The faith of the Nuggets: Jokic takes the witness of Carmelo and challenges the Lakers 11 years later

In 2009, the Nuggets played their last Western finals starring Carmelo. Jokic is the face of the new project and the future of the franchise.

The-faith-of-the-Nuggets:-Jokic-takes-the-witness-of-Carmelo-and-challenges-the-Lakers-11-years-later

The Nuggets are back. At least, at the Western Conference finals, a round they haven't reached since 2009. 11 long years have passed in which a small market like Colorado has struggled to build a new project that would leave behind the shadow of a Carmelo Anthony who left the ship in 2011 to go to the Knicks who left behind the promising Felton-Stoudemire pairing to give the ball to their newcomer star, try a project that neither could nor was close to being and, now without the forward , completely lose a head that with James Dolan has never been in his place. And while Carmelo did not mean to Denver the same as other stars for their respective cities (LeBron in Ohio, Kobe in Los Angeles), it is still curious that since his departure the franchise has not been competitive again. At least, not at the same level as that magical season in which they dreamed of the ring, in which they were among the four best teams in the competition and, in the case of those series, only two victories from the Finals, that terrain banned for a franchise that did reach them in the ABA with Larry Brown as coach (1976) but that is going to play only his third Conference final since he made the jump to the NBA, just months after touching the championship in that extinct competition that gave so many headaches to the best League in the world.

Carmelo was never closer to the ring than in 2008-09. It was his moment and that of the Denver Nuggets, who, led by George Karl on the benches and the forward on the court, finally had a squad built to qualify for the championship. The movements made in the early stages of the season had allowed Allen Iverson, his points and his monopolizing and almost one-dimensional game to head to Detroit in exchange for Chauncey Billups, a more dedicated point guard, dedicated to the collective and who made his his team better colleagues and their teams. The transfer was the end of an era for those Pistons who represented those Bad Boys 2.0 and who settled the last great period of splendor in their history with six consecutive Eastern finals (from 2003 to 2008), a championship (2004) and a defeat in the Finals (2005). A few years of unquestionable solvency that Billups extended one more season, arriving again and in his new team to the penultimate round of the playoffs and the last round of the Conference.

That year, the Nuggets ranked second in the West with a record of 54-28 (the same as last year) after the last Lakers who surpassed 60 victories (65-17). They also achieved the best offensive rating in their history to date (110.4), ranking sixth in the League in points per game (104.3), sixth also in assists (22.2), third in steals (8.7 ), second in blocks (6), fifth in field goals (47%) and in shots of two (49%) and with five players above 10 points per game (we can put Kleiza here, who added 9, 9). Anthony saw his statistics somewhat resentful compared to previous years and stayed at 22.8 and 6.8 rebounds, but he shot with 37% in triples and slipped into the Third Best Quintet of the NBA, playing the All Star alongside Billups (17.9 + 6.4). Positive feelings that were enhanced in the playoffs, where they practically passed the Hornets and Mavericks (4-1 in each of the series) to reach the first Western finals since 1985 and the third in their history.

More than a decade later, the Nuggets repeat the coronavirus season with a team prepared to have good regular seasons but which was expected to have a low ceiling in the playoffs. In an atypical course, they have been the fourth best defense in the West, the fourth in percentage of field shots in the entire NBA and also the fourth in assists, but they have not excelled in many more facets of the game. Of course, they have had a more collaborative game during the campaign than now, having then six players with 10 or more average points and eight that exceeded nine. Of course, nobody counted on them despite their third place in the West, one less than last year, when they slipped into an unexpected and highly deserving second position and fell in the semifinals against the Blazers and against their audience. A sweet conclusion to a season of much progress and that had certified that the project still had an unpredictable ceiling and that it would depend heavily on the development of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, its stars. Something that, we have already seen, has turned out better than many thought.

A new coach and a new star

Between some Western finals and others, a lot has happened in Denver. George Karl, who spent eight years in the franchise, only made it through the first round that time, falling by the wayside in the other seven. He left in 2013 after a first-round loss to the Warriors, who then snatched the Colorado team from an Iguodala that has since made five Finals in six years and can get the sixth in seven, now in Florida. The bet on Brian Shaw, raised in Phil Jackson's school, was unsuccessful, and after Melvin Hunt's short-lived stint as interim the franchise turned to Malone, a good uncle who had been an assistant in Knicks, Cavs (in the first stage of LeBron), Hornets or Warriors (before Steve Kerr) and had a brief stint in a Kings who had less patience than their fans are beginning to have with them. A young coach (45 years old upon arrival) who would have the opportunity to take on a project from below and grow with his players, nurturing the tradition of a franchise that had always bet, as a small market, on making medium-term future plans ( Larry Brown, Doug Moe, George Karl) and not indulge in the ups and downs.

It was soon proven that his signing had been a success: 33, 40 and 46 victories in the first three seasons, losing in the third of them to Butler's Wolves on the last day for a playoffs that they finally reached last year. An impressive development of a Jokic who arrived at the same time as him and who already accumulates two All Stars at just 24 years old and Jamal Murray, who arrived a year later. The Serbian finished the seventh and final game against the Clippers with 16 + 22 + 13, while the point guard has taken the step forward that everyone expected from him. 31.6 points, 5.6 rebounds and 6.3 assists in the first round and more than 20 in the second, with 40 in the seventh game. Malone has been moving pieces, incorporating new players and making each one understand what their role is, apart from small and laughable rebellions by people like Michael Porter Jr., another great talent with a huge journey ahead. Gary Harris (25 years old) returned in the middle of the series against Utah and reduced the team's defensive rating by 20 points, Jerami Grant has been key in the defense against Kawhi and the loss of Will Barton, who has not gone to the bubble, It has been supplemented with a great collective work that has included the experience of Millsap (the veteran with 34 years) or the good work of people like Torrey Craig .

And then there's Malone. Some put him in the eye of the hurricane when the Jazz were up 3-1, but he survived the first round and gave Doc Rivers a tactical lesson in the second. With constant defensive aids, internal strength and good protection of the area, extraordinary defensive transitions and a pride transmitted to some players who reached all the aids. And in attack, take advantage of Jokic's miss match with anyone who gets in front of him and use him as a playmaker to distribute assists in the cuts or give it to Murray in the triple, with some permission for the improvisation of these two players, the soul of some Nuggets who between last year and this one have played four playoff rounds (which they had not played since 2013). And all, to seven parties, with three victories and one defeat. And two comebacks when they were 3-1 behind, the first time something like this has been done in a history that has only seen that result turn around 13 times. The last two we already know whose they are.

11 years ago, Kobe was the hero of a series in which he went to 34 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists with 48% on field goals, 34% on triples and 93% on free throws. . Carmelo, on a poor shooting series, went to 27.5 points and 5 rebounds. Now, the protagonist of the Lakers is LeBron, and the one of Denver, Jokic. Or Murray. A generation less for a man who takes almost as many years out of them as there are from the present Conference finals until the last ones that both played, those that they are now going to reissue. The Nuggets add and continue on their way to Olympus and make progress a project with wickers thanks to two players already considered stars who will challenge that celestial being that LeBron represents. 11 years later, the Nuggets are back. What we have yet to see is whether they have done it to stay. And if they really are able to go one step further to really qualify for a ring that does not wait for anyone. Because, you know, winning is not easy because of something that sooner or later everyone learns in the NBA: it never is.



Photos from as.com
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