When you’re playing against a stacked deck, compete even harder. Show the world how much you’ll fight for the winners circle. If you do, someday the cellophane will crackle off a fresh pack, one that belongs to you, and the cards will be stacked in your favor.
– Pat Riley
Though Mr. Riley’s words are strong and apt, he’s a funny person to talk about competing against a stacked deck, as more often than not he was the one coming into a situation with the deck firmly stacked in his favor. Riley was the player/coach/GM/orchestrator of several stacked teams:
1972 Lakers – Riley was an important bench player alongside the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, and Gail Goodrich. They won Chamberlain’s sole championship with this crew.
1980 Lakers – Riley stepped in as an assistant coach when Paul Westhead took over head coaching duties. They happened to do so in Magic Johnson’s rookie season, alongside peak-level Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Cooper, and Norm Nixon. Fate had conspired a bit, but another very stacked deck brought Riley his second ring.
1982+ Lakers – Riley took over head coaching duties for Westhead when Johnson threatened to leave the team if Westhead stayed. Riley was “interim coach” for a moment, but was quickly given permanence when the team flourished under his lead. The Showtime Lakers would go on to the next four Finals, and six of the next seven, earning Riley FOUR more rings along the way with names like Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Byron Scott, A.C. Green, and more. Stacked, stacked, stacked.
1992+ Knicks – Riley stepped in to lead the Knicks in an era that the Michael Jordan-led Bulls were always the leaders in the East. The ’91 Bulls has swept the Knicks on the way to their first ring. But with Riley stepping in in ’92, the Knicks were able to push the Bulls to seven games in the Eastern semis, and were invariably a thorn in MJ’s side, with names like Patrick Ewing, Anthony Mason, Charles Oakley, and Doc Rivers, and John Starks. Stacked as hell.
1995-Present Miami Heat – Riley took over as both president and head coach of the Heat, a move so controversial in the league, it eventually cost the Heat a first-round pick to the Knicks for tampering. While Riley brought the Heat back to significance during his time as a coach there, it was his personnel moves that landed him even more success. While he was unable to bring Miami a title while still on the bench, he brought the team back to relevance. Names like Alonzo Mourning, Tim Hardaway, Dan Majerle, and more. Building blocks that eventually led him to step away from the bench to focus on personnel in ’03. By 2005, Riley had core pieces Dwayne Wade and Shaquille O’Neal. Riley went back to the bench with those two leading in ’06, leading the franchise to their first championship, and his fifth as a head coach. While Riley stepped back away from the bench in ’08, he would bring the franchise two more titles with a few important names tacked on with Wade you may have heard of… LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Ray Allen ring any bells? Stocked and stacked with a compliment of talent around them, Riley had now picked up a total of nine rings by playing with, coaching, and eventually deeply stacking his own deck. Funny that he should lament decks stacked against him, ever.
But surprisingly, this is not a Pat Riley article. Nor even a Pat-Riley-is-kind-of-a-giant-@ssh0le-for-ever-even-once-saying-the-deck-has-been-stacked-against-him article.
You know, that old chestnut.
It all makes sense. NBA teams (hell, any sports teams) try to stack themselves with as much talent as possible in their efforts to move as far towards a title as possible. Teams who operate in coastal cities and massive metropolitan centers such as Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Boston, and San Francisco do have the advantage of larger budgets, TV contracts, audiences, and appeal… But it doesn’t change the fact that every team is trying to find the right combination of “cards in their deck”. Some years it works out, especially for talented deck-stackers like Riley, and some years you’re the ’04 Lakers (Kobe, Shaq, Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, Metta World Peace), the ’14 Nets (Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry, Deron Williams), the ’21 Nets (Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, James Harden), the ’22 Nets (same cast), the ’23 Nets (swap Harden for Ben Simmons, and I’m ahead of myself on this one, but just joyously guessing)…
But when you look across the landscape of this upcoming season, there are very few teams who look to be as well-stacked or stocked as the Denver Nuggets. Is that a recipe for the Denver’s first NBA championship? The oddsmakers still have them a bracket below the favorites, but the players, front office, and hardcore fans are all feeling pretty bullish about their odds. What has them so optimistic, and how exactly have the Nuggets come to stack these cards in their favor?
You can’t really start any conversation about the Nuggets that doesn’t lead off with back-to-back-and-reigning MVP Nikola Jokic. Jokic is the piece that elevates all the players around him, and turns his team into one of the most dangerous offenses in basketball. While he has shored up his weaknesses (defense, rim protection) mightily, he has also worked his ass off for his team season over season, and turned himself, who could have been a one-trick player, into an unguardable offensive weapon that has earned the respect and admiration of the entire league, sometimes begrudgingly. The Joker comes into the ’22-’23 season with only one goal left to achieve in his already historic career. He’s so effective on so many fronts that his advanced stats are simply head-and-shoulders above all others, including an all-time PER last year. This season, he unfathomably looks even better. Great for the Nuggets, terrifying for the rest of the league.
Murray is the yin to Jokic’s yang, providing the team with an edge and swagger that even Jokic has adopted into his game. Murray is capable of going off for 50 points on any given night, and with Jokic, forms the deadliest two-man game in league, a combination that carried this team to their third Western Conference championship three seasons ago. Murray returns after a year and a half away from the game due to injury, and while he’ll have some rust to knock off in the early going, he’ll also be playing with a massive chip on his should in the moments that matter later in the year. When the Blue Arrow is finally roaring and scoring as the season fully kicks in, Denver suddenly finds themselves with two impossible-to-solve puzzles at two of the game’s most important positions. Murray is as underrated a defender as Jokic, guys who are least “not negative” on that end of the floor. All they’d really need is a third.
Michael Porter, Jr.
That third is hoped to be MPJ, who is one of the game’s truest scorers when at his peak, and has all the physical skills to be so much more. When Mike is firing, it doesn’t matter who is in his face. And once he’s going, teams are forced to stay honest on Jokic and Murray, and then all the chips start to fall towards what looks like a very stacked deck. In all fairness, Porter will do the Nuggets his biggest favor if he can strengthen his sometimes-spotty defense, but his shooting stroke is the purest on the team, and maybe one of the two or three best in the league. Stacked. But wait… there’s more…
Gordon was a revelation for the Nuggets when he joined the team a few games before Murray’s injury, and when he and the three guys above played together, they were bordering on unstoppable. AG is the ultimate star to fit in with this squad, as he’s a defensive stopper at positions 1-5, a killer rim runner/dunker position guy like Jokic loves, and completely bought in on being the fourth or fifth (and still dangerous) offensive option for this Nuggets team who, and a guy who is simply happy to eat as he is able to be fed on the court.
KCP is the only new piece added to this Nuggets squad, but on paper, he’s the perfect complementary card to fully stack this deck. Caldwell-Pope has the ring in his past the rest of this squad desires, as a part of one of the three Lakers squads to have knocked the Nuggets out of the Western Conference Finals over the years, being a part of L.A.’s 2020 Bubble Championship. He’s a three-point threat, a defensive stalwart, and a whatever-it-takes sort of a contributor. With Caldwell-Pope in the mix, the Nuggets arguably have the finest starting five in the league, and once they find their rhythm, could put up numbers on both ends of the court that should terrify the rest of the league. Our best five against your best five? Bring it. We. Are. Stacked.
But it’s not just five guys who make up the final score, is it? The Nuggets know it as well as anyone, and have made sure to have threats like Bones Hyland, Bruce Brown, Zeke Nnaji, Christian Braun, DeAndre Jordan and more ready to spell the starters. That cadre offers the Nuggets options to go lock-down defensive (Gordon, KCP, Brown, Braun, Nnaji), full-tilt offensive (Jokic, Murray, MPJ, Hyland, Gordon/Nnaji), go BIG (Jokic, MPJ, Hyland, Nnaji, Braun), go small (Murray, Hyland, KCP, Brown, Braun/Nnaji), go… well, go anywhere.
This may or may not be the Nuggets year, Nuggets Nation, but Denver finally seems to have all of the cards, and they have the most important ones in place for the foreseeable future. This is the team that the organization is placing their bets on, and have fully laid their chips on the table. No matter how these cards end up playing out, this Denver Nuggets team has stacked the deck in their favor as strongly as any Nuggets team in history. They’ll need some luck, they’ll need some help. But the pieces are in place to finally crack the cellophane “off a fresh pack, one that belongs to them, and the cards will be stacked in their favor”.
Thanks for the easy quote, Pat. Here we go, Nuggets. You’re f—ing stacked.