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While the Minnesota Timberwolves were firing social media shots at each other last month, the Denver Nuggets were firing Spikeballs. Only five months had passed since the teams faced each other in a play-in game to determine which team went to the playoffs. In the lead-up to media day, the team that came out on top was imploding while the other one was kicking off practice by playing a park game.
“That’s the perfect sport for me,” said Nikola Jokic, who teamed up with Gary Harris to defeat Paul Millsap and Will Barton in the championship round. “I have long arms, and you don’t need to move that quick.”
In three years together, Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly, general manager Arturas Karnisovas and head coach Michael Malone have taken special steps to create an environment for players to put their roots down and grow. Denver’s brain trust has prioritized players who play the game with genuine joy. And once those players are here, Denver goes above and beyond to make them feel comfortable. (See: Malone devoting a chunk of his summer vacation to fly to Europe to spend time with Jokic and Juancho Hernangomez.)
The result is a roster made up of players from four different countries whose idea of fun is seeing how many teammates can fit into one cold tub, a home crowd at Pepsi Center that’s flocking back after the brutal post-George Karl years and a franchise that’s starting to once again earn respect around the league three and a half years after “1-2-3 … six weeks!”
At the foundation of it all: a vastly improved culture.
“The biggest thing is our guys genuinely like each other. And they’re workers,” Malone said. “I think Tim and his staff have done a great job. We all want talent. You have to have talent in your locker room. But we also put a premium on character and culture and guys who want to be here. We want self-motivated players. We want hard workers.”
The progress Denver has made is evident in the win column. The Nuggets won 30 games in Malone’s first year, 40 in his second and 46 in his third. It can also be seen in the months when there are no NBA games scheduled. Jokic, Millsap, Harris, Barton, Trey Lyles and Torrey Craig all made trips to Las Vegas to show support for Denver’s Summer League squad, which included Monte Morris, Malik Beasley and Tyler Lydon. Following a win over the Celtics, Barton even sent out a social media shout-out to Slovenian draft-and-stash wing Vlatko Cancar.
“A YO! @CancarVlatko is nice with it!” Barton wrote on Twitter.
A month later, 11 players went to Atlanta for a voluntary minicamp held at Core 4, Millsap’s 44,000-square foot training facility. Jokic and Harris didn’t attend, but that was because they were in Serbia for the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program.
“We quite often say that we don’t want to make this feel like a job,” Connelly said. “You start playing this game when you’re young to have fun. You want to maintain that sense of enjoyment these guys find. … This summer, Atlanta is a voluntary workout, and we had our whole team there who was available to be there. I think it speaks to the overall environment Mo (Malone) and our team has created.”
Harris, who’s going into his fifth season, is Denver’s longest-tenured player. He played sparingly as a rookie, but one of his memories from that year is getting booed off the court at Pepsi Center after Portland lit up Denver for 84 first-half points. In April, Harris saw just how far the Nuggets had come when they grinded out an 88-82 win over the Trail Blazers in a game they needed to keep their playoff hopes alive.
“We got booed off the court one time,” Harris said. “Now to see the stands filled and everybody cheering, ‘Let’s go Nuggets,’ it’s amazing. It’s an amazing feeling.”
The Nuggets ranked dead last in home attendance during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons, averaging less than 15,000 fans per game. Last season, they jumped to 20th as an average of 17,141 fans came to see them play. There were 14 sellouts — up from three the season before.
Denver’s high-scoring, unselfish brand of basketball is causing fans and players to take notice. Isaiah Thomas, who signed a one-year deal with Denver in July, said the Nuggets were one of his favorite teams to watch on League Pass last season.
“They’re exciting,” Thomas said. “The one thing I said when I signed here (with) this team is they don’t play with each other, they play for each other. They like playing together. I’ve been a part of teams that love playing with each other. Being next to the other guy in the locker room, that’s half the battle I think. When you like the next guy, it’s easy to go to war every night.”
The Nuggets have their work cut out for them in 2018-19. Forty-six wins wasn’t enough to get into the postseason last year, and it’s possible it might not be enough again in a Western Conference that got even better this summer. But Denver is pointed in the right direction while one of its division rivals is sinking backwards.
The talent to make the playoffs is there. So is the chemistry. The franchise as a whole has taken so many steps since “1-2-3 … six weeks,” it’s almost unrecognizable. Now it’s time to take the next one.
The Nuggets have come so far in three and a half years, and they still have so far to go.