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NBA

The Denver Nuggets Kept Me Sane

Jokic hugs Murray
(Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)

You might remember the exact dinner when you realized your marriage was doomed. Mostly I remember the bracing cold of the toilet seat I sat on while reading about the trade that sent Kristaps Porzingis to the Dallas Mavericks on January 31, 2019. That’s the day I knew, beyond dispute, that a Knicks fandom was not sustainable without permitting myself outside indulgences. There had been smaller infidelities along the way—the SSOL Suns, Big Ben and Sheed in Detroit—but I stuck it out with my defectives in blue and orange, never admitting to myself that I was a “fan” of any other team, never nurturing an external rooting interest. But the day we traded Porzingis, I knew that if I was going to stay invested in the day-to-day proceedings of the NBA, I would have to allow myself to love another.

I knew who it’d be. It was the Denver Nuggets, and I had known it ever since I saw this pass.

Watching Porzingis on the Knicks had its delirious highs, but too often it was an exercise in mechanical stubbornness. He’d plant his big doofy self in the high post, jab-stepping like Melo before him, and commit ex-ante to hoisting up bricks no matter how many open men idled in the corners, while double-teams materialized like some unsolvable riddle. Porzingis’s talents are many, but not once on offense did I feel he was watching the action unfold around him and reacting in kind. All the while, buried in Denver’s rotation was another seven-foot Euro, this one a soggy loaf out of the second round, who couldn’t have played the game more differently—pure sauce, pure feel, a lifelong calling to share the rock. There is no basketball player I love more than an inventive passer in cramped quarters, and thus there is no center like Nikola Jokic, performing miracles of hand-eye coordination while looking like he has a serious head flu. Watching him earn his place as a starter was a surprise. Watching him cement himself in the foundation of a franchise was a delight. Watching him prove over two unimpeachable postseasons that he is the best big man in the NBA is a trip.

Much of my joy lies in his bond with his brother, Jamal Murray, whose funness had long outpaced his goodness (until now, maybe). I could die happy watching Murray catch the ball on the move at the top of the key, head full of vapors and the belief that there is no shot he cannot create. Maybe he didn’t have the judgment to orchestrate an elite offense on his own, but he didn’t have to with Jokic on his team; his deficiencies were complemented by his buddy’s gifts. As a Knicks fan, I had to work to wrap my head around a synergy more powerful than “Kyle O’Quinn diming up Doug McDermott on those backcuts sometimes,” but I got there eventually. The Murray-Jokic two-man game is one of most auspicious developments of this NBA decade. (Watching this wholesome symbiosis triumph over the bloodless parallel-play of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George feels like justice.) There was a day I sat and watched every single assist they doled out to each other over the course of the Nuggets season. There was another day where I sat and watched every turnover Emmanuel Mudiay committed in a Knicks season, and I’ll leave you to guess which one was better for my soul.

My fandom extended to all the rest, too. Will Barton receiving the basketball is a cue for my pulse to spike. Gary Harris, for all his struggles with the jumper, has resumed kicking ass in understated ways as I trusted he would. Then there was Paul Millsap dutifully plugging the holes in the defense, Mason Plumlee playing the straight man to Jokic’s clown genius, Malik Beasley banging threes and ending lives at the rim, Monte Morris choosing death over turnovers. And on the other side of the ledger: Jarrett Jack looking like a billiards ball dipped in olive oil, Lance Thomas haplessly pump-faking himself out of bounds, Julius Randle spin move, Julius Randle spin move, Julius Randle spin move, Ron Baker earning $9 million. Many an evening I’d reduce my Knicks consumption to the medically advisable dose of box score, only to stay up until 1:30 a.m. taking in the Nuggets overtime live.

I had to. The heart may persist in its commitments, but there is only so much the mind can take. There are only so many deranged arguments you can write, aimed as much at yourself as at anyone else, that your dribble-averse point guard is actually good. (Scatter my ashes on Ntilikina Island.) There is only so long I can stare at promotional materials depicting R.J. Barrett sitting across from Tom Thibodeau and pretend I am watching the synthesis of the next Jimmy Butler. There is a limit to how long I can believe that Kevin Knox or Dennis Smith Jr. will be signed to an NBA contract in three years. There comes a point where you recognize that your fantasies about Mitchell Robinson’s career arc are far-flung, not least because his development has been entrusted to a franchise which couldn’t develop a box of pasta into an edible dinner. You have to find another way. Self-care is a vacuous marketing sham, except as it pertains to fans of my doomed basketball team, in which case it is real and good and important. I’ll still be there in January or whatever, watching the Knicks’ freshly demoralized draft pick enlist in the next tank campaign—but for now, I will be slinking off to support my other dudes in the goddamn Western Conference Finals.