The game of basketball differs so much from that of other sports, simply due to the additions, rule changes, and overall influence from the higher-ups. Arguably no professional sports league has evolved more deliberately and frequently than the NBA. Think about something like soccer, which is considered the most popular sport in the entire world. The past is clearly visible through the current game and (although things have certainly been altered over time) largely remains the same as a whole. However, the NBA is constantly looking for improvements—whether for the fans, players, or team owners—and has shown a desire to continually work for the best available product. Why is this information relevant? Well, the player empowerment era really took another step with Carmelo Anthony’s longing to separate himself from the Denver Nuggets in 2010-11. They rewarded him with a trade, but who ultimately got the lesser end of this deal in hindsight?
The initial kneejerk reaction is to say the New York Knicks actually “won” this trade, seeing as they received someone they genuinely wanted who also happened to be the best player in the deal. However, Anthony’s ball-dominant identity really disrupted what the Knicks had built prior to his arrival. Not only was Danilo Gallinari’s value finally realized (once he was gone and Landry Fields proved to be fool’s gold), but Raymond Felton was arguably playing the best basketball of his career and Amare Stoudamire had previously displayed new life as their centerpiece. Insert Anthony and nothing seemed to really improve. It didn’t necessarily get worse either, but that’s sort of the point. He took over a solid team, became their leader, and then basically just maintained their current, middle-of-the-road pace. While it didn’t change much in the win/loss column, his presence and approach seemed to make all the surrounding pieces worse.
Meanwhile, the Nuggets seemed to find better success without Anthony controlling a heavy majority of their offensive possessions. On one hand, it seems obvious that a team stagnated by a single player should improve and operate as a more free-flowing unit upon the individual’s departure. That being said, there were plenty of reasons to be skeptical about their possibility of finding success without having a true star on the roster. Losing their top two scorers and crunch time options (Anthony and Chauncey Billups) for the likes of Felton, Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Timofey Mozgov, and a slew of unknown commodities in draft picks was a tough pill to swallow for many. Masai Ujiri properly prepared and did his due diligence to play the long game, which is what makes him one of the top general managers in the NBA.
Unlike the Knicks, Denver actually improved after this scenario. They were 32-25 before the deal, and finished out the post-Melo season with a record of 18-7. It was so uncommon for teams to be this successful without so much as a pseudo-star or young prospect preparing for stardom. Seeing that they had to replace thirty shot-attempts per night, the entire team played a balanced, almost joyous brand of basketball. Their Anthony-centric woes had become apparent, but it was still only the beginning of their long-term plan. They made the playoffs, got bounced by a young Oklahoma City Thunder squad (who had three eventual MVPs on the roster), and went back to the drawing board.
On draft night, the Nuggets selected Kenneth Faried, an undersized big man who played with an unbelievable motor and exited college basketball as one of the best rebounders from the last twenty years. Many folks loved Faried entering the draft, but just as many opposed the decision. Subsequently, they struck a multi-player deal with Dallas and Portland, sending Felton to Portland and ultimately receiving Andre Miller and Jordan Hamilton in return. The needle was barely moving, but any forward progress without Anthony should’ve been taken as a success.
After so many meaningful takeaways, everything was put on halt due to the NBA lockout. Months went by, negotiations ensued, and sixteen games were kicked off the schedule before an agreement was reached. This would be the first full season without Anthony and, unexpectedly, the Nuggets still maintained their status as a top-tier offensive team. They had seven (!!!!) players average double-digit scoring (eight if you include Miller at 9.7) on the year and were one of very few teams with the necessary combination of depth and talent to make this possible. Prior to making the playoffs, Denver (essentially) dealt Nene for Javale McGee—a promising young center with athleticism and rim-protection abilities. Like the deal with Dallas/Portland, it really turned out to be a wash for both sides and no one really seemed to win. McGee’s maturity and development never caught up to his raw talent while Nene would continue to get overpaid for being a solid starter-level piece. Regardless, the Nuggets went toe-to-toe with the Kobe-Pau-Bynum led Los Angeles Lakers for seven games and got bumped out of the first round yet again.
Despite another first-round exit, optimism was still on the upward trend. Ujiri sustained his level of excellence, especially at scouting/drafting, by drafting lesser-known Frenchman Evan Fournier with the twentieth pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. Not even two weeks later, the Nuggets utilized their collection of assets to get involved with the Dwight Howard trade. They worked as the fourth team to get the deal done between the Lakers, Orlando Magic, and Philadelphia 76ers by trading Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, and picks to obtain Andre Iguodala. The season carried onward and the Nuggets continued their offensive dominance while steadily improving defensively. In terms of wins and losses, this was their best post-Melo squad. They finished the regular season with a 57-25 record, which was good for third in the Western Conference. The team with no star-power had officially become a media favorite and had the chance to control their fate in the playoffs. Unfortunately, they ran directly into the buzz saw referred to as the Golden State Warriors during Mark Jackson’s second to last year (when their dynasty was in the early stages of emerging).
Suddenly, everything took a drastic change. The Nuggets fired George Karl after winning coach of the year and Ujiri leaves on his own accord for the Toronto Raptors. From afar, these two things would derail plenty of franchises. However, this might’ve honestly been the domino that the organization needed for a fresh start. Tim Connelly is hired as GM, Brian Shaw is anointed the coach, and things are still looking positive. Little did the Nuggets know, but Connelly would soon become one of the best front office personnel members within the entire league. It surely wasn’t the case on draft night, when the Nuggets actually drafted Rudy Gobert but flipped him to the Jazz for Erick Green. Though an obvious blunder in hindsight, it would turn out to be one of very few mistakes made by the newly appointed decision-maker.
The following year would be the first losing season since dealing their former star, finishing 36-46, missing the playoffs, and looking disoriented compared to what we saw since 2010-11. Coach Shaw received a lot of the blame, and rightfully so, as he was simply designed to be an overqualified assistant rather than the captain of his own ship. Their lack of success plus two throwaway trades (Andre Miller for Jan Vesley; Jordan Hamilton for Aaron Brooks) left a feeling of uneasiness. Uncertainty was looming as draft night approached. They clearly lacked an identity or the necessary star power to get out of no-man’s land (a lottery team who isn’t bad enough to claim top picks). It wasn’t until Connelly made his first, truly prepared selections that things began to look up. First, the Nuggets draft college-superstar Doug McDermott eleventh and later flip he and Anthony Randolph (fool’s gold) to Chicago for Gary Harris and Jusuf Nurkic. Is it fair to say that Denver won that deal? Connelly wasn’t quite finished and solidified his job security by selecting Nikola Jokic in the second round. Very few people were even aware of the Serbian center and even fewer could’ve ever predicted his eventual superstar status.
Entering the 2014-15 season, the Nuggets certainly still appeared to be in the middle ground. Things were going to remain this way until a leader emerged, whether it came from Coach Shaw or within the roster. Neither happened and Denver stood pat as a disappointment. After back-to-back losing seasons, Shaw was fired. They entered the draft with the seventh pick (no-man’s land) and selected Emmanuel Mudiay. Considered a solid pick at the time, it genuinely hurts to look back and them pass on Devin Booker and Myles Turner (despite being loaded with size)—who were both taken within the next six picks.
It didn’t seem to matter, as Denver still really struggled to capture an identity and seemed somewhat destined for mediocrity for the foreseeable future. With near-perfect timing, rookie Jokic comes over after staying overseas for what should’ve been his actual rookie season. No one knew what to expect, even the staff that drafted him, and Jokic quickly became something of a revelation across the league. He was unlike pretty much any superstar in history. Imagine Marc Gasol’s body prior to entering the league, add in a modernized skillset and arguably the best vision of any big man ever, and his path towards greatness was clear. They still fell well short of the playoffs and were headed back into the draft. This time, the concern of needing to hit a homerun with their pick was gone. Jokic gave them a legitimate cornerstone to build around, Harris proved to be a solid complementary player, and Will Barton offered a youthful scoring punch. Now, the last piece of the Anthony trade was about to come to fruition in the form of seventh overall pick Jamal Murray. They also added Malik Beasley with the seventeenth selection (their own pick).
Since then, the Nuggets have improved their record each of the last four years and continue to make brilliant moves in the draft behind the brainpower of Connelly. After Jokic’s rise to stardom, they traded Nurkic and gave complete control of this team to their new leader. Just four months later, Connelly reminds us that he’s still capable of mistakes by flipping a freshly drafted Donovan Mitchell for Tyler Lydon and Trey Lyles (yikes). However, selecting Monte Morris in the second round turned out to be a nice consolation prize. Denver then re-signs Gallinari, only to trade him to the Los Angeles Clippers for basically nothing. It was intended to be more of a salary dump, now that they had became successful enough to actually attract someone like Paul Millsap in free agency. There were definite kinks to be worked out, but few teams were as balanced and difficult to plan for as their top six.
Despite finishing the 2017-18 season with a 46-36 record, Denver missed the playoffs and entered the draft with the fourteenth pick. Though mainly everyone soured on Michael Porter Jr. and assumed he would be a massive injury risk throughout the duration of his career, the Nuggets took a chance. What did they honestly have to lose? They already had a clearly defined rotation and didn’t even need Porter to come in right away. It received some initial backlash (not from us) but ultimately turned out to be the perfect pick. He offered a positional fit and was easily the most talented prospect remaining in the draft. Not even a year later, Connelly and company subscribed to the same ideals by trading a future second-round pick to Miami for Bol Bol. Like Porter, this was initially met with laughter by most. Fast-forward one calendar year and every doubter of Bol seems genuinely foolish.
So, in less than ten full years, the Nuggets have gone from trading their star and completely decimating their roster without tanking to arguably the most appealing young grouping in the NBA. Their under-thirty core of Jokic (25), Murray (23), Harris (25), Barton (29), Porter (22), Morris (25), Bol (20), and Jerami Grant (26) has the chance to be devastating for opponents for as long as they choose to stay together. There are many takeaways from this, but it’s clear that the Denver Nuggets took the rebuilding path less chosen and are now reaping the rewards of their risky decision. It’s impossible to place any guarantees on their future, but this team should be a yearly contender with Jokic at the helm.