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March 26, 2021

“You can’t win if you don’t play as a unit.”

– Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

“You can’t win if you don’t play.”

– The Colorado Lottery

In my fourth year of club soccer, our team had hit the apex of its possibility. We’d squeezed every bit of juice we could out of our current roster, and still couldn’t make things click. We were a defensive powerhouse, but simply couldn’t seem to manage to score very often. In a twelve-game season, we’d lost six of our first eight contests in the most heartbreaking of ways, going to a shootout from a 0-0 tie to end the game. Our coach realized something had to be done. The season look to already be out of reach, but our future plans didn’t need to be.

To swing the course of things, our coach demoted two of our worst-performing forwards down to the team that fed ours, and promoted two “kids” who were a couple years younger than most of the squad, but had shown flashes of brilliance around the goal.

And that’s when things finally clicked.

We were suddenly and surprisingly a cohesive unit, having a torrid last four games of the season, putting up at least four goals per without allowing a single score. We snuck into the playoffs that year by the skin of our teeth, finally falling 1-0 in the championship game. It was thrilling and only a little disappointing, with our same group going undefeated the following season on the way to winning it all. Our coach had taken a decently-sized risk, and we were all reaping the rewards of that bet.

When the Denver Nuggets sent Gary Harris, Isaiah Hartenstein, R.J Hampton, a future first-round pick, and a pair of future second round picks out into the basketball universe today, they took a decently-sized risk in doing so. Harris was Denver’s longest-tenured player, and a stalwart of the Nuggets defensive efforts around the perimeter. Sadly, injuries had taken their toll on Gary’s persistent presence, and Denver has often had to figure out ways to get by without him. Hartenstein was a young-but-obviously-gifted center who was still figuring out his place in the Nuggets universe during his brief stay. Hampton’s stay was just a brief, a rookie comet who could streak by you before you even knew he was there, with raw ability on both sides of the ball obvious every time he saw the floor.

Risky why? All three seemed to be well-liked by the entire team, and Harris was especially close with the Nuggets dynamic duo of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, having been the first to leverage the easy points the Joker could provide a fast-running guard with some hops. Team chemistry seems an especially important dynamic of how this Nuggets engine runs. Tampering with that as the team seems to finally be finding their feet runs the risk of them losing that cohesion and camaraderie. Harris has also been the team’s crucial stopper on the perimeter against the league’s elite guards, and was the catalyst to the Nuggets turning around a 1-3 series deficit against the Jazz in last season’s playoffs. The only mitigating view? None of the three players headed out the door saw much (if any) floor time over the last month-plus of the season, right as the team finally started catching fire.

With that risk, what’s the upside of this theoretical reward? We’ve not even talked about what Denver received in return, though if you follow the team, you couldn’t have missed the news. Forward Aaron Gordon is certainly the biggest news to hit.

In Gordon, Denver brings a forward who should fit brilliantly into the Nuggets current schema around MVP frontrunner Jokic. While Gordon has played alongside some talented guys during his time in Orlando, he’s never played with a team as talented as the Nuggets squad he will be joining. As the Nuggets third or fourth offensive option, he can still fill it up, with a career-high game of 41 points on his resume, and a wealth of highlight-reel plays along the way. His defense is also exceptional, addressing a weakness that would have had Denver sweating come playoff time. Gordon will raise the Nuggets profile immediately on both ends of the court, and should he keep his usual jersey number (00), he’ll be far and away the best guy to ever wear the double-aught in Denver. Sorry, Darrell Arthur. Gordon is also a seven-year vet who is only 25 years old, and on a team-friendly contract for another season. Immense possible reward here.

The other addition to the roster is not meaningless in that possible reward, either, and familiar to long-time Nuggets faithful. JaVale McGee returns to Denver after seven seasons away, with three Championship rings to show for it. While his game has it’s limitations, McGee has shown himself to be a good fit in situational play, and an even better fit as a part of a cohesive and focused locker room. The rim protection that Denver has lacked at times during this season is a specialty of JaVale’s, and he can physically do things that are near-impossible for other professional players, let alone we mere mortals.

The risk? The Denver Nuggets just messed with their precious chemistry, and the outcome of any such experiment can be volatile or messy, with some growing pains to be surpassed in this near term. Denver probably won’t be feeling that rhythm fully until the playoffs are upon them, and if things haven’t gelled, it will be too late to figure it out then. They’ve also weakened an already-suspect perimeter defense in the hopes that Murray, PJ Dozier, Monte Morris, and Facundo Campazzo will somehow find a way to improve in a space they’ve clearly struggled. The risk is actually great.

But the reward. The reward is adding depth and talent in areas that looked to be even greater areas of weakness, and in a year in which the path to a Championship is more wide open than it has been in years. With an MVP candidate on the roster, and a couple of transcendent talents surrounding him, the time has come in Denver to push their chips to center of the table. The reward for this chance is the Denver Nuggets best bet at their first title in 54 seasons. Rewarding indeed.

“Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far it is possible to go.”

– T.S. Eliot


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