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As Game 5 of the 2012 NBA Finals came to an end, the broadcast cut to a shot of Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Kevin Durant together on the sideline. The three men looked downtrodden, aware that their dreams of a title were being dashed — at least temporarily. They were down 19 with 1:29 left and were about to lose their fourth game in a row after upsetting the Heat in Game 1.
Despite their Finals loss, there was cause for optimism. Each of these young stars were still years away from their prime and they appeared set to contend for championships together for many years to come. Surely, in the future, after they had already won a title or three together, this loss would be seen as a learning moment, a necessary stumbling block that the team had to face in order to reach the mountaintop. Instead, that was as good as it ever got.
The Denver Nuggets are having a rough season. With Jamal Murray likely to miss the entire season after tearing his ACL in April, expectations were tempered for the team entering this year. And though few expected them to contend for the Western Conference crown this season in light of Murray’s absence, their being just .500 nearly a quarter of the way through the season is still surprising.
Nikola Jokic has played phenomenally, arguably outperforming his MVP campaign from last year, but he too has battled injury and missed several games. Most alarming is the news that Michael Porter Jr. is having back surgery which will likely keep him out for the remainder of the season. Taken together, these setbacks to their three best players raise a lot of questions about what the Nuggets may look like for the rest of the season and what it means further ahead for the team’s championship aspirations.
The Denver Nuggets have the reigning MVP and a lot of injured pieces around him
It would be foolish to say that the injuries to Murray and Porter mean that the Nuggets championship window has definitively closed. They still have the reigning MVP and arguably the best player in the NBA in Jokic and, as long as they have him, the Nuggets’ floor can only ever be so low. Also, ACL injuries are no longer the career enders they were in previous decades so it seems reasonable to assume that Murray can soon be his previous self whenever he returns to the floor.
The biggest concern is the injury to Porter. Not only because his nerve and back issues have a greater potential to be long-term injuries that could derail and perhaps even end his career, but because of how much money the team has already committed to him. If Porter can play, he’s one of the most lethal third options in the NBA but if he can’t, he’s a $150 million albatross. Not only would the team be paying Porter Jr. tens of millions not to play; his new contract (which has yet to even begin!) would also keep Denver from being able to find and sign an adequate replacement.
In light of their injury troubles, it would not be entirely surprising if the Nuggets decided to focus on the future more than the present for the rest of the season. Denver owns their first-round pick for next season so this could potentially be an opportunity for the team to add a high-quality young player in the offseason, while also developing their first-round selections from the last two drafts, Bones Hyland and Zeke Nnaji.
On the positive side, Denver has shown themselves to be adept at finding great players in the draft regardless of where they are selecting. There is no reason to expect that ability to evaporate, unless you believe their luck is bound to run out eventually. There is also the question of whether or not the team would have time to develop young talent or if they need to maneuver immediately.
At 26, Jokic is still young and figures to have several years of MVP-level play left in him. It is incumbent on Nuggets management to surround him with talent that can make the most of his abilities. And as good as Murray has often been, it is worth noting that Jokic has yet to have an All-Star teammate. Perhaps the Nuggets could win a championship behind the duo of Jokic and Murray, but it’s rare for a team with only one All-NBA level talent to win a title unless the stars really align.
The thing about championship windows is that they rarely ever snap shut entirely. Rather, they fluctuate from moment to moment, contingent on any number of factors. Last season, one could have argued that the Milwaukee Bucks’ opportunity to win a title in the immediate future had practically evaporated following two disappointing playoff collapses and the Nets’ trading for James Harden last season. And despite these seemingly long odds, the years of slowly building a contender around Giannis Antetokounmpo paid off. Clearly that window was more open than it appeared. Perhaps Denver could find themselves following Milwaukee’s footsteps in the years to come.
It’s not yet clear if these obstacles are temporary impediments or long-term barriers that will keep them from long-term contention. The Nuggets’ prospects may not look promising at this precise moment, but as long as you have an MVP who is still in their prime on your roster, the possibility for surprise remains. This situation is also a reminder of how fragile the edifice of any aspiring contender is. One unfortunate twist of fate and you’re just another playoff team, one or two more and you’re rebuilding, wondering what could have been if that one deal had gone differently or if that one player had not gotten injured. Just ask Oklahoma City.