Nuggets fly under radar and back into familiar playoff spot
Injuries, roster turnover don't stop Denver from another postseason appearance
For the first three days of a winter training camp, the Nuggets made due with 11 players and were on few people’s radar as Western Conference playoff contenders.
Incumbent starters Arron Afflalo and Nene were absent due to contract negotiations, while another key player, Wilson Chandler, was unavailable due to a commitment in China.
“I don’t remember anybody really anxiously saying that we were going to be a playoff team before the season started,” Nuggets coach George Karl said. “Most people had dismissed us as probably we weren’t (going to make it).
“I never backed away from the playoffs. I always thought we were going to be a playoff team, and I think we can still have a chance to be a good playoff team.”
Not only are the Nuggets in the postseason for the ninth consecutive year (only Dallas and San Antonio have longer active streaks), but they are battling the defending champion Mavericks for the sixth seed in the West.
“I don’t know what people thought about us at the beginning of the year,” Denver forward Danilo Gallinari said. “We were just concentrating and focusing on what we had to do. We knew that we could be a very good team so we didn’t care what everybody said.”
The Nuggets began turning heads by winning 14 of their first 19 games, which matched the best start in franchise history, but injuries and a difficult February schedule took a toll on a young team still trying to establish an identity.
With three rookies and seven new players, Denver often had to learn on the fly without the benefit of practice time in a condensed 66-game season. Karl, now in his 23rd NBA season, repeatedly compared the challenge to hitting a knuckleball.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a knuckleball come at you, but it does something you’ve never seen before,” Karl said. “There’s a lot of things this year that you were interpreting and trying to coach and manage. You kind of felt like you had never been through it before.”
Another wrinkle was added when the Nuggets sent big man Nene to Washington in return for center JaVale McGee at the March 15 trade deadline. Nene was the longest-tenured player in Denver, and his departure left Chris Andersen as the only player remaining from the Nuggets team that advanced to the 2009 Western Conference finals.
Despite the roster overhaul, Denver returned to its usual spot in the postseason. Whereas many teams are forced to rebuild, the Nuggets continued their success in the midst of a renovation.
“I think it’s very impressive,” Gallinari said. “If you consider all the injuries we had, all the trade stuff … a lot of things happened this year, but we're still here playing in the playoffs. I thought we played a great season.”
Now that they have returned to the postseason, the Nuggets will have to prove themselves all over again.
Whether they are the sixth, seventh or eighth seed, Denver will not be favored in a playoff series against the Los Angeles Lakers, Oklahoma City Thunder or San Antonio Spurs.
“Ever since (the 14-5 start), we’ve been underdogs and people expected us to lose,” point guard Ty Lawson said. “We’re definitely going to be underdogs going into the playoffs.”
If last year’s NBA’s playoffs were any indication, predictions are meaningless.
As the No. 8 seed a year ago, the Memphis Grizzlies eliminated the top-seeded Spurs, while the No. 3 seed Mavericks found their stride and steamrolled to their first-ever NBA title.
“The champion is yet to be determined,” Karl said. “It’s going to be determined in the first couple rounds of the playoffs. Someone is going to find their strut, find their confidence and they’re going to snowball some momentum into a championship.”
Healthy and beginning to find their stride heading into the postseason, the Nuggets would love to be that team.