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The Nuggets Couldn’t Have Done It Without Bruce Brown

Jack Dempsey/Pool/Getty Images

There are so many ways to appreciate the title-winning Nuggets—from the gummous spectacle of Nikola Jokic, to his intoxicating chemistry with Jamal Murray, to the tender stewardship of Mike Malone—that I would not fault you for losing some steam as I type the words "taxpayer midlevel exception." But it's worth remembering the modest means by which Denver picked up Bruce Brown, the funky, bouncy, position-agnostic, 6-foot-4 role player that smoothed out their top-heavy roster all season. He was fundamental. Given that Brown, despite comments made in a championship afterglow, is the core Nugget most likely to split this offseason, his teammates might find themselves cycling through many of these same thoughts after he's gone.

By design, this Nuggets team was going to lean hard on its best players. Jokic and Murray would share the creative duties. Michael Porter Jr. would be a big catapult purpose-built for threes, and so good at this that the narrowness of his talent didn't matter. Perimeter defense would be secured by the burly Aaron Gordon and offseason pickup Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who never saw a screen he didn't want to claw through. This is perhaps the most synergistic starting five in the league, but from the rest of the roster, they needed something else, something more than a 36-year-old Jeff Green and a conceptual art piece called "DeAndre Jordan" could provide. To win a championship, this team would require not just injury luck—here we see the wisdom of building around a superstar who never gets more than six inches off the ground—but some over-performance somewhere in slots 6 through 15. Nobody assumed more roles more capably than Bruce Brown, which is perhaps to be expected from the man who made his NBA name carving out an undersized center role with the Brooklyn Nets. The idiosyncrasy of that Brooklyn gig likely hurt his prospects in free agency last summer, but Brown fortunately wound up on a team that would append random clauses to his job description every week and let him show just how good he could be.

There is one foundational pillar to the Nuggets job description: Cut hard with soft hands ready to catch transcendental Jokic passes. Across the entire league, Bruce is a prime candidate here, bringing the speed and hops to dunk all those dimes to safety. Need someone to hound the other team's hottest scorer for a while? There was Bruce again, gliding across the one through three, working stints on Luka Doncic, Steph Curry, Devin Booker. He could score and pass in transition, run either side of the pick-and-roll, and even, for the first season of his career, hit threes at a league-average rate on decent volume. (In some sense, the story of this season was Brown evolving in reverse, back into the normal duties of a 6-foot-4 NBA player.) When Bones Hyland mystifyingly whined his way off of the team, vacating the backup point guard role, Brown helped soak up the ball-handling duties, even freeing up Jamal Murray to move off the ball a bit. Brown is my favorite type of role player: the guy who, with his versatility, forgives all errors in roster construction, eating the sins of the front office.

Brown remained essential in the Nuggets 16-4 postseason, delivering 12 points per game on 61 percent true shooting, to go with four rebounds, two assists, one steal, and a dizzying mix of defensive responsibilities. While teammates like Caldwell-Pope and Porter Jr. lost their jumpers and/or heads for stretches of the postseason, Brown was reliable on pretty much every game and possession, crisp and decisive—attacking closeouts, pushing the break, shooting when open. That is Brown's basic disposition as a player: aggression that never falters, and sometimes even allows him to wrestle control of a whole game. One of the occasional pleasures of this Nuggets season was watching Brown take over a contest with a barrage of cannonball drives, and he brought this to the playoffs, too, crossing the 20-point mark on two occasions. There was that 25-point game in their second-round romp through the Suns:

And the more recent 21 points he hung on Miami in Game 4 of the Finals:

After that Game 4 win, Jokic praised Brown's fourth-quarter attack mode, while adding this review: "When he did a stepback three I almost wanted to punch him. But when he made it was so happy." (His face told the same story in real time.) With under two minutes to go in Game 5, Brown, true to his rep, zipped into the paint for a hustle put-back to reclaim the lead, and then, with 14 seconds left in the game, hit both his free throws to keep Miami out of reach.

What Brown said last night, in the thrum of victory, should have put Nuggets fans at ease, before they'd had a moment to think about the particulars. He told the Denver Post that he wanted to stay put: "It’s a perfect fit. And money is not everything. The money will come." Of the Nuggets 16-4 postseason record, he said: “That doesn’t happen … Why not run it back?”

The reality may be messier. Brown, a former 42nd overall pick, has made $15 million in his career to date. If he were to walk, might make roughly that much in a single year of his next contract with another team. What's almost certain is that he will decline his $6.8 million player option with Denver for next season. If he does decline that option, the Nuggets hold only his non-Bird rights and could only offer Brown a measly starting salary of $7.8 million next year. (Since they're almost certain to go over the luxury tax, they won't have access to the full mid-level exception.) If Brown is actually intent on staying in Denver, and willing to risk his payday, he could sign another one-plus-one deal, opt out again, and hope for more money then. Or he could take this ring and ride off for some other team. The leftover Nuggets, either way, won't forget him anytime soon.

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