The Denver Nuggets are fun. Nikola Jokic is very good. Paul Millsap is very good. Gary Harris is pretty good. There are other guys on the Nuggets who might turn out to be pretty good. It’s entirely possible the Nuggets will find their way into a playoff spot this season, because they play a brand of basketball that tends to put a lot of points on the scoreboard. You should make a point of watching them this season, because you will find them likable, and their games enjoyable.
Fair warning: Your ability to enjoy watching them might be severely injured if you read this dumb and bad ESPN.com article by Micah Adams, in which the following sequence of words exists:
Breaking news: Stephen Curry and Nikola Jokic do not have similar games. And yet both succeed as offensive wunderkinds, thanks in part to a skill unmatched by any counterpart. Curry’s shooting ability is unlike anything we’ve ever seen. The threat he presents by simply stepping on the floor unlocks defenses in ways that numbers can’t fully articulate.
Jokic’s playmaking presents a similar challenge.
The premise, here, is that the Nuggets might be the NBA’s next “nearly unstoppable dynasty” because, uhh, reasons? Because there are some incredibly flimsy similarities between the rise of the Golden State Warriors and the current Denver Nuggets. For example:
The strategy laid out by the Warriors and since copied by the Nuggets is to build mostly through the draft, add role players with smart trades and nail one major impact free agent.
Among the top eight players in projected minutes for the Nuggets are four homegrown draft picks, three role players acquired via trade and one high-impact contributor signed as a free agent, which is the same distribution the Warriors used in 2013-14.
Listen. This “strategy laid out by the Warriors” is not even close to some evolution in team-building. It can be summarized more succinctly as “get good players, do not get bad players.” The Warriors did not come up with the idea of drafting good players, making smart trades, and acquiring high-level veterans in free agency. That is literally what every team in the NBA is trying to do. The only actual ways of acquiring players in the NBA are via the draft, via trades, or via free agency. No non-tanking NBA general manager, with the possible exception of Ernie Grunfeld, has ever attempted to utilize those avenues for the acquisition of bad players.
But it’s that second paragraph that sends your brain spinning into literal hell. Here are the top eight players in projected minutes for the Washington Wizards: John Wall (draft); Bradley Beal (draft); Otto Porter (draft); Markieff Morris (trade); Marcin Gortat (trade); Kelly Oubre (draft); Jodie Meeks (free agency); Ian Mahinmi (free agency). So! Among the top eight players in projected minutes for the Wizards are four homegrown draft picks, two role players acquired via trade, and two contributors signed as free agents. I guess they can’t be a dynasty, because one of those free agents wasn’t acquired via trade! Rats. The divine numbers of Warriors-style success never lie, I’m afraid.
When it comes to the draft, both front offices did it the hard way by nailing picks outside the top five, which is a difficult task. Golden State drafted eventual All-Stars with the No. 7, No. 11 and No. 35 picks, spots that in the lottery era have developed into All-Stars 33 percent, 15 percent and 9 percent of the time, respectively. The chance of finding All-Stars with all of them is about 1-in-200.
Denver is following suit with a group consisting of Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris, Jamal Murray and Emmanuel Mudiay. That sounds crazy? The same thing could be said of Golden State’s young core four years ago. Although Stephen Curry had emerged as a likely first-time All-Star entering that season, neither Klay Thompson nor Draymond Green registered on that kind of radar. Jokic, Harris and Murray combined for 15.6 win shares last season, near the 16.1 win shares produced by Curry, Thompson and Green in 2012-13.
Ah yes, where the Warriors built through the draft by finding future All-NBA performers outside the top five, the Nuggets have done it by finding, umm, zero All Stars, including, umm, Emmanuel Mudiay, an actively bad NBA player who probably will not finish this season as a member of the Denver Nuggets. Jokic stands a reasonable chance of making an All Star team at some point down the line, but Gary Harris is only marginally closer to being an All Star in the loaded West than I am, and I might actually stand a better chance of making an All Star game in the next decade than Mudiay. Still! Gotta give the Nuggets front office credit for using the draft to draft, you know, basketball players! Just like the Warriors, actually.
Entering the 2013-14 season, the Warriors were looking up at an impressive array of contenders out West that included the Spurs (one Ray Allen missed shot away from winning the previous title), Thunder (featuring MVP-to-be Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook), Clippers (with Chris Paul and a healthy Blake Griffin) and Rockets (added Dwight Howard to pair with James Harden). The road to the top of the West went through multiple established star duos and trios, leading ESPN’s Summer Forecast panel to project the Warriors for a sixth-place finish in the West.
That’s exactly where the Warriors finished, winning 51 games in a loaded conference that featured seven 50-win teams and left a 48-win Suns team out of the playoffs.
Now there’s a real sense of déjà vu as the NBA is once again unbalanced. The Nuggets are looking up at a swath of star-heavy Western Conference powerhouses and figure to be somewhat of a high-quality afterthought. They also were picked by ESPN’s Forecast panel to finish sixth.
Spooky! So let me get this straight: Would the Nuggets be more or less likely to become an unstoppable dynasty if they’d been forecast to finish third in the West? What about first? Or is the numerological connection to the Warriors really that significant?
Unbelievably, this thing gets dumber (emphasis mine):
Were it not for his fellow Splash Brother, [Klay] Thompson would likely be viewed as the best shooter in the world. He’s also coming off an NBA Finals in which he spent more time guarding Kyrie Irving than any other Warriors player, while holding him to 38 percent shooting and 0.8 points per play. That’s a lofty goal for [Gary] Harris to match.
However, compare Harris to Thompson at the same age and you come away thinking Harris has all the tools to get there. Last season, Harris averaged more points per 36 minutes, shot a better percentage from 3 and finished with more win shares than Thompson did as a 22-year-old. And he did it while playing more than 30 minutes per game, a significant piece of the rotation, even if he didn’t yet quite have as large of a role as Thompson did at that same point.
Of particular interest is Harris’ ability to stretch the floor in Denver’s high-octane offense playing off of Jokic. As the charts show, Harris is every bit as effective a catch-and-shoot threat that Thompson was back in 2012-13, though with less volume.
Okay. Less volume, and a smaller role. Let’s check the receipts on that: Thompson was coming off a season in which he’d attempted 6.6 threes per game on 22.7 usage; Harris is coming off a season in which he attempted 4.5 threes on 18.5 usage. Those aren’t just differences of scale—a player who uses 18.5 percent of his team’s possessions when he’s on the floor is a lightly used role-player; a player who uses 22.7 percent of his team’s possessions when he’s on the floor is shouldering more than his share of the offense. Klay Thompson was an offensive focal point for the Warriors; Gary Harris finished with the eighth-highest usage on last season’s Nuggets. Gary Harris is not a lower-output version of Klay Thompson; he is a different sort of player altogether.
But, hey, why dig into the nuanced differences if you’re already willing to completely hand-wave away the fact that Harris is not actually a very good defender:
Harris has further to go than Thompson on the defensive end, where he gives up three inches and thus doesn’t have the size to check as many positions as effectively. According to Synergy, Harris ranked in just the 15th percentile in points per play allowed in the half-court, though some of that can be attributed to scheme and Denver’s generally porous defense overall. Regardless, he ranked among the league’s worst shooting guards in defensive RPM last season, despite having the tools to become a plus defender.
Tools like being short and not having the size to check multiple positions effectively. Oh, well, no big deal, HE’S STILL THE SECOND COMING OF KLAY THOMPSON.
Perhaps the silliest, most desperate argument in here is the one that compares Jamal Murray—a sweet-shooting guard with questionable defensive pedigree—to Draymond Green, the reigning defensive player of the year. Even Adams isn’t so lost in this absurd exercise in false equivalencies that he’d try to tell you Murray projects as a Green-like difference-maker for the Nuggets. But, if anything, it’s the acknowledged differences between the two that highlight the incredible silliness of even engaging in this exercise:
Entering his second season, Murray projects for 2.7 RPM wins in 2017-18, which would exceed Green’s RPM wins from the 2012-13 season. While Green contributed far more in his second season, it’s also worth pointing out that Murray entered the league three years younger than Green. There’s plenty of time to play catch-up.
So, what? These guys are not alike, and their roles are not alike, but at some point in the future Murray might catch up to Green in terms of ESPN’s proprietary metric, even though they don’t play similar roles even in the broadest possible terms. If that’s what you’re saying, you’re saying nothing. This team might someday have another important player is not an observation. It’s not an interesting coincidence. It’s nothing.
Why compare these teams? Why cram the Nuggets into some totally make-believe mold of the Golden State Warriors? Especially if it means using something like projected RPM in order to draw a silly comparison between players as wildly dissimilar as Draymond Green and Jamal Murray. The whole notion that the Warriors have built their dynasty around some sort of specific team building strategy is dumb, to begin with: in 2012, Steph Curry signed a four-year, $44 million contract that looked like an underpayment before the next All Star break, and would soon become the best bargain contract in NBA history. Everything the Warriors have done since then rests upon that development, which gave them one of the very best players in the history of the league at about the salary of a solid rotation player, and left them with the salary cap flexibility to get and keep a roster of tremendous complimentary players. That flexibility was still benefiting the Warriors when the cap leapt outrageously before the 2016 season, giving them a once-in-a-lifetime shot to add another of the game’s all-time greats to an already stacked roster. Turning around now and acting as though the Warriors executed some sophisticated team-building strategy does nothing but flatter Joe fucking Lacob while obscuring the boring truth; that Steph Curry’s early ankle injuries are far more responsible for Golden State’s dynasty than are a bunch of dubious roster ratios. I mean get fucking serious.
Of course, Denver should not start securing permits for a downtown parade this June. These things take time.
Okay, well, I’m glad we cleared that up. LOOK OUT WORLD, THESE NUGGETS ARE EERILY LIKE THE 1999 ST. LOUIS RAMS!