The proven way to achieve success in the NBA is to build around a marketable superstar—either one that you’ve traded for, or have been lucky enough to draft. This isn’t rocket science, of course. Every team that’s won a championship in the past 20 years or so, has had that single dominant player who can carry his team’s scoring load—be it Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, or Tim Duncan.
In-fact, no team except the 1998-99 Portland Trailblazers has even succeeded in winning a single playoff series without an all-star on its roster. Those Blazers had players that went on to become all-stars later in their careers, but none had that designation on their resume during that aforementioned season.
And there have been teams that have excelled in the playoffs, despite being below average as a whole, because they possessed that all-world star. Think Dwayne Wade on the 2006 Miami Heat, or Dwight Howard leading an underwhelming Orlando Magic team all the way to the Finals in 2009. Neither of those two teams will go down as all-time greats. The ’86 Celtics or ’96 Bulls they were not.
On the other hand, a good, solid team, with balanced scoring, but no real superstar on the roster—no one that can truly demand that all-important double-team—tends to hit its ‘NBA ceiling’ pretty quickly. That ceiling tends to be the first or second round of the playoffs. Over the past couple seasons, Denver Nuggets G.M. Masai Ujiri has constructed such a team—and very admirably given the circumstances.
Two seasons ago the Nuggets faced losing their disgruntled superstar Carmelo Anthony, with much the same surrounding drama that the Magic just went through with Dwight Howard. Unlike the results of the Howard trade, however, Ujiri and the Nuggets succeeded in getting solid pieces back from their trading partner—in this case, the New York Knicks.
The Nuggets were forced to construct a new identity, however, one built around utilizing their speed, athleticism, and scoring by-committee—as opposed to relying on a single transcendent talent. They’ve undoubtedly had some success in the process. Last season the Nuggets gave the Lakers all they could handle, forcing a Game 7 in L.A, by playing to those aforementioned strengths.
Of course, in Game 7 of that series it was Lakers forward Pau Gasol who stepped up and put on a performance worthy of the term ‘superstar’. The Nuggets youngsters, Ty Lawson, JaVale McGee and Kenneth Faried, who had performed fantastically well up until that point, just didn’t have that same gear to transition into.
This off-season, Ujiri has continued to fashion the Nuggets into a run-and-gun style team—a team that uses the high-altitude of Denver to it’s advantage, and attempts to wear it’s opponents down. The Nuggets upgraded significantly in the 4-way Dwight Howard trade, picking up immensely talented swingman (and recent Olympic gold medalist) Andre Iguodala from the 76ers, and trading Aron Afflalo to the Magic in the process. Iguodala is an upgrade in every sense and should drastically improve the Nuggets’ perimeter defense—a point of weakness last year.
Make no mistake about it; Denver will be a fun team to watch in 2012/13. George Karl will have his boys playing an up-tempo style that will be very easy on the eye. McGee and Faried are raw, but hugely talented, Lawson just might be the quickest player in the game, and Russian centre Timofey Mozgov showed some great promise during his country’s run to Olympic bronze. If Danilo Gallinari can replicate his form from the first half of last season, for a full 82 games this year, the Nuggets could well be one of the dark-horse teams in the NBA.
Whether the expected regular season success (Denver should be able to finish 4th or 5th in the West) actually translates to post-season glory, remains to be seen. Previous history states that the Nuggets might win one series, but no more. The game slows down in the playoffs, of course, and teams become more reliant on elite scorers who can create offense out of nothing in the half-court game.
Having a balanced team, but one without a big-name superstar, is good for 50 regular-season wins, but never for those all-important 16 playoff wins. Given the basketball philosophy in place in the Mile-High City, however, Denver’s attempt to break that general rule of thumb will provide compelling viewing.