It was never supposed to be a glorious campaign for the Denver Nuggets, not with Jamal Murray scheduled to miss most or all of the regular season while recovering from a torn ACL that knocked him out of the Nuggets’ 2020–21 playoff run. But there were still plenty of reasons to believe that this year could be constructive. Nikola Jokic is good enough to keep any team in the playoff hunt, and with Murray out until at least the new year, one could foresee Jokic using the early months of the season to strengthen his partnerships with Michael Porter Jr., the guy the Nuggets will probably need to become a third star if they ever want to win a title, and Aaron Gordon, the guy they traded for at least year’s deadline in order to provide that extra bit of juice every ascendant team needs. The most optimistic of Nuggets fans would have spent the month of October charting out a course in which Jokic would keep kicking ass, MPJ would grow into himself, and the team would be in playoff contention by the time Murray returned. Perhaps the Nuggets would have been able to lock up a lower playoff seed, at which point they would have become the Team Nobody Wants To Face In The First Round, which is a fun thing to be and not an unreasonable place for a championship run to begin. Unfortunately, nobody in Denver is having any fun right now.
The Nuggets have lost six games in a row and are currently 9-10 on the year. There is much worse news than can be found in the wins and losses columns: Jokic has been kept out of the last four games due to a wrist injury, backup guard/forward P.J. Dozier tore his ACL last week, and today we learned that Porter, who hasn’t played since Nov. 6 due to a back injury, will be getting season-ending surgery.
There are a cascading number of reasons why this all sucks a great deal. There is of course the possibility that Porter, who already had to undergo one back surgery after he was drafted, will never develop into the kind of star player he’s shown himself capable of becoming. There’s the harsh reality that if the Nuggets are still going to make the playoffs this year, it is going to be because Jokic, who has played an obscene number of minutes over the last 12 months, manages to carry more weight than he already has. And then there’s that helpless feeling that perhaps the Nuggets’ shot at a championship has already passed them by, before they could even get a real glimpse at it. I’ve recently spent a lot of time thinking about a game from last season, in which the Nuggets beat the Clippers 101-94 on the road. The box score doesn’t reveal anything too special about the win, but I remember watching it and feeling like I was witnessing a transformation of sorts. The Nuggets were just better than the Clippers that night, a lot better, and for the first time since the Jokic era began in earnest, I really felt like I was watching a championship-caliber team. On that night, I was convinced the Nuggets, who were in the middle of an eight-game winning streak, were going to win the title. Murray tore his ACL 11 days later, and now here I am, seven months after thinking that I was Witnessing It All Starting To Happen, wondering if the Nuggets are now just completely fucked.
A pragmatist might say that this would be an opportune time for the Nuggets to more or less shut down the season. Jokic’s wrist injury isn’t all that serious, but surely the team could come up with a raft of excuses to keep him on the bench for big chunks of the rest of the season while giving Murray a full year to recover and angling for a better draft pick. That may very well be the smart thing to do, but it’s a course I hope the Nuggets don’t take. If sitting here for the last few hours and mind-palacing dozens of depressing forms that the Nuggets’ longterm future could take has reminded me of anything, it’s that pining for a championship, no matter how great your favorite team actually is, is a fool’s errand. Those dreams basically never come true, and so what’s meaningful isn’t what could happen one day, but what is happening in front of your face, every day.
What’s been happening in front of my face, several days a week for the past six seasons, is Nikola Jokic playing some of the best, most inventive basketball that’s ever been played. Whether the Nuggets ever win a championship won’t change how much joy I’ve gotten out of that experience. I feel lucky to be able to regularly watch Jokic play for my favorite team, and that’s an experience that I hope the Nuggets will still grant their fans even if this season seems destined to end with them outside of the playoffs. All I want out of this season anymore is the chance to watch a genius play basketball, and that’s not really any different than what I wanted out of previous seasons, or what I’ll want from the future.