Ashes to Ashes, Rust to Rust

The Rise of A.I.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images Andre Miller #24 of the Denver Nuggets welcomes his teammates Kenneth Faried #35, Corey Brewer #13, Wilson Chandler #21 and Andre Iguodala #9 of the Denver Nuggets off the court against the Oklahoma City Thunder at the Pepsi Center on January 20, 2013 in

Denver’s Question

Will the Nuggets' starless roster ever prove it can win in the NBA postseason?

You motherfuckers hear me?”

Andre Miller was asking a rhetorical question. It was just before eleven o’clock last Friday morning, in a gym in the basement of a five-star downtown San Francisco hotel. The room was smaller than a high school gym, the walls pale tan and paler gray. Overhead, half the lights buzzed, while half remained silent and dark. There was no dribbling, no squeaking of sneakers.

So yes, they could hear him.

“You gotta be ready!” Miller shouted. Three nights earlier, the Nuggets had lost Game 2 of their series against Golden State, at home. In eight hours, they would take the court for Game 3. “You motherfuckers better be ready!”

JaVale McGee stood in the back corner of the gym, head cocked back. Anthony Randolph looked on, his eyes a hair’s breadth wider than usual. Everyone seemed to be listening. Only Andre Iguodala appeared to be smiling. And only Miller was talking.

“This the motherfuckin’ playoffs!” continued the 37-year-old backup point guard. “You motherfuckers gotta be here to win!”

It was unclear, at this point, what made Miller believe his teammates might not be there to win. They had entered the playoffs as winners of 57 games, the most in Denver’s NBA history, including 23 of their last 26. Yes, they’d dropped their most recent game against Golden State, but even with second-leading scorer Danilo Gallinari out for the season with a torn ACL, Denver seemed likely to make the second round. But Miller was unsatisfied. He spoke again, stretching his vowels and sharpening his consonants: “Fuck the cool shit!”

Yet the cool shit — the contortionist slams, the contrived social media attention grabs, the coordinated bench celebrations — all of that had come to define the Nuggets to the public as much as their play. Denver represented NBA fans’ newest favorite fringe contender, running and dunking and kiss-blowing their way into the Internet’s collective heart. Miller wouldn’t say later why he felt the need to make his voice heard, only that he wanted everyone to understand the gravity of the moment.

And yet for Denver, even now that the team’s down 3-2, it’s difficult to pin down exactly how grave this moment is. The Nuggets are a team of happy and hardworking misfits, in an organization experimenting with strategies to build an unorthodox contender. “We’re not a contending team,” general manager Masai Ujiri told a local reporter in February, and despite the team’s gaudy record, he was right. The Nuggets lack Miami and Oklahoma City’s ultra-elite talent; they also lack San Antonio’s history of learned excellence (not to mention the Spurs’ aging Hall of Famers and Tony Parker, who remains the most overlooked superstar in the NBA year after year). Yet what the Nuggets do have, and what most teams lack, is flexibility — a front office that can adapt to the realities of the new collective bargaining agreement, a coaching staff that can build around a superstar or a collection of almost All-Stars, and a group of players eager to find the right roles.

Sure, there is frustration among the team’s fans over their lack of postseason success, and facing elimination in Game 6 at Oracle Arena, some pessimism is probably justified. But simply by being here, the no. 3 seed in a loaded Western Conference, with more regular-season wins than any team in franchise history, the Nuggets had exceeded many expectations. Still, for Miller, and for most everyone else in that room, this wasn’t enough. The Nuggets don’t look or play like other contenders we’ve grown accustomed to watching, but that changes nothing about how they see themselves.

As Miller continued to yell, a team staffer stood and walked to the gym door. The veteran’s voice became muffled as the door clicked shut.

It was going to be a long weekend.

The Nuggets’ current incarnation can trace its roots back to August 2010, when the team hired Masai Ujiri, then 39 years old, as general manager. Immediately, Ujiri spoke with ownership about how to handle Carmelo Anthony’s growing discontent. “Our first game plan was to try to convince him to stay,” says Ujiri, “but we knew that might not work, and if it didn’t, then we had a few options.”

One option: Blow the whole thing up. Unload Anthony and, in return, seek only draft picks and expiring contracts. The most reliable way to build a championship-caliber team is to acquire superstars, after all, and that happens by getting lucky in the lottery or by spending gobs of available cash. Only problem: Denver isn’t Miami, New York, or L.A. “Even if we had the cap space,” says Ujiri, “we didn’t know we could attract that kind of superstar as a free agent.” The draft is a different kind of crapshoot. So, Ujiri says, “We asked ourselves, ‘Is there another way to do this? Is there a different way that we can build a team?'”

The Nuggets decided there was. Instead of tanking or chasing cap space, they would try to become one of the best teams in the league simply by accumulating more good players than anyone else. Along with that, they would pursue players who had yet to reach their full potential, players viewed as head cases, or as unmotivated, or as unfit for the NBA game.

So it was that six months after Ujiri’s hiring, on February 21, 2011, Wilson Chandler was sleeping at home in New York when his girlfriend woke him up with some news. She’d just gotten a text from Al Harrington’s wife: Welcome to Denver!

Confused and groggy, Chandler checked his phone. He had missed calls and texts from Knicks team officials, all trying to get in touch with him to deliver the same news. Carmelo Anthony was coming to the Knicks, and Chandler, along with Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton, and Timofey Mozgov, was being shipped to Denver.

“The first time you get traded, it’s a shock,” says Chandler, who’d been averaging 16 points and six rebounds for the 28-26 Knicks. “Your first thought is: What did I do wrong?

Corey Brewer had a different first thought. “I thought a trade was coming,” he says, “and when it finally did, I was excited.” In the midst of a road trip, Brewer got the news just as he was about to board the Timberwolves’ team bus. He was going to New York. Kosta Koufos, also on the Wolves, found out just before Minnesota tipped off against the Bucks: He’d been included as a late addition to the trade. He was headed to Denver. As Koufos looked for a flight, he saw that none were available that would get him to Denver in time for the next day’s practice. So instead, he got in his car and drove 14 hours to Colorado. There, he practiced with the newly assembled team the next day.

In total, the three-team, 13-player trade became one of the biggest deals in NBA history. For the Nuggets, it was the beginning of a new organizational strategy. “We see these talented players and we think, if they were perfect, or if they had reached their potential, then maybe they would be in position where we couldn’t get them to come to Denver,” Ujiri says. “In a free-agency situation, maybe we don’t get them. But when they have imperfections, maybe we can take those players and show them what our culture is, make them think like us a little bit. Then maybe they grow into becoming the kind of players we envision them becoming.”

Take a look around the Nuggets’ locker room, and you’ll see Ujiri’s handiwork. Ten of the players on the roster can be traced back to the Melo trade. First, there are the players who were acquired directly through the deal: Gallinari, Koufos, Chandler, and Mozgov. The Nuggets also got a 2012 second-round draft pick, which they used on Quincy Miller. On top of that, the trade gave them Raymond Felton, whom they later sent to Portland for current players Andre Miller and Jordan Hamilton. Then there was the Knicks’ 2014 first-rounder, which the Nuggets flipped to Orlando as part of the four-team Dwight Howard deal, which sent Andre Iguodala from Philadelphia to Denver. And then there are the trade exceptions, one of which was used to get Brewer and another of which helped them land McGee.1

With that trade and the moves he’s made since, Ujiri has built a young, athletic, tight-knit team — “a little like a college team,” says Koufos — with the mentality that any player is capable on any night of contributing to a win. Yet they’re also a group of misfits, players whose talents had never been fully realized. Now, in Denver, several of those underachievers have improved, and they seem to have found a home.

As you survey the room, you might have trouble figuring out who’s who. Not only are the Nuggets a team devoid of stars, but they’re also not big on formality, so their lockers are marked by nicknames. In the front of the room are Pierre Gorilla (McGee), Ill-Will (Chandler), 2K (Koufos), and AI (Iguodala). There is only one guy on the team whose locker is adorned with his actual last name: Miller. He sits in the back corner, right next to Brewer, or C-Brew.2

In Brewer, the Nuggets have a player who typifies their organizational strategy. When he was drafted no. 7 overall by Minnesota in 2007, Brewer’s college assistant coach Larry Shyatt felt excitement mixed with foreboding. “On one hand you’re so excited for him, but on the other hand you feel a little apprehensive about him being drafted so high,” says Shyatt, who was then at Florida and is now head coach at Wyoming. “The layman looks at a no. 7 overall pick and associates that kind of player with points. They’re not thinking about if he’s going to help the team win; they’re thinking he’s going to score points. They’re not thinking about him defending and playing the game the right way, flying up and down the court with that contagious smile. So Corey got locked into a room right off the bat.”

Brewer played his first season on a Timberwolves team that had just traded for Al Jefferson and was looking to build around the brutish young big man’s emerging skill set. “I go from Florida, where we’re running and I’m getting in transition, and then all of a sudden I’m on a team where we walk it up and then throw it inside on every play,” he says. “I couldn’t adjust to it.” Brewer tried to make himself a better half-court player, working with Wolves assistant J.B. Bickerstaff on his ballhandling and shooting, but an ACL tear and Minnesota’s eternal state of organizational dysfunction kept him from finding a role.

Neither could he find a role in New York, where Brewer was traded as part of the Anthony deal. “I guess the coaches didn’t like me,” he says, referring to a staff led by Mike D’Antoni, famous for an up-tempo style (which suited Brewer) and a short bench (which did not). Brewer sat. Within weeks, he sought a buyout and signed with Dallas. He played in only 19 games that season with the Mavs, but in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals he sparked a Mavs comeback win over the Lakers. A little more than a month later, he and the Mavs won a championship. But near the beginning of the next season he was traded again, this time to the Nuggets.

From afar, Shyatt rejoiced. “When you see that a guy you care about is going to play for a player’s coach — someone who cares about people and who asks him to do what they do best — that’s exciting,” he says. “Corey needed someone to appreciate him for what he brings, and George Karl does that with everyone.”

While coaches around the league praised Brewer’s attitude and work ethic but decided they had little use for him on the court, Nuggets coaches believed that Brewer had been improperly used. In Denver, the coaches think of players as specialists, and in Brewer, they saw one of the league’s most talented transition players.

This season, Brewer ranked among the NBA’s best at leaking out to start the break. He likes to pretend to crash the boards, he says, to draw his man into the paint. “Once I have him there, I know I can outrun him,” he says. Among players with at least 25 leakouts this season, Brewer ranked second behind LeBron James, with 1.79 points per play.3 “Teams covet what he does,” says Nuggets assistant Melvin Hunt, “but he has to have a chance to do it.”

Other coaches may covet Brewer’s skill set, but there may be no other team that can use him as well as the Nuggets.

With 99.9 possessions per game, Denver plays the second-fastest tempo in the league (Houston is first). This is partly due to Karl’s preferences, but also to the inherent advantage in playing fast at high altitude at the Pepsi Center. “To slow it down, to not use that, wouldn’t be a very good tactical strategy,” says assistant John Welch. So the Nuggets have acquired speedy wings like Brewer and Fournier and paired them with perhaps the league’s fastest point guard in Lawson, along with a collection of limber, light-footed bigs. The emphasis on pace even extends to the weight room. “If I’m giving George Karl guys who can lift the world but who can’t move,” says strength coach Steve Hess, “then I’m going to get fired.” Playing in a home arena more than 5,000 feet above sea level, the Nuggets averaged 108 points per game and finished a league-best 38-3.

Nineteen percent of the Nuggets’ plays came in transition, the most in the league. In the open court they ranked sixth in offensive efficiency, and in the half court they were good enough, 13th, to maintain a spot among the league’s more efficient offensive teams. Defensively, they were even better in transition, ranking first in the league by allowing 1.02 points per possession. Though they lack an elite half-court defender, they have enough specialists — Wilson Chandler (physicality either on the perimeter or inside), Brewer (length, instincts, and anticipation), Koufos (pick-and-roll technique), and McGee (shot-blocking) — to find a place among the league’s top 10 defensive teams.

The Nuggets have 10 players who averaged more than 10 minutes per game, and at various points in the season, three more — Randolph, Hamilton, and Mozgov — have found spots in the rotation. During the team’s 15-game winning streak in February and March, five different players had games as the leading scorer (Lawson had six, Chandler four, Brewer and Koufos two, and Gallinari one). “We don’t have one guy who we say, ‘Go get us 30,'” says Brewer. “We think anybody on the team can go get us 30.”

And that’s what makes Denver so fun to watch. When you turn on a Nuggets game, you expect it to be well played, but you never know how it will be well played. You might see Lawson shred defenders in transition or Chandler heat up from outside. Or perhaps Iguodala will get a triple-double or Miller will offer a master class in angles and midrange touch. Hell, just in the last month you could’ve tuned in to see a Randolph double-double or a 24-point night from French rookie Evan Fournier. In the Nuggets locker room before Game 4, the whiteboard said, “We Need Everybody — Stay Together!” With most teams, that would seem like cliché. With Denver, it’s actually true.

And yet here they sit, facing first-round elimination against the 6-seed Golden State Warriors. The old saw that champions are built around elite one-on-one scorers may be tired, but in recent history, it’s mostly true. Yet the easiest way to get Karl riled up is to ask him about the biggest piece his team lacks. “Most of the people are going to say, ‘You can’t win without a star,'” Karl told reporters in March. “I’m tired of it. I’m fed up with it. I’ve been angry about it. It’s a team game … Our job is to try to become the best basketball team. I honestly think it can be done. I think it’s silly to not even have one person stand up and say it could be done.”

The 2004 Pistons proved, of course, that a championship can be won without an elite individual scorer. But that Pistons team had the league’s best defense and played a slow, physical style that translated well to the postseason. And in this first-round series, a one-on-one scorer, Golden State’s Steph Curry, has been the biggest difference.

These Nuggets are unlikely to prove or disprove the NBA’s conventional wisdom. We thought they were good-but-not-great — and then they won 15 in a row. We thought they’d reached a place among the West’s elite — and then they fell behind to Golden State, 3-1. But even now, Denver is playing without Gallinari and with a hobbled Faried, and they’re one win away from forcing a Game 7 on their home floor. One way or another, they seem likely to start their offseason posing the same question: Can a team contend for NBA championships without stars like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade or Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook? Or without the Spurs’ unparalleled blend of talent, continuity, and chemistry?

For the Nuggets, the most valuable time of day comes in the two hours before tipoff. This time is not only for warming up, but also for teaching, so you’ll see players and assistants working on footwork in the post or dexterity off the dribble. They’re refining the skills necessary to complete Ujiri’s vision — to turn miscast talents into reliable contributors.

Player development is an emphasis with every NBA team, of course. But some of the league’s head coaches designate one or two assistants to focus on helping players improve their individual games, leaving other assistants with more time to scout opponents or develop game plans. In Denver, every coach takes on player development responsibilities. Before games, you might see Hunt tweaking McGee’s post footwork or Welch refining Fournier’s shot.

“We want to create an environment where the players want to come to us,” says Hunt. “We want them to feel comfortable asking for help, to feel like we’re going to encourage them in a helpful way. To have just one or two guys doing it feels like a waste of resources.”

While player development is about making strengths out of weaknesses, Karl emphasizes that he wants every player to have a complete knowledge of what he does well. “These guys maybe have a specialized role, but in that role, they’re some of the best players in the league,” says Hunt. “The way Corey can impact the pace of a game is on another level. What Ty Lawson does in the open court is special. Faried might not be tall, but he has an advantage in quickness and explosiveness. JaVale’s athleticism and timing are remarkable. It goes on and on. Koufos with his strength and with the way he’s so clean in everything he does. Anthony Randolph in his ability to find the soft spots against a zone. We want to show them why we think they’re valuable players.”

In McGee, Koufos, Faried, Mozgov, and Randolph, the Nuggets have five big men under age 27, four of whom were first-round draft picks and none of whom have come fully into their own.

“In practice,” says Welch, “the easiest way to start a fight is by asking one of them to come off the court. Most players want to rest, but these guys all feel like they have to be out there.” Part of this, Welch says, is due to competition for minutes. The rest? “They genuinely love to play.”

No one typifies this more than McGee — the NBA’s living and breathing meme, he of the wrong-way sprint and the fake pet platypus. In Washington, McGee was a cartoon character. In Denver, he’s a contributor. “He needed to be in a healthy locker room,” says Mark Fox, who coached McGee at Nevada. “He needed a coach who could relate to him, who could put his foot down and do it in a way that doesn’t humiliate his players.” In Karl, he has just that.

The Nuggets have also taken Koufos — who has the look of a classic NBA stiff — and turned him into an opportunistic scorer and consistent defender, someone whose game is built around a simple skill set directly deployed. And with Faried, they’ve put structure around an elite but limited set of talents, sometimes unleashing his athleticism in their smaller lineups and other times hiding his deficiencies by pairing him with the taller Koufos or McGee.

And then, near the end of the big-man rotation, there’s Randolph. He plays less than 10 minutes a game for the Nuggets, but even so, he still might be Denver’s most impressive reclamation project. When Randolph declared for the 2008 draft after his freshman year at LSU, he drew comparisons to Chris Bosh. His coach at the time, John Brady, told reporters that he had the talent to be great, but he needed a coach with empathy and patience. “I tried to be really demanding of him, and he didn’t respond to that immediately,” says Brady. “He needed someone to be in partnership with him.”

With Golden State, which drafted Randolph no. 14 overall, there would be no partnership. Instead there were high expectations — expectations that, on very rare occasion, Randolph met. Though he was the league’s youngest player, Randolph averaged 14 points and 11 rebounds over the last 12 games of his rookie season. The next July he lit up the Las Vegas summer league, scoring 27 a game. The next three years went like this: He played in 33 games for Golden State in 2009-10, 40 games for the Timberwolves and Knicks in 10-11, and 34 games for the Wolves in 11-12. He’d been heralded as one of the most versatile talents in the game, a 6-foot-10 player who could play any position between 2 and 5. In truth, he couldn’t shoot, couldn’t handle against quicker defenders, and couldn’t bang against true bigs. He had plenty of skills, but none of them ever seemed to develop.

Last summer the Nuggets amnestied Chris Andersen and used his spot to sign Randolph. Now, the point-forward nonsense has been forgotten. He’s no longer expected to follow the path of Bosh or Dirk. But finally, like everyone else on the Nuggets, Randolph sees himself in a defined role. “Defend the pick-and-roll and rebound,” he says. “Score when they need me to. That’s it.”

He continues: “I’m in a good place here.”

Last Friday in Oakland, Randolph stood at his locker after a 110-108 loss to the Warriors and reflected on his time in Oakland. Well, OK, he didn’t really reflect. Instead, on a night when he’d been booed every time he entered the game, he said this: “The fans here showed me so much love. They still show me so much love.” Minutes later, Randolph walked outside the arena to the bus and talked on the phone while fans yelled for his attention. Some wanted autographs. One took the opportunity to scream, “Fuck you, Randolph!” Perhaps wisely, he ignored them all.

So he flopped in Golden State, and he never found his place in New York or Minnesota. But despite his limited playing time in Denver, averaging just 8.4 minutes in 39 appearances during the regular season, Randolph has, just like Brewer and McGee and others, found something of a home. And yet the Nuggets fell behind the Warriors 3-1, and even after Tuesday night’s win at home, they face an elimination game on the road, in a series they were favored to win.

Even if they rally to win this series, the Nuggets still face a daunting reality. Unlike all other major American sports, there are few flukes in the NBA playoffs. The format rewards excellence, and for now, the Nuggets are just very good. As they move forward, the front office will remain flexible, and the system of development will remain in place. Perhaps they could bundle a few assets in pursuit of a disgruntled star. But that seems far-fetched. Says Hunt: “I think if you told George he could win a championship, but he would have to play one-on-one basketball, he would turn it down.” More likely, they’ll continue tweaking and adjusting, pursuing underdeveloped talents and misused potential contributors, and then trusting the system to bring players into their own. Following the 5 Percent Theory Zach Lowe described last year, Denver may just try to hover around its current level until the league enters its post-LeBron phase. Then, who knows, maybe the era of the no-star champion can begin.

The flexibility and organizational stability is reassuring for players and fans alike. But for most of the Nuggets, Denver is only a temporary home. Someday Ujiri will find new players who’ve been underutilized, and the coaching staff will find ways to groom them into winners. For some of the Nuggets players, this may be the best team they ever play for, the closest they’ll come to winning a title.

After Game 4, when you walked into the locker room you could see a hole in the wall, courtesy of Kenneth Faried’s foot. Steph Curry had gone off, Oracle Arena had exploded. McGee had been embarrassed, and the Nuggets had been blown out. The series, and the season, seemed over.

In the corner of the room, you could hear Brewer and Miller whispering to each other in animated frustration while picking at the bones of their postgame chicken meal. The Nuggets may be one of the NBA’s healthiest organizations, but the current players, on the brink of elimination, couldn’t care less about organizational health, subtle roster improvements in seasons to come, or whichever maligned NBA talent could be next to arrive and thrive in Denver.

As Miller said, “This the motherfuckin’ playoffs.” No need to think about the endurance of the system. For now, “Motherfuckers gotta be here to win.”

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Jordan Ritter Conn is a staff writer for Grantland. He wrote The Defender: Manute Bol’s Journey from Sudan to the NBA and Back Again, a multimedia e-book published by The Atavist.

Archive @ jordanconn