Los Angeles Clippers added Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The Utah Jazz now have Mike Conley, Ed Davis, and Bojan Bogdanovic. The Los Angeles Lakers filled out with their roster with Danny Green and Anthony Davis. The Houston Rockets traded for Russell Westbrook.
So what does that mean for the Denver Nuggets, a team that missed the Western Conference Finals last season by a quarter of gameplay? And what do several bolstered rivals mean for a team that has largely stayed the same?
For the past three seasons or so, Denver has been the team of the future in the West. It appeared they were on the cusp of challenging the Golden State Warriors last season when the Nuggets took home the second-best record in the conference and pushed the Portland Trail Blazers to seven games in the semi-finals.
But a miraculous performance by an injured Enes Kanter, coupled with big games from both Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, pushed the Nuggets out of contention for the final conference playoff series of the year. A dejected Nikola Jokic wants to make a deeper run this upcoming season, but with much of the same cast around him, it’s felt like the team of the future is now in the past.
While there are sexier candidates to choose as favorites out west this year, the Nuggets are moving forward with something its rivals in Portland had last season: consistency.
In an era where the only thing that matters is star power (particularly new star power) the Nuggets have the benefit of having played under the same system, with the same coach, with the same core for some time. That can’t be ruled out as an advantage, particularly as the season opens and as many of these new players adjust to their current teams.
Denver should be able to open the season by picking up right where it left off. Namely, by dismantling teams with its high-powered offense and passing acumen while newly-minted teammates get used to each other rotationally.
Meanwhile, as the shuffle of Denver’s regular cast looks much the same, it all still rides on Jokic. Once again, perhaps the best passing big man the NBA has ever seen will be a leading MVP candidate as the Nuggets try to take on a west that no longer has a uniformly dominant Warriors as its villain.
Still, you wouldn’t be alone if you felt that all this wasn’t enough to propel Denver above the rest of the Western Conference. Some folks are more gung-ho on the Lakers, others on Utah. The Clippers seem to be the odds-on favorite to win it all. After years of being a sexy selection, nobody wants to take the Nuggets to the ball anymore.
But, dear readers, there is some pause to be had out west. There’s no doubt that teams like the Lakers and Clippers have added serious talent. Other teams have strengthened themselves, and even the Blazers have tried to plug their fingers in a leaking dam with guys like Hassan Whiteside and Kent Bazmore. Yet none of these teams, outside of the Clippers at least, are so obviously dominant on paper that it necessitates taking the Nuggets out of the running.
Even the Clippers, with all its newfound wing might, isn’t going to be bashing everyone’s brains in. At least, not right away. George’s shoulders are still a question mark, and Leonard will be under minutes management for the entirety of the year. The Clippers were good enough to be eighth in the west last season thanks to their core of useful role players, and it will take a few months to make all of those pieces fit.
So this year is a little different for Denver. Nobody is ushering in the era of the Nuggets like they’ve been trying to do the past several seasons. But instead, there is consistency in the Mile High City. That could be enough to get an early jump on their competitors, and to solidify all of the issues that found them bounced early from the playoffs last year.
Penciling Denver in to have the second- or third-best record in the west and make it to the Western Conference Finals isn’t a guarantee. But with so much shift happening in the conference, Denver’s strength is its resiliency. Jokic is a legitimate MVP candidate, and that’s exactly what many of the Nuggets’ competitors are missing.
Denver is no longer a team of the future. But now they’ve arrived, and they’ve got as good a shot as anyone to take on the wild, wild west.