The Denver Nuggets lost the most important regular-season game in franchise history on April 11, 2018.
It was Game 82 against the Minnesota Timberwolves. If the Nuggets won, they’d make the postseason for the first time since 2013; if Minnesota did, it would be the T-wolves' first playoff appearance since 2004.
At the end of regulation, the game was tied. In overtime, the Nuggets let a lead slip with just over a minute to go, and ended up losing 112-106. They’d be going home for good.
How do you respond after a loss like that? Tim Connelly, Denver’s president of basketball operations, decided on continuity. Despite pressure from fans, he kept coach Mike Malone, even giving him a two-year extension. He re-signed center Nikola Jokic to the biggest deal in franchise history: five years, $147 million. He kept microwave scorer Will Barton on a four-year, $53 million contract. Connelly dumped a couple of bad salaries and bad fits in Wilson Chandler and Kenneth Faried.
The additions Connelly made to the roster haven’t played yet. Michael Porter Jr. was the Nuggets' reward in the draft lottery for losing that last game against the Wolves; he’s yet to play due to a back injury. And the team took a chance on Isaiah Thomas, but he still hasn’t stepped on the court this season because of his troublesome hip. Barton has played in just six games.
And yet, this season, the remarkable Nuggets stand second in the Western Conference, only recently being usurped for first by the Golden State Warriors, with a record of 31-14. They’re a lock to make the playoffs, and certainly look likely to have home-court advantage, which will be massive for them: They have a fearsome 20-4 record at home. Denver also has the second-best offense in the NBA, despite not having a single player who scores more than 20 points per game.
Jokic comes closest, averaging 19.6 points. He has a brutishly effective post game, an effective-enough 3-point shot, and he is a very good finisher from anywhere in the paint.
And that paragraph wildly understates the level of his impact on the game.
Denver’s offense runs through him to an incredible degree. He leads the team in assists with 7.7 per game as a center, and his vision creates fits for opposing defenses. The only other 7-footer ever to average over seven assists per game in a season? Wilt Chamberlain. But Jokic isn’t playing all 48 minutes like Chamberlain used to, he’s a better per-minute passer.
There’s a very good case he’s the best passing big man of all time. I mean, he’s had an incredible full-court touchdown pass. And a no-look whip to the corner. And an insane fake-shot turned into a brilliant Paul Millsap assist. The creativity and unpredictability of Jokic fuel everything Denver does.
“I’m all in on the Denver Nuggets. I told you that a month ago," Charles Barkley told his cohorts on TNT. "And not only that... the Joker should be the front-runner for the MVP.” Oh, and he’s only 23 years old.
But it’s not as if Jokic is alone — he’s part of a youthful core that have all taken steps forward this season. Jamal Murray has become one of the brightest young scoring guards in the game, averaging 19 points at only 21 years old. Juancho Hernangomez, Monte Morris, and Malik Beasley all play important roles, and they’re 23, 23, and 22 years old respectively. Gary Harris is an effective, versatile scorer at 24, averaging 15.5 points per game. They should be a force for years in the Western Conference.
Former Jazzman Paul Millsap has been the old, wily veteran, the only Nuggets rotation player over 28. That’s not to minimize his role, though: The Nuggets outscore opponents by 9.7 points per 100 possessions when he’s in the game, and his all-around efficiency and ability to play within the offense keep the Nuggets' pass-and-move system running.
And that’s what’s made the Nuggets unique: They have a MVP-level star, sure. But that star excels at making his teammates look great, and in turn, so do the Nuggets as a whole.
“Happiness begins when selfishness ends. In a game that has been taken over by incessant dribbling for yourself, Nikola Jokic is such a breath of fresh air," Bill Walton told The Athletic. "Watching him play basketball is like watching Bob Dylan come up with a song.”
Nuggets at Jazz
At Vivint Smart Home Arena
Tipoff • Wednesday, 8:30 p.m.
TV • ESPN
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Records • Jazz 26-22; Nuggets 31-14
Last meeting • Nuggets, 103-88 (Nov 3)
About the Jazz • Thabo Sefolosha (right hamstring), Dante Exum (left ankle sprain), Raul Neto (groin) and Tony Bradley (knee surgery) all are expected to be out for Wednesday’s game. … Ricky Rubio will be on a less-strict minutes restriction on Wednesday after playing just 13 minutes Monday, his first game back from a hamstring injury. … Donovan Mitchell is now 19th on the NBA’s scoring leaderboard with 22.0 points per game, surpassing Russell Westbrook
About the Nuggets • Michael Porter Jr. (back) and Isaiah Thomas (hip) will miss Wednesday’s game, just as they’ve missed the entire season so far. … Thomas is targeting a February return. … Nikola Jokic is the first 7-footer since Wilt Chamberlain to average seven assists per game. … The Nuggets are the best offensive rebounding team in the league, regaining 27.9 percent of their own misses.