How the Nuggets worked the margins to build a championship contender

The powerhouse Denver Nuggets, the Western Conference champions who are slated to start the franchise’s first NBA Finals on Thursday, weren’t feeling so powerful on the afternoon of March 25, 2021.

The group of travelers from Denver were rounded up on a charter bus, en route to Tampa airport, with injuries still fresh from the night before, thanks to a 24-point beating by the displaced Toronto Raptors. That leisurely ride unfolded on a flight to New Orleans as precious minutes ticked away before the league’s annual trade deadline, delaying this season as another byproduct of the pandemic. And somewhere between the hotel and the “Departures” landing stage, coach Michael Malone received a bittersweet phone call.

The head coach has learned his Nuggets are trading for a missing piece in versatile forward Aaron Gordon, but at a price that would rip a cultural element from a locker room they’ve been fostering for the better part of a decade. It took Gary Harris to land Gordon, plus a 2025 first-round pick and rookie guard RJ Hampton, but Harris preceded Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray with that franchise. Harris helped establish the Nuggets’ lunch bucket environment that is admittedly dripping with clichés. “He was a big part of us making our team what it is,” Malone said Monday. So, as news of the trade filtered through the Nuggets bus, player after player burst into tears. A barrage of hugs awaited Harris before his route was diverted from the only team he had ever known. ” It was hard. It’s something you never really talk about when transactions are made,” Malone said.

The roster shuffling necessary to shape a contender, in today’s calculated NBA, comes with plenty of moments that aren’t designed for the faint-hearted. The timing of certain transactions, certain players joining certain teams, at specific phases of particular regimes and careers, can win or lose titles and change the arc of players’ lives. The drafting of Jokić, Murray and Michael Porter Jr. put Denver within striking distance of their first banner inside Ball Arena, but not without the optimal additions of Gordon, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown. The stories behind these pivotal acquisitions are never without their share of color – starting with the departure of Harris.

He hasn’t always been that linchpin, and that’s what’s made Harris so central to what Denver has been developing since beginning a rebuild in 2013. It once looked like he’d be a footnote in franchise history, when Harris followed up his No. 19 selection in the 2014 NBA Draft with an ominous first season. “Historically low figures. And we started thinking, like, ‘Did we make a mistake?’ “, former Nuggets general manager Arturas Karnisovas told Yahoo Sports. “But he spent so much time working on his craft that summer that he got better in the second year. And then another summer he stayed [in Denver]. And then all the players picked it up.

Jerami Grant followed suit. He was one of many Nuggets who hung around the facility with Harris, playing video games after spending long hours in the gym. But then Grant rejected Denver for Detroit in 2020 in free agency, agreeing to the same three-year, $60 million deal to be the Pistons’ top scoring option, leaving the Nuggets with a gaping hole next to Jokić in the lineup. front area. A hole Denver sacrificed to Harris to fill.

Gordon was an obvious answer, but with a crowded path to that outcome. Gordon was one of the biggest draws in this 2021 deadline, with the Magic deciding to tear down a core that included Nikola Vučević and Evan Fournier. Gordon had also requested a trade to Orlando, league sources told Yahoo Sports, with a slew of teams including Portland, Minnesota, Boston and Houston continuing his services from the Magic. Gordon had a known fan in Trail Blazers superstar Damian Lillard. The Timberwolves were playing around potential frontcourt adjustments next to Karl-Anthony Towns. The Celtics had been high on Gordon since his own entry in the 2014 draft. The Nuggets, however, were able to include Hampton, an ultra-athletic guard who Orlando, sources said, had strongly considered selecting the previous year, when the Magic eventually drafted Cole Anthony No. 15 in November 2020.

The deal was made, those tears were shed. And with Gordon in tow, the Nuggets have won eight straight in their first eight games alongside Jokić. Gordon’s athleticism added another dimension to a swirling offense around his MVP center. Gordon’s passing ability as a ball mover — not necessarily a ball handler, like much of his time experimenting in Orlando — was a welcome addition early on. The Nuggets beat Atlanta and a top-seeded Philadelphia team at home. In Denver’s road win over the Los Angeles Clippers, title or fail, Gordon was Malone’s answer to guarding Kawhi Leonard.

“They were healthy, we were healthy and we beat them,” Malone said. “After that game, I felt we had a real chance to win a championship that year.”

They wouldn’t have that opportunity for good. Just weeks later, Murray tore his left ACL in a game against the Warriors, sidelining Denver’s starting point guard for that playoff series and the following season. Veteran point guard Monte Morris, the team’s stalwart backup, admirably replaced Murray as the Nuggets posted 48 wins and returned to the playoffs. A lack of wing depth, however, was apparent to Denver decision makers in Murray’s absence. And as the 2022 trade deadline approaches, the Nuggets have been discussing a three-team deal with the Wizards and Thunder, league sources tell Yahoo Sports, which would have landed Caldwell-Pope in Denver. .

The frame, however, collapsed. The Nuggets fell to the Warriors in the first round. Connelly left the franchise following a lavish offer to lead the Timberwolves, and Denver appointed longtime executive Calvin Booth to lead the front office. Booth had worked his way up the scout ranks on his character as much as his player rating, but his tenure in that first chair, with a championship window opened by Jokić’s heroic shoulders, calls for stealth maneuvering with every trade cycle. Booth had taken Morris to dinner during the six nights between last June’s draft and the start of free agency, assuring the Nuggets general that he would be part of this year’s march to the Finals – only to backtrack on his word.

LOS ANGELES, CA – MAY 22: Denver Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon (50) during NBA Western Conference Game 4 between the Denver Nuggets and the Los Angeles Lakers on May 22, 2023 at Arena in Los Angeles, CA.  (Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon gave Denver a new element next to Nikola Jokić with his athletic ability and versatility. (Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Wizards were still looking for their own point guard to partner with Bradley Beal and were willing to part ways with Caldwell-Pope to do so, despite the sniper, with a 2020 title on his resume, training at the Washington gym all through last summer. . “I heard the rumour. I didn’t know how true that was until the next morning,” Caldwell-Pope said. “When I woke up and called my agent, he said it was possible, but he wasn’t sure yet.” February trade deadline talks had resumed, this time redirecting Morris to Washington in addition to Nuggets stalwart Will Barton. “To get an impact player,” Malone said, “you have to give up something.”

This time, Booth returned Morris, breaking his promise to give Caldwell-Pope and Denver another chance to compete for a banner. Booth had a clear vision of the offensive weapons he wanted to put at Jokić’s disposal. “You have to have positionless guys, guys who can contain the ball and shoot,” Booth told Yahoo Sports. “Everyone wants two-way players, but [Jokić] likes to play with guys who know how to play basketball the right way.

He saw that quality in Brooklyn last season, where Bruce Brown adapted his game alongside Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, going from a back ball handler to a pick-and-roll partner for the pair of All-Stars. Nets stars. Brown became Brooklyn’s third most important player, with a long record of finishes floating in the paint, “But I knew after the season, the way I played in Brooklyn, it wouldn’t fit or people would wonder how I was playing,” Brown said. “So I kind of told my agent that I was going to get fired this summer.”

Brown ignored the growls. He had heard that too many teams to count were preparing to offer him a payday. But when free agency began, the Nets didn’t make a meaningful offer to retain him. Brown goes further. “Nobody really wanted me,” he said. “Because they didn’t know if I could be a goalkeeper or not. I took it a little personal. On the second day Brown lingered in the open market, Booth felt his palms start to itch. Another add-on piece, which the Nuggets boss also credits assistant general manager Tommy Balcetis for his covetousness, was just waiting for another contender to snatch it. “I was getting nervous. It was like, why are we waiting? Booth told Yahoo Sports. “We should have gotten this guy by the deadline.”

“Nobody really wanted me. Because they didn’t know if I could be a keeper or not. I took it a bit personal.Denver Nuggets goaltender Bruce Brown

Denver told Brown everything he wanted to hear. “I wanted to go out [of] this four-man role, big man, floating game and showing what I can do,” Brown said. “And the first thing they said, ‘You can come here and be a goaltender.'” He signed a two-year, $13 million deal, with a player option for the 2023-24 season that the league staff expect him to refuse and that Malone has even harassed Brown. You can bet Denver will look to retain Brown after dealing second-year point guard Bones Hyland in February.

Brown, however, insists he hasn’t thought so far ahead, that he’s just relishing a hand-in-hand opportunity that finally reaches the championship stage on Thursday. “It’s been a perfect fit,” he said with a smile.

All Nuggets pieces appear to line up, snug and secure, going through a sweep of the Western Conference Finals, while the Celtics and Heat battled and won seven games in the opposite side of the postseason bracket .

“It’s really fair to find a bunch of guys that mesh in the locker room,” Porter Jr said.[That] is a big part of winning.

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