There was muted celebration in the building following the Denver Nuggets’ franchise record 55th win against the Portland Trailblazers on Sunday, enough to cast a subtle gloom over the history being witnessed by a Pepsi Center crowd of Nuggets faithful.
Considering the circumstances, it’s easy to understand why. Denver lost another starter to injury but ultimately escaped a must-win game, bringing the season-long goal of the third-seed tantalizingly close but still barely out of reach. Like an audience trapped in suspended disbelief at a good movie, Nuggets fans are eagerly awaiting the final twists and turns that set up the climactic moment they’ve all been waiting for.
Until that plays out and we see these Nuggets tested in the sacred arena of the NBA playoffs, any judgments about this team’s place in franchise history seem premature. The true gravity of becoming the Nuggets’ winningest team ever may not be felt until then, but the very fact we’ve arrived here in the midst of a bigger goal is an opportunity to reflect on the process behind what is now a historic achievement.
Personally, I’m conflicted about where to rank these particular Nuggets in terms of all-time franchise history. Their defensive rating of 105.1 ranks 12th in Nuggets history and their offensive rating of 110.2 puts them at 7th all-time. This might be the most consistent Nuggets defense ever, but the 2009 Conference Finals team led by a gritty, experienced group could clamp down the paint in a way this younger group hasn’t. The Nuggets have also had numerous teams that consistently produced better offense.
On the other hand, as Matt Moore pointed out to me yesterday, all the pieces matter and this has been a particularly complimentary group. The Nuggets are currently poised to set franchise-bests for point differential and efficiency differential this season. The numbers are even more impressive when you consider the circumstances under which they were achieved. Denver got a career year from Corey Brewer and steady, understated improvement from everyone else. In fact not one Nugget was voted into the top 30 of ESPN’s #NBARank this season, meaning the Nuggets have done all of this while getting relatively flat years out of all their best players.
Regardless of this team’s place in Nuggets history, if we could elect a fan-favorite amongst all Denver teams this one would undoubtedly be my choice. This is a dangerous, well-balanced squad full of big personalities and even bigger potential. There is a depth to this team’s versatility that allows them to creatively play matchups while having Iguodala as the ultimate insurance against getting beat one-on-one. It’s hard to beat the Nuggets with any one player and there are very few teams who can even come close to matching Denver’s depth. By any measure, this Nuggets team has a real chance to do serious postseason damage – more than just about any Nuggets team ever.
Sadly, a disappointing history of no playoff success is always going to overshadow regular season accomplishments for these Nuggets. Combined with the race for home court advantage, that unfortunate reality is what makes truly appreciating 55 wins seem so difficult at the moment.
The fact Denver is reaching a high-water mark after ten years of sustained success also signifies a potential landmark moment in Nuggets history. Not only is it a testament to years spent building a winning culture from the ground up, it is a new and exciting launch point for a young team that can continue to get better.
Can this season still be considered a success if it ends in another early playoff exit? No, but 55 wins is still special. 15 straight wins and 22 straight at home (and counting) are dominant streaks likely to stand the test of time for a franchise that has never had a team this good for this long.
Today, there are bigger things to worry about – like the third seed up for grabs with two winnable games remaining. On Wednesday, the Denver Nuggets will chase their 23rd-straight win at home and close the book on the best regular season in franchise history. Tough questions remain about whether or not this banner season has brought the Nuggets any closer to title contention – questions we’ll only have definitive answers for in the playoffs.