In the depths of what is now an 8-game losing streak, David Fizdale can only look to Mike Malone and the Denver Nuggets for inspiration. Here’s yet another example of a franchise that stuck with a coach and the process of prioritizing development.
“Mike’s a heck of a coach and the fortitude he’s shown throughout the process that they’ve gone through has been fantastic and year by year they’ve gotten a little bit better,” Fizdale said after a tough loss in Denver. “And now this season it looks like they’re making their breakthrough.
As we near the mid-point of the NBA season, the Nuggets (24-11) sit atop the highly-competitive Western Conference. And they’re doing it with a collection of players under the age of 23 — not a single one a top 5 draft pick — and one very strategic veteran free agency signing. Nikola Jokic, 23, was a second-round pick and after recording against the Knicks his third triple-double of the season, the folks in the Mile High City believe he should be in the MVP conversation. There’s also the dynamic Jamal Murray (21, 7th overall pick in 2016), Gary Harris (23, 19th overall in 2014) and a collection of confident supporting cast players such as Malik Beasley (22, 19th overall in 2016), who went for 23 points on 5 of 9 shooting from downtown off the bench against the Knicks, Monte Morris (23, second-round pick in 2017) and Trey Lyles (23, 12th overall pick).
Paul Millsap, who went for 16 points in 9 rebounds in 22 minutes off the bench as he gets himself back into game shape following a toe injury, is the free agent signing that didn’t make splashy headlines but provided stability and leadership on and off the court. And we haven’t even mentioned injured guard Will Barton, 27, a former second-round pick whom the Nuggets acquired from the Trail Blazers to start this whole thing.
The Nuggets are the example of how you’re not always going to hit on your lottery picks (Exhibit A: Emmanuel Mudiay) and if you develop properly, you can take risks in the draft that may pay off later (Exhibit B: Michael Porter Jr.). They’re also the example of how you can’t overreact to issues early on in the process, such as when the Nuggets were one of the worst defensive teams in the league over the last two seasons. It led to some Nuggets fans starting a petition to fire Malone after the Nuggets failed to make the playoffs on the final day for consecutive seasons. Their playoff drought has lasted five long years, but it appears that the end is near.
“The way they’ve gone about it has been patient,” Fizdale said. “They obviously have identified the particular type of player they’re looking for. I thought the acquisition of Paul Millsap was a huge get for them. And a credit to their coaching staff, they’ve really worked hard developing, their third and fourth-year guys now are starting to come into their own, which is when that stuff really starts to take hold. So, yeah, real kudos to them.”
The Knicks drought is also five years and, at 9-29, it will likely reach six come April. But the evidence of similar building toward sustainable success is showing in the progress of 19-year-old Kevin Knox, who had 18 points (with 13 coming in the first quarter) and 23-year-old Luke Kornet, an undrafted 7-footer who since being promoted to the starting lineup is averaging 18.6 points per game and hitting 15 of 24 (62%) from three-point range. There is 23-year-old Noah Vonleh, who put up as good of a fight as you can put up against the Sabonis-like Jokic on defense and also came away with 14 rebounds, 3 assists and a blocked shot.
There was 20-year-old Frank Ntilikina (10 points, 5 assists and 1 steal in 18:15) showing more and more intensity in his game, especially on the defensive end and undrafted 22-year-old Allonzo Trier (7 points, 2 assists in 19:20) looking like his legs are getting back under him after he missed extended time with a hamstring injury.
And there was a young group that at the morning shootaround had to be ordered off the Pepsi Center floor by the whistle of an assistant coach because a majority of the players stayed on the court to compete in shooting drills and some one-on-ones. This after two days of practice and a ton of film study following an embarrassing blowout loss in Utah.
“Man, they crack me up,” Fizdale said. “Every time we lose a game, they come back and do more. I love it. I just love this group. These guys really got a work ethic about them…They don’t lay in the bed and pout, they don’t blame each other they just get out there and work. I like that about them.”
The young Knicks got after it against Denver, got off to a much-needed good start, built a 10-point lead and held off the Nuggets as long as they could. But the Nuggets executed better when it mattered most, in the fourth quarter, and it was orchestrated by their best player, the best player on the floor and, perhaps, one of the best players in the game today: Jokic. His passing in the fourth quarter was brilliant. He finished with 19 points, 14 rebounds, 15 assists, 3 blocks and a steal.
“Just another day at the office,” is how Harris described it.
Denver had to wait a year for Jokic to arrive after he was drafted in the second round in 2014. They’ve had to endure some injuries along the way, as well. It’s a familiar script.
Look around the league and see that most of the success stories — the Warriors, the 76ers and the Nuggets — each built on the foundation of developing through some tough years and painful losses. The Nuggets look like this is their arrival season. The Knicks are still building towards their arrival.
– Mitchell Robinson missed his 8th straight game, but he appears to be on the verge of getting back into the lineup soon. He bounced around the shoot-around on Tuesday morning and was in a great mood. He said he was hoping to be cleared to play for Friday’s game against the Lakers, but the Knicks may hold him out a little longer just to make sure his conditioning is where it needs to be. No one asked him if he ever considered wearing high tops and, trust me, I planned to, but after he was done talking to the writers the kid wouldn’t stay in one place long enough to hold a conversation. He was smiling, laughing and running all around the court with teammates. The day before, he was outside in the freezing cold just to feel a snowfall for the first time in his life.
– Robinson’s return will have an impact on minutes, especially with the emergence of Kornet. That likely means Enes Kanter will get even less time. Kanter spent a few days on this trip sulking about his demotion, but GM Scott Perry, who is on the trip, had a chat with him and seemed to get Kanter’s attitude in check, for now. “I asked Scott, ‘If you were in my situation, what would you do?'”
Perry answered by saying Kanter should be more focused on maintaining good character and the image of a good teammate and vet because the league knows him and they’re watching closely. Kanter, who has an expiring contract, could be a nice trade deadline pickup for a team that is looking to bolster its rebounding and post offense, but no one wants a potential locker room problem. So Kanter seems to have heeded Perry’s advice, though there is no talk of a trade. “I did not ask for a trade, no,” Kanter said. He said he loved playing for the Knicks, but seemed resigned to the reality of the situation. “I guess it’s all for the young guys,” he said with a shrug.
– If you were listening to the radio broadcast — I had a blast calling the game with Ed Cohen, who is a true pro on the Knicks radio call — or saw my pregame hit with Bill Pidto and Wally Szczerbiak on Knicks Game Night, you might recall I gave the answer, but it’s a good piece of trivia: Jokic is averaging 7.6 assists per game on the season.
He is almost halfway home to becoming the first 7-footer to average 7 assists for an entire season since which player? Here’s a hint: it’s not a player who was born overseas, so you can eliminate the Gasols or Sabonis. So who is it?