The Denver Nuggets are coming back from an extended, adult summer camp a changed group.
After losing to the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday, the Nuggets, mostly still in their professional basketball adolescence, are headed back home ready to showcase the lessons learned after 82 days away from the comforts and familiarity of home. Those awaiting their arrival might notice a more confident, more experienced group with a little bit more respect to their name and possibly a few new stories to tell.
“Most importantly, I think people around this country, around the world, who were watching the playoffs … this group of guys you’d be hard-pressed to find a better story coming out of this bubble,” coach Mike Malone said after the Nuggets were knocked out of the Western Conference Finals in five games. “A bunch of young kids faced elimination, looked it in the face and kept on surviving and advancing. I’m just really blessed and proud to be a small part of that.”
Malone said bubble life was a bit like basketball camp where you would wake up in a dorm, take on the day’s activities before returning to the dorm and doing it all over again. American pop culture’s romanticized version of summer camp features living in close quarters with new people, overcoming fears and some first experiences, not entirely different from what the Nuggets went through.
They shared Disney World resort hotels with their competition, faced and eliminated the one-time favorites to win the title and became the first team in NBA history to advance after being down 3-1 in two series in the same postseason.
“We’ve proven that we can come back from down 3-1 twice, proven we can challenge the Clippers, who were the favorites, proven we can challenge the Lakers,” point guard Jamal Murray, one of the stars of the summer basketball bonanza, said. “It’s only our second year in the playoffs, so I wish things went differently, but I’m just proud of our guys, proud of everything we’ve done, everything we’ve accomplished. It’s not the end goal but to make it this far and surprise as many people as we did, it’s a good feeling. We’ll just try to come back next year and come back stronger.”
Most of the core pieces are expected back next year. Murray and Jokic are both under contract for at least the next three seasons. Gary Harris and Will Barton, starters when healthy, are also under contract, while Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant might need replacing. Grant, one of the top performers against the Lakers, has a $9.3 million player option and seems open to a return, though reports Sunday have him planning to opt out and enter free agency.
“I’m definitely looking forward to it,” Grant said Saturday of a potential return with the up-and-coming Nuggets. “We’ll see how it goes.”
Should the Nuggets lose one of their forwards, Michael Porter Jr., a promising talent who had his ups and downs in his first NBA postseason, plans to learn from his eye-opening summer experiences.
“I learned a lot,” Porter said. “I know the areas where I need to improve on. This is going to be my first healthy offseason for awhile, so I’m going to really try to focus on those things I need to improve on and come back a much better, complete player.”
Beyond that, the Nuggets might have to get creative to improve the roster. The team will draft outside the lottery and will have to work around Murray's and Jokic’s big contracts in free agency.
“We advanced and we improved upon last year, and our goal is now to get to the NBA Finals and win a championship, ultimately. As far as this offseason, and what we can do, I think that will come in a few weeks,” Malone said. “(We’ll sleep) on this, take a deep dive into who we are, what areas do we think we maybe have to improve upon, and we’ll address those. Those are open and honest conversations that I continually have with (president of basketball operations) Tim Connelly, with (owners) Josh and Stan Kroenke to find out how we can become an even better team, to not be satisfied with making the journey we just finished. The challenge continues. We still have a ways to go.”
In the interim, they have no shortage of memories to hold them over until their next adventure. And just like summer camp, there were emotional goodbyes. Monte Morris said Malone teared up when addressing the team after elimination.
“It was real sad. It’s a feeling that I’m sure we all will remember,” Morris said. “He just wanted us to take this moment to just let it soak in and make (us) feel this for next season to come back a lot stronger.”