Out to Sea: A Denver Nuggets Season Preview
This year, for the first time, Hickory-High will be tackling the challenging of crafting season previews for all thirty NBA teams. Beginning today we’ll be rolling out these previews, one each day, leading up to Opening Night. This was a task of considerable size and complexity and it required the help of every member of our staff. The only guidelines given were that each writer approach team by staying true to their own style and the result is season previews of a difference sort. We hope you enjoy!
Ernest Shackleton never reached the South Pole. He led the 1907 Nimrod expedition with the aim of becoming the first human to reach the basin (or apex, if you’re Australian) of the Earth, but dwindling food supplies, dead ponies and pure exhaustion forced his crew to turn back 97 miles from the pole. In one of those interesting bits of history and the fractured passage of time, that the most famous antarctic explorer never succeeded in this goal and his other major trek collapsed before it even reached the antarctic continent. It’s this trek, the 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, that is probably his most famous voyage and the journey that mythologized him. It is also weirdly like the Denver Nuggets of 2013-2014.
One year ago today, Denver was entering the season full of new hope and expectations. Their young, hastily assembled team had pushed Los Angeles to seven games and Javale McGee — part-time baller, full-time friend — had shown some flashes of translating ability into production. They had turned the drama of Carmelo Anthony’s looming departure into a decent core. The squad was augmented with Andre Igoudala, and suddenly the Nuggets were geared up to be a beautiful, successful basketball team. Denver entered the playoffs as the 3-seed, only to be undone by the superhuman brightness emanating from Steph Curry’s jumper. High expectations turned into a first round exit. Igoudala left for the team who dispatched Denver. Mad Scientist George Karl was fired. Reigning Executive of the Year Masai Ujiri went back to his origins to run a passion project, the Toronto Raptors. Things look bleak for the Nuggets. For hardcore basketball aesthetes, the 2012-2013 Nuggets were something greater than another very good team in a loaded west. Straight up fast-break basketball as an offensive ethos has been in a steady decline since the Phoenix Suns traded for Shaq in 2008. Karl was a steady pragmatist who realized the best way to leverage his advantages was to set his team loose on a constant screaming tear towards the hoop. And it worked, at least for a while. Basketball was fun again, and the team was good enough to merit it’s unceasing, season-long fast-break. But all movements flame out eventually, and Denver’s speedy, knives-out offense went fast.
Shackleton was a man completely consumed by the need for more. Exactly more of what was never solved by the time he died of a heart attack in 1922. When he went, he was only 48. The Shackleton-Rowett Expedition was headed back down to Antarctica to circumnavigate the continent when he flamed out and died. He never achieved those big, aching, grandiose goals he had lived and died for, yet Shackleton is canonized. The Irishman was driven by monomania, which made any normal life unlivable, but cemented his legacy as a human who refused limits, who raged and fought against the harshest conditions on Earth. Shackleton is a symbol; a looming, important symbol of refusal to slow down or stop in the face of tribulations, no matter how vital. The Endurance voyage was cut short pretty early on when the ship was caught in and eventually crushed by a large ice floe. The rest of the trip was a struggle to stay alive and find a way home despite the whole team being forced to camp out on floating chunks of ice in the ocean. Their odyssey included seals torpedoing up onto their floe and attempting to drag the sailors down into the water, the first overland crossing of a glacier on South Georgia Island and somehow no dead people.
The Denver Nuggets set out in 2012 with a strong boat, lofty goals and a full set of supplies. Now, they have been ravaged by the coldly Darwinian world of business in the NBA. The team is stripped of their most valuable contributors at all levels and are drifting into the great unknown of the future rather than busting through the ice that threatens to engulf them. In the NBA nothing is static, and sometimes the entire league attempting to improve all at once every summer can gouge a team and leave it wrecked. It’s uncertain if this will be the case with Denver. The team still retains most of their starting lineup, including human blur Ty Lawson. Andre Igoudala had a strangely below average season, but he was a vital cog in the speed machine. His defense on the wing was a large reason why the system was so effective, as it often relied on turnovers to spark a fast break (this is how they were able to hang 92 points in the paint on Sacramento). If Denver is to hang in a hotly contested playoff race, it will be because Javale McGee improves this season. The Nuggets bet a lot on Javale’s ability to turn fun into production, and he has shown the ability to do so on just an intermittent basis. If he improves, Danilo Gallinari comes back quickly and the point guards continue to create problems for opponents, Denver could see itself in the playoffs. Maybe.
Hanging onto a top four position in the West is an incredibly difficult proposition, as the list of elite teams only swells annually. Unless your team is blessed with a superstar, every offseason must bolster the ranks or else a lack of depth will sink you. As interesting as the post-Karl Nuggets look to be, there are serious obstacles in front of them.
Shackleton watched his boat snap under the forces of nature. The part of the world he had chosen to tackle had spit him out and tried to kill him for his imposition. Despite this and despite the geographically vast distances he needed to cover on floating ice and small support boats, his crew all survived. The Endurance team held serve in the face of oblivion, but it was not without their fair share of luck. The last voyage involved taking a last ditch shot at the small South Georgia Island with waning supplies and water. Shackleton and two companions set out from Elephant Island, basically a small rock where the rest of his crew would wait for rescue, and aimed for South Georgia Island, a larger rock with a whaling station. If they miscalculated their entry towards the island, Shackleton’s boat would be adrift in the gaping maw of the south Atlantic Ocean, no hope or land for hundreds of miles. The shear amount of space involved is enough to suggest they would never hit the island. But they did, and after traversing the glacier-ridden island, all crew members were saved.
The Nuggets are now setting off on the dangerous course of treading the icy water between rebuild and reload. The team had home court advantage last year in the playoffs and has enough young talent back to make it into the second season this year before a theoretical retool next summer. However, it’s also possible that players could disappoint or flounder, and the team would have a mess on it’s hands, as management would have to deal with the potential realities of stars bolting and all the uncertainties of rebuilding. We don’t know what will happen. But Denver is out in the elements, and they will walk the line this season. On one side lies renewal and stability. On the other is an unraveling. Let’s hope their captain is up for the ride.