for our team or our fan base. That make sense?"
It does, yes. Without saying be patient, the Nuggets want their fans to be patient.
"Those steps can't be skipped," Connelly said. "When you have a team with so much intriguing young talent, you don't want to speed up the process and mess up that sensitive window of building something that we hope can be very special."
The draft is Thursday. Two weeks ago I wrote the Nuggets should enter this offseason with two targets on the dartboard: Gonzaga University's one-and-done center, Zach Collins, with the No. 13 pick in the draft; and Clippers free agent Blake Griffin, a favorite talent among the Nuggets' brain trust. That plan still looks good to me, and adding Nevada powerhouse forward Cam Oliver with the 49th or 51st pick would be a bonus. At 240 pounds with a mean streak, Oliver would be another second-round steal.
But let the traditional superteams run their course while the Nuggets fashion their own niche. Theirs is overseas. From Danilo Gallinari, who's going to find free agency more lucrative elsewhere, to Jokic, who quickly made Denver his second home, to Karnisovas, who was up for the GM job in Milwaukee, the European guys seem to look at Denver in a different way. They find it to be a welcome, comfortable destination instead of NBA flyover country.
"My family was ecstatic" when the Nuggets stepped forward with a sweet raise and new job title to keep him in Colorado, Karnisovas said.
By the way, when does your exercise suggest the superteam window will close in Golden State and Cleveland, anyway?
"There was a big reopening for Golden State when 'KD' signed last offseason," Connelly said. "That window will change this (draft) week for a lot of people."
Timing is everything.