NBA Sunday: Ascent of the Denver Nuggets

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When the New York Knicks decided to pay a king’s ransom for the right to acquire Carmelo Anthony from the Denver Nuggets back in 2011, they did so with the expectation that Anthony would form a dynamic duo with Amar’e Stoudemire and lead the franchise to glory.

Five years later, though, it is the Nuggets that have more to show for it. Especially this season, as the club finds itself sitting in the eighth seed in the Western Conference, battling for a playoff berth. That’s something the Knicks can’t boast.

If you’re surprised, Will Barton has a simple message for you: Don’t be.

“We’re not surprised,” Barton told Basketball Insiders when asked if he thought the Nuggets would be jousting for a playoff spot this season. “We actually think we should be better than what we are as far as our record. We really feel like we let a couple games get by that we should have won.”

Fair or not, the Knicks and Nuggets will be forever linked. The Anthony trade was disruptive to the culture that Mike D’Antoni and president and general manager Donnie Walsh were building and disruptive to a team that had relied on Stoudemire and a strength in numbers approach to open up the gate surprisingly well to begin the 2010-11 season.

Now, since then, all the Knicks have to show for emptying their cupboard to acquire Anthony is one division title and one playoff series victory. Since the trade, the Nuggets have a higher winning percentage (.500 to .444), have had fewer coaches (four to five) and much fewer players (54 to 80). Cumulatively, that indicates more stability.

What the Nuggets represent today is the idea that a team can enjoy some success without a typical “superstar” as they have six players averaging double figures and another three average between eight and nine points per game.

The question this all begs is whether or not sacrificing so much for a player that is considered a superstar is truly in the long-term interest of the franchise. The best answer to that question is that it might be. For the Los Angeles Clippers, with Chris Paul, it has certainly worked out.

But as the Nuggets appear to be on the uptick while the Knicks regress, it doesn’t appear that the same can’t be said for New York.

After six years, it is the Nuggets who improbably find themselves on course to qualify for the postseason.

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“We had a lot of injuries, we feel like we should be better than what we are, so we’re not surprised as a team,” Barton said. “This is something we talked about since last year, going into this year, going into training camp, we feel like we still can get even better.”

For this team, including Barton, getting better has been a recurring theme. Selected with the 40th overall pick in the 2012 draft by the Portland Trail Blazers, Barton spent the first three years of his career mostly as a bystander. It wasn’t until he was traded to the Nuggets in a deal featuring Arron Afflalo that things began to change for him. Now, he’s helped to turn the club around, improving his all-around game and emerging as an impact player. He just happens to be one of many contributors for head coach Mike Malone’s team, though.

“We’re deep and we’re talented,” Barton said of the Nuggets. “When you got a lot of guys that can do a lot of different things, a lot of our guys that’s on our team could have bigger roles on other teams, but we’re trying to fit together and move to make this special.”

One of Barton’s teammates, Mike Miller, knows a thing or two about special teams. It seems that only yesterday, Miller entered the league. Now 36 years old, the sage is in his 17th NBA season. The 2001 Rookie of the Year Award winner has played for seven NBA teams and has seen and experienced all there is in the NBA. That, of course, includes his helping the Miami HEAT win back-to-back championships in 2012 and 2013.

“We just got better from last year,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I think what people have a hard time understanding is that last year you had a lot of new pieces basketball wise, but then a whole new coaching staff. It’s no secret the most successful teams are the ones that keep your core group together for the longest period of time.”

Being no stranger to change, Miller knows how important continuity is, especially considering the fact that the HEAT wasn’t able to win another championship after Miller parted ways with the franchise. Miller is now in his second season with the Nuggets and has seen evidence of things turning around.

“Building a winning culture,” Miller said when asked how things can change for a floundering franchise. “We’re starting to do [that] here … just taking care of home court. Last year, we weren’t great at home, which historically, Denver’s been a great home court advantage. We’ve done that a lot better this year,” he said.

“Where we get ourselves in trouble this year is defensively. When we’re good defensively and we don’t turn the ball over, we’re scoring at the highest clip in the league since December. So scoring is not a problem, but championship culture teams, playoff culture teams, do it at home and do it on the defensive end, so that’s the things we could get better at.”

Having won just 33 games last season, the Nuggets enter play on February 12 only nine wins short of that total. Though the team is just 24-30, they have shown evidence of progression, and that’s enough to have people wondering what they can ultimately amount to. While some would argue that merely hanging around as an eighth seed isn’t worth celebrating, in the Western Conference, something should be said for even qualifying for the playoffs. The Utah Jazz were in this very situation in prior years but have put it all together en route to being a dominant team.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Portland Trail Blazers—Barton’s former team—have failed miserably in attempting to live up to the expectations that the truckloads of money spent this past offseason and advancing to the second round of last year’s playoffs have yielded.

“With Portland, it’s kind of surprising because they had such a great year last year,” Barton said, seemingly speaking for the entire NBA-watching public. “Getting to the second round, and turning that whole team, knowing [Damian Lillard] and [C.J. McCollum], they’re great players, great leaders. It is surprising,” Barton said.

Recognizing that the Blazers are one of the teams nipping at their heels—the Nuggets lead them by just one game in the standings—Barton reminds everyone that’s it’s still early and that there’s a long way to go.

“There’s a lot of games left, one thing the young guys got to understand is that a lot of things will happen the last two weeks of the season, so our job now is to stockpile as many wins as possible and put ourselves in position to compete the last two weeks of the season,” Miller said, echoing his teammate’s sentiments.

But if what has transpired over the first 50 games of the season is any indication, we may be hearing more from the Nuggets—and soon.

“Our goal is just to get in,” Barton said of the chase for the playoffs. “We haven’t been in the playoffs in a couple of years, so right now our focus is just to get in. We’re not too worried about where we fall.”

Indeed, they may not be worried. But the top seeds out West, perhaps, should be. It’s difficult to prepare for and stop a team with so many weapons.

There’s strength in numbers—it’s a commonly used mantra. Occasionally, though, it’s appropriate. And in this case, with the Denver Nuggets, it certainly is.