We’ve all heard this infamous proverb before in movies, books, TV shows, etc., but up until now it’s been a phrase I’ve tried to keep out of my vocabulary when discussing my favorite sports team: the Denver Nuggets. Unfortunately, this is about the only statement I feel is applicable for the way I feel right now. After losing last night and hearing George Karl talk about the “great season” we’ve had I began to do some reflecting of my own, but then started to think: “Was is really that great?” The reality is that for most of the year, even prior to the season actually starting, this team has been bombarded with controversy in some way or another. The Carmelo Anthony trade saga admittedly left me motionless and cranky, yet when the trade went down, I felt — just as I’m sure we all did — replenished, with a new sense of being. Life, as a Nuggets fan, was suddenly fun and interesting once again, in that we were actually watching real basketball as apposed to “zombie ball.” To describe how excited I was for the playoffs this year would be like describing a child’s first visit to Disney Land. I was ecstatic, as optimistic as I’ve ever been. Rummaging through message boards and talking with friends, the subject of advancing in the playoffs was all that was ever discussed. How far can we go? Are we about to defy the laws of how to be successful in the playoffs? Could we really win an NBA championship? My brain was flooded with these questions and for hours I’d ponder the extent of which they might come to fruition, and most all of the time these Nuggets-related thinking sessions would end with a confident, “This is our year!” conclusion.
Yet, here I sit again; it’s late April, the Nuggets just got eliminated from the Playoffs, and I’m apathetically extinguished of all passion I once thrived off of. We lost 4-1 to the Thunder in the first round. The superhero-like finish down the stretch in which we amassed one of the best records in the entire NBA all seems to be worth nothing now. How could it mean something when, what you were fighting for that whole time finally confronts you and you wilt like a tethered, beaten tree in the wind? That great, team-oriented basketball we were becoming so recognized for around the league disappeared when it really mattered; that’s the bottom line. It’s like the one the thing we’ve studied for all year long, the test we felt so secure about taking just days before it actually arrived, suddenly was placed before our eyes, and upon that we froze — dead in our tracks. Instead of boldly grasping our own destiny within our hands we shook, page by page, barely capable of overturning the next chapter in our lives at that moment. But the worst part: We knew we had it this time. We knew this was finally the tip of the mountain we’d been so desperately trying to summit all of these years, and for whatever reason, had been perennially shut down by. That’s the most frustrating thing; this was our time.
Slowly I’ll recover from this drunken daze that visits me every year in late April to early May, but for now I want to touch on a few subjects that remain fresh in my mind after this disappointing end to a roller-coaster ride of a season.
I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen this summer, but I’m confident we’ll be back next year with a sound group of players capable of winning a good amount of basketball games. Fan favorite, J.R. Smith, will have to be strongly persuaded to return after another year of being inconceivably mistreated in the Playoffs, but make no mistake about it, Afflalo should be our No. 1 priority as far as the shooting guards go; luckily for us, he’s a restricted free agent. The other prominent restricted free agent employed by the Nuggets is Wilson Chandler. Although I’d love to see Wilson return, there’s no doubt that Gallinari is going to be the centerpiece of our future at small forward, and with Harrington under hefty contractual obligation for years to come, it’s hard to imagine how three guys at the same position worthy of starting on an NBA roster would be able to coexist on one team. To me, the bottom line is that Chandler carries a lot of value right now, and it would be in our best interest to explore the extent of this. If we could obtain another big man, or a first round draft pick in 2012 (already considered to be one of the best drafts ever), then I think it becomes paramount to follow up in this regard. I’m not sure the exact limitations on sign-and-trades, but I’ll be looking into this so that we, at Roundball Mining Company, can inform you about whether or not trading Chandler for equal value is a possibility. Meanwhile, the Nuggets long-time front-court duo of Nene and Kenyon Martin are both unrestricted free agents. It’s thought that of the two, Nene is more inclined to re-sign given that his family is stationed in Denver, but Kenyon Martin was quoted today by Chris Tomasson as saying, “I don’t want to leave, but it’s out of my control right now, so we’ll see.” Personally, I’d love to see these two re-signed as much as anybody, but this most recent playoff exit worries me; it couldn’t have come at a more worse time considering the precarious contractual situations of our players. You have to think that at some point in time, guys would get tired of this wearing trend, and given the chance to bolt, might strongly consider it. Of course, the right amount of money can usually fix issues like this.
Now, to bring the title of this piece full circle, here is simply my own diatribe on the final series of games this season.
I’m frustrated Nuggets Nation, I really am. Though I recognize the illustrious career George Karl has had, I also recognize the intricacies of his coaching style that have all-too-often haunted this team when the games really matter. This year, I truly believed it would be different. I thought the the Thunder were a good team, but I also thought we could compete with anybody in the West. If you were to tell me that we’d lose this series 4-1 before the start, I don’t know if I would have believed you. To me, losing 4-1 was a monumental underachievement. Regardless of how well Durant played, there was no reason we should have lost in the manor in which we did: hardly any defense, sporadic offensive efficiency, horrendous free-throw shooting; and most importantly no real fire in our hearts, determination in our eyes or passion in our style of play. Every firm facet we had come to anoint as “Denver Nuggets basketball” totally vanished, and with no explanation as to why. J.R. Smith, who was a key cog to our success throughout the second half of the season, was prematurely made a scapegoat before the Playoffs even had begun, and once underway was unjustifiably benched for a large part of the first few games. On top of this, Karl cut down the minutes of the Nuggets’ other key energy supplier — Birdman — virtually taking him out of the series all together, and gave extended time to guys like Gallinari and Chandler who promptly disappeared under the pressure. To add to the head-scratching maneuvers, Karl continued to employ his “small ball” lineups that led to an unfair advantage in favor of Oklahoma City on the glass, and instead of recognizing his funky lineup mistakes, continued to “stay the course” totally disregarding what was directly in front of him. But perhaps my least favorite George Karl moment of this entire series, and probably season, actually occurred before it had even begun. In front of his players, during a time in which he should have been motivating them, Karl instead dropped something I’ve never heard a coach drop in my entire life following sports; he fully admitted that he didn’t like coaching in the Playoffs. Unfortunately for the thousands of Nuggets fans out there who actually do care about winning in the Playoffs, it certainly showed this year.
But who are we to expect anything different from Karl? This is a man, who although has accomplished great things in the regular season, has failed miserably come playoff time. Winning over 1,000 games is undoubtedly, beyond all measure, a crowning achievement in the NBA; but one would think that with such a copious amount of victories under their belt, that hand-in-hand would be a successful tenure in the Playoffs, maybe even capped off by a few NBA championships. Instead, Karl’s playoff history is littered with years underachievement, colossal upsets and numerous player-coach feuds, all of which we’ve been front-row patrons to since he arrived in Denver. The most telling stat: Karl harbors a near .600 winning percentage clip in the regular season at .596, yet in the playoffs maintains only a .443 percent record — a drastic contrast, and the lowest among all the coaches to win over 1,000 regular season games. The fans in Denver have regrettably had to see the brunt end of this trend by losing seven of the eight playoff series coached by Karl in the very first round, and if not for the arrival of Chauncey Billups in 2008, this would have likely been eight-straight early exits. Why the Nuggets franchise tolerates such underachieving endeavors year after year in the Playoffs, I will never know. Perhaps it is the notoriety and comfort level of having a coach on your roster that has the numerical claim of winning over 1,000 games — which I suspect is largely the case — but when I look around the league, it seems we are the only team satisfied with mediocrity. This year alone, Houston let go of Rick Adelman even though he was the winningest coach in team history (in terms of winning percentage). Before this, Charlotte dismissed another high-profile coach in Larry Brown despite him leading the team to it’s first, and only, playoff appearance just one year prior. So where do our standards lie? At what point is winning a descent amount of games in the regular season only to be embarrassed come playoff time simply not enough? I feel — like I hope all of you do as well — that our expectations as fans should be ever growing in order to keep our favorite franchise on it’s toes at all times, constantly improving and moving in a positive direction. George Karl admittedly was a giant step, but we’ve reached a plateau, and I don’t know how much longer I can take staring out over the same mildly enchanted valley waiting for something great to show us the way to the promise land.
If I had my way, Karl would be gone. I simply think that at this point we have to try something new. He’s been on board for long enough now, and I think it’s fair to say, “We get the point.” A solid regular season followed by abysmal effort come playoff time, leading to yet another first-round exit is what you get. But I am not in charge of basketball operations for the Nuggets, instead Masai Ujiri is, and I have great faith that he will do the right thing eventually. I trust Masai; I feel he has a greater knowledge of the game than I, so my faith resides within his palms. We will hopefully see more of his sage-like tactics this summer as he attempts to corral this deep, and talented team back together; but with a potential lockout, new Collective Bargaining Agreement and teams hungry for talent knocking on the door, nothing is certain. But there is one thing you can count on, and that’s Roundball Mining Company bringing you the most up-to-date analysis of everything concerning the Denver Nuggets. From pre-draft coverage, to free-agent break downs, to evaluating a potential lockout — we’ll have it all. So stay tuned, and thanks to all the loyal followers of this blog who made it such a great year!