The cruelest thing about the Denver Nuggets’ valiantly ignominious end, with Nikola Jokic slaloming around foul trouble and Jamal Murray on 1.7 legs while LeBron James was defaulting to his prime years’ planet-eating mode, is that while this seems like a great jumping-off point for the Denvers, losing a conference final actually isn’t.
In other words, their deeds will fade quickly in today’s use-today-mulch-tomorrow world, and while there will still be good word-of-mouth, the likelihood is that they will be replaced soon. And have a nice day.
In this century (which is cooler than saying over the last 20 years), 40 teams have reached a conference final and only two, Detroit in 2004 and Miami in 2006, used a snake-eyes roll in the previous conference final to create a champion. A third, San Antonio in 2014, needed a two-year run-up, losing in the NBA Finals in 2013 and then closing the deal the next year in what looks to be Gregg Popovich’s last stand.
In other words, all the good feeling that come from clawing one’s way to a conference final rarely even allows you a return to that level the next season. It is a moment of good feeling and hope for a brighter future that normally ends up with a knee to the goolies and within three to four years the coach getting fired. It happened with Flip Saunders in Detroit after getting to three straight ECFs, it happened with Frank Vogel in Indiana and it happened with Mike D’Antoni in Phoenix. In short, it’s great to finish third or fourth until the owner realizes it isn’t first or second, and the minute it becomes fifth, sixth, seventh or eighth, you’re fishing for cardboard boxes to holds the contents of your office desk.
But that’s the history. What we have here is a warmer general impression of the Denver Nuggets than we’ve had since … uhh, ever. Murray is now officially a Lillard-level exciter, Jokic is now one the mega-creative big men who are changing the game as much as mortal-lobbing shooting guards, and Mike Malone is providing one more reason to look at the Sacramento Kings and say, “They had THAT GUY and couldn’t finish eighth? Good lord.”
It’s just that next year, it gets harder for the Nuggets rather than easier because momentum happens within seasons and not between them, and if it doesn’t get better, it becomes a mark of shame the way it has in Houston and is on the verge of being in Boston as well. Frankly, were I Nuggets management, I’d ignore the siren call of better analytics and give serious thought to cheating. It may not necessarily be noble, but a parade is a parade.