Messes, such as the one in Denver right now, are not wrought solely by poor decisions or by poor luck but by an ugly amalgam of the two. You don’t just need a roster ill-fit to play under its rookie head coach, you need the talent on that roster to be decimated by injury. You don’t just need a team in the latter stages of an identity crisis, you need a first year head coach still in the midsts of his own. This is how bad teams become terrible, how a roster full of youthful athleticism wanes into exasperating lethargy.
This last month has seen the team undergo a grotesque transformation, one that – even to the most pessimistic prognosticator – seemed unthinkable before the season. What was supposed to be Denver’s roster at this point in the season, one anchored by Lawson, Chandler, Gallinari, and McGee, has instead featured the likes of Aaron Brooks, Jan Vesley, Anthony Randolph, and Evan Fournier.
It must all seem like a cruel joke to Brian Shaw at this point, someone who’s long anticipated dream of being a head coach has turned suddenly into a nightmare of unexpected attrition. It seems almost natural that he’s demanding the level of exhausting effort that Thibodeau seems to parlay into constant success, no matter what the circumstances are surrounding his team.
But this ability, aside from being one that seems to belong almost exclusively to Thibodeau, is one that rookie head coach Brian Shaw does not as of yet possess. He cannot help but be strung to the context of his team’s circumstances and the dearth of talent due to a rash of injuries seems to be sinking everything into a toxic sludge. How do you inspire uninspiring players? How can you transcend the trappings of the talent directly around you? In times when the franchise is undergoing such strife, effort becomes a buzzword for many, usually as a tool for indictment. Effort is a nebulous concept, one that’s hard to parse from talent, but what the Nuggets showed against Brooklyn last night was certainly not it.
Even as dire as the circumstances look now, there is comfort to be had in how untenable the present situation is. Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari will, hopefully, both be fully healthy next year. With the Knicks in nearly equal levels of disarray, Denver has doubled down on their tanking. A relatively enticing pick in perhaps the most enticing draft in 10 years will almost assuredly be in Denver’s possession, and if they nail that their future starts to look much brighter. But we’ve seen teams go down this path before and never leave it, unlike what the myth of the “Oklahoma City Thunder Model” will have you believe, very little perpetuates losing in the NBA like losing. Denver used to be the team immune to that cycle, the team able to stay competitive while still being “just one piece away”.
Through Melo and beyond, through all the regular season successes and postseason failures, there always seemed to be hope already imbued within the roster. Denver may have always been reaching for something unattainable, but at least its visibility kept things intriguing. Hope is in lottery balls now, with massive piles of losses the only currency with which to make it any brighter.