DENVER — As the NBA shook with earthquakes and Kawhiquakes, the Atlas charged with lifting the Nuggets to the Finals chilled out in a faraway stable, training his horses.
Somewhere on a Serbian farm, Nikola Jokic shrugged.
“He’s doing great. That’s his happy place,” Nuggets general manager Arturas Karnisovas told The Gazette. "We don't want to take anything away from that because it’s worked. He’s gotten better and better every year. He’s returned a better player.”
When the dust finally settled on a frantic free agency period, the Nuggets emerged, suddenly, as a model of NBA stability. Wipe up the spit coffee. For better or for worse, it's true.
And a seismic NBA July again proved stability is Denver’s one and only avenue to a title parade.
Anthony Davis joined LeBron James with the Lakers. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are Nets. Then, kaboom!: Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to the Clippers. Your old game program is fish wrap.
Even as players complain the term "owner" is offensive, the governors are on the hook for 42 contracts worth more than $100 million, according to Spotrac.com. For the record, you guys can call me anything for $100 million.
And the 54-win No. 2 seed in the West stood pat. The Nuggets did not budge an inch. The Joker can lead his beloved horses, "Dream Catcher" and "Bella Marguerite," to water. While the landscape swirls all around them, can the 24-year-old Jokic and Jamal Murray, 22, lead Denver to a title?
The Nuggets are banking on it. This July brought both hope and frustration to the top floors of Pepsi Center. Hope, in that the franchise has a pair of young stars who confirmed their desire to play here for the long haul with signatures on contract extensions. Frustration, in that a poorly run team like the Lakers can for years do almost everything wrong and still emerge as a betting favorite to win it all. In the West, only the Clippers have better odds than the new Lakers.
What the Nuggets can’t do now is confuse hope with progress. It’s fun to imagine Michael Porter Jr., the 21-year-old, 6-foot-10 mystery man, as the third piece in a Big 3 at elevation. But Porter can only be part of the plan like a lottery ticket is part of your retirement plan. If the Nuggets hit on Porter, they contend for a title. If they didn’t, they wasted only a No. 14 draft pick. He remains a gamble worth taking — so long as his presence doesn’t preclude the Nuggets from making other moves to strengthen the roster around Jokic.
That’s the concern here. Did Porter's potential influence Denver’s approach to free agency?
"You look back, and now you continue with a 54-win team and a young core that got better and better during the year,” Karnisovas said. “They got playoff experience. We want to keep that core together — plus add Michael, healthy. I think it’s also going to be Jarred (Vanderbilt’s) healthy time. That’s how we approached it. You bring the same team back, plus you add those guys.”
“We want to control the expectations, see what he does in Summer League and go from there,” Karnisovas said the day before Porter sustained a knee injury that sidelined him for Summer League. “I think he’s as talented of a player as we’ve seen. We just have to see it translate now in 5-on-5.”
The red flags around Porter could blot out the sun. Porter last week told ESPN he hasn’t been healthy since his freshman year of high school — five years ago. So the Nuggets are like the rest of us with Porter, itching to see if their low-risk, high-reward roll of the dice pays off big.
"Exactly. Just like everybody else we're waiting to see what he looks like and go from there," Karnisovas said.
“We just can’t wait to see him step on the floor. We’ve been watching him all year,” Karnisovas said. “He’s a very competitive kid. He’s worked extremely hard. So I know it’s exciting for him. I know he’s working really hard to control his emotions.”
No one’s questioning the running, jumping, ballhandling and scoring ability of Porter. I watched him in high school, where he was without a doubt the No. 1 blue-chip prospect in the country, and in a dozen or so 3-on-3 games with Isaiah Thomas, Jarred Vanderbilt and other rehabbing Nuggets before playoff games.
Healthy and motivated, Porter is all that and a bag of skinny jeans. He's the best prospect not named Carmelo Anthony or Antonio McDyess to join the Nuggets straight out of college in 30 years. Difference is, young Melo would forge the Platte to make tipoff. First three years in the NBA, Anthony played 86 (of 86), 80 (of 87) and 85 (of 87) games.
Young Melo was the business, man. Young MPJ has been a business decision, man.
At 9:23 Friday night, tremors from a Southern California earthquake shook the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, postponing Denver's Summer League game. As King James and “AD” sat courtside, forever hunting the bright lights, Colorado’s great hope was way off the NBA grid. Jokic is home for the summer, his tradition.
“He's in a good mental place. That’s all we want from him in the offseason,” Karnisovas said.
The situation illustrated the power struggle facing the Nuggets. It’s Hollywood vs. Sombor. It's quick fixes vs. long hauls. After the upheaval of free agency, my West power rankings look like this, in order: Clippers, Jazz, Nuggets, Rockets, Lakers. Debate away.
I've always believed two things must happen for the Nuggets to win their first NBA title. They must get lucky, and they must be different. The Jokic Plan — their only viable plan, as free agency showed again — qualifies as both.
The West sharpening its fangs is not so much an alarm clock for the Nuggets as it is a reminder: the biggest stars are not coming here. The Nuggets must raise and nurture their own.