The franchise player. The guy not just enlisted to do the most for his team, but the guy who actually becomes the team. The guy behind whom the entire team takes its personality. The team rises and falls on the rises and falls of the player himself. Some of these ‘identity guys’ are obvious. They have spent long stretches – or entire careers – with their team, like Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, or Paul Pierce. In other cases, new players like LeBron James or Chris Paul have come in and completely reinvigorated a team. Some teams, like the Thunder with Kevin Durant or the Bulls with Derrick Rose, picked the right identity through the draft and are letting their young stars become the face of the franchise.
The general rule, then, is that: the better your ‘identity’, the better the team.
Which brings us to the Nuggets.
Winners of 13 consecutive games, the Nuggets are the hottest team in the Western Conference right now, and would be the hottest team in the league if it wasn’t for the Miami Heat making history out East. They are fast climbing up the standings in the West, and could potentially upend both the Clippers and the Grizzlies to take third place if this form continues. In defeating the Thunder in Oklahoma City last night on Tuesday night, they proved that they will be a real threat to contend with in the post-season.
But what is their identity?
Since they traded Carmelo Anthony to New York two years ago, the Nuggets have been a team of many lesser talents gelling together to form a near perfect whole. Remember, not a single Nuggets player made it to the NBA All-Star Game this season. As a matter of fact, the Nuggets haven’t had an All-Star since Anthony’s last days with the club in 2011.
Between Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari, Andre Iguodala, Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried, Corey Brewer, and JaVale McGee, the Nuggets have seven players averaging double-digit scoring during their winning streak, with Lawson leading the way with nearly 20 a game. The likes of Andre Miller and Kosta Koufos are lurking near the double-digit average as well. This is a team that has truly embraced the ‘we’ philosophy to put the whole over the self, and the results have been marvelous.
During their streak, the Nuggets’ offense has been elite. They are leading the league in field goal percentage, mostly thanks to the fact that they attack the rim with unmatched ferocity and lead the league in points in the paint. The streaking Nuggets have improved defensively, too, to become one of the two teams in the league to have a top five offense and defense in this stretch. With quick, athletic guys like Lawson, Iguodala, Chandler, Faried, and McGee on the roster, they are always in attack mode. In Gallinari, they have an efficient outside shooter to spread the floor. In Miller, they have an experienced point guard to be the team’s leader in tough times. In Faried and McGee, they have guys who can play tough post defense. In Iguodala and Chandler, they have guys who can lock down the perimeter. In Lawson, they seem to be getting a go-to guy to close out big games. And all of them can score.
That is all incredibly good. But still who exactly
And that’s when we realize that the Nuggets identity isn’t formed behind a single person, behind just one star player. We realize that although this team has a fantastic 47-22 record, they have been fairly pedestrian so far on the road (17-19). We realize that, holding on to an astonishing 30-3 home record, they are tied with Miami as the best home team in the league. In fact, they have won their last 15 games at home.
The answer, then, is obvious. The Nuggets are Denver.
The ‘Mile High City’ lives up to its name, as its altitude is 1,609 meters – about a mile – above sea level. This elevation has always given the Nuggets a home advantage. Opposing teams struggle to get used to the thin air up there, panting and falling behind, slowing down and struggling, while Lawson and the rest of the speedy team blows past them for bucket after bucket.
This unselfish, deep team doesn’t need a superstar identity to base their personality around. Shepherded by the always-brilliant coach George Karl, they have found their personality in their host city, a daunting venue for visiting opponents where the lightning quick home team can leave you miles behind, gasping for air.
Their next challenge now is to take this show on the road. To be successful in the playoffs, the Nuggets will have re-create the ‘Denver air’ in opposing arenas. And the way they zoomed past the Thunder in Oklahoma City, it’s clear that other teams around the league have started feeling the chilly breeze.