I started this article with the best of intentions. I wanted to make the case that the window was opening in the Western Conference. Surely teams like the Denver Nuggets could soon compete with the contenders.
I wrongly assumed that within three years, a new team was destined to perennially make the Western Conference Finals. In that world, all else being equal, that new team could be the Nuggets.
It was a silly assumption. I realize that now. Teams don’t just fall off the map without cause. That’s what I realized when I looked at consistent contenders since the break-up of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. Consistently good teams don’t just disintegrate.
As you’ll see in the data below, I focused on 12 teams with a sustained level of greatness since 1998. For the most part, I defined being great as making at least three conference finals or multiple conference finals and winning a title. All but two of the teams won at least one title.
1998-04 Los Angeles Lakers: 5 conference finals; 3 titles
1999-2008 San Antonio Spurs: 6 conference finals; 4 titles
2003-08 Detroit Pistons: 6 conference finals; 1 title
2004-05 Miami Heat: 2 conference finals; 1 title
2007-09 Cleveland Cavaliers: 2 conference finals; no titles
2008-10 Los Angeles Lakers: 3 conference finals; 2 titles
2008-12 Boston Celtics: 3 conference finals; 1 title
2011-14 Miami Heat: 4 conference finals; 2 titles
2011-16 Oklahoma City Thunder: 4 conference finals; no titles
2012-present San Antonio Spurs*: 4 conference finals; 1 title
2015-present Golden State Warriors*: 3 conference finals; 1 title
2015-present Cleveland Cavaliers*: 3 conference finals; 1 title
*Spurs, Warriors, Cavaliers are all still alive in the 2017 playoffs.
In looking for a Nuggets window, think about how each contender fell apart. Detroit, Boston, the 2004-05 Miami Heat and the 2008-10 Lakers all declined because core players were past their prime. That’s the same thing that has happened to the Dallas Mavericks with Dirk Nowitzki, who qualified for the conference finals twice in his career with one title.
The Thunder and 2011-14 Heat runs ended because their star player left for other cities in free agency. The players in question, LeBron James and Kevin Durant, are almost assuredly meeting in the Finals this year.
Then there are the relationship factors at the end of a team’s run. James’ 2007-09 Cavaliers string of success ended because James got sick of carrying the team on his own. When they fell short of the conference finals in 2010, he made the decision to take his talents to South Beach. Jordan’s Bulls broke up because Chicago got rid of coach Phil Jackson and the star players followed. The 1998-2004 Lakers window closed because Shaq and Kobe hated each other.
I don’t even know what to make of the Spurs. Right now, they’re that second team with a sustained streak of excellence in the Western Conference. From all indications, it looks like they may be ready to concede their status soon. They have Khawi Leonard and no one else to play at his level.
However, they were at this same place a decade ago and recovered. Coach Greg Popovich is great at developing new plans. They’ve won five titles and made 10 conference finals under his guidance. If the window opening for the rest of the West requires the Spurs to fade away, you might want to go bet against Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots instead (unless Popovich retires).
The other contender right now in the West is the Warriors. So looking at the scenarios listed above, how might the Warriors run end? Age has not caught up to the Warriors. Steph Curry (29) Kevin Durant (28) and Klay Thompson (27) are in their primes right now. James is still dominating at age 32 for the Cavaliers. Nowitzki’s title came at 32. Kobe’s last title happened when he was 31. So barring injury, there’s no reason to believe age alone will derail the Warriors in the next five years.
Then there is coaching. Steve Kerr’s back injury could force his retirement after this year. However, the Warriors have shown they are just as capable with two interim coaches, Luke Walton and Mike Brown. Losing Kerr could hurt them, but they can have any coach they want—it would be the biggest NBA job opening ever.
What about a bad breakup with the team? The most likely option seems to be Durant and Steph Curry fighting, but that looks unlikely. They both seem to understand what they can do together. Even if they did have a falling out, the Warriors might still win titles with only one of them paired with Thompson.
The more likely scenario (in a sea of unlikely relationship scenarios) would be Durant heading back to the Thunder. He’s only under team control this year, but from what he’s said, he likes the Bay-area lifestyle. Curry is also about to be a free agent after this year. Would he be ready to try and revive a team like the Lakers? I don’t think so. Why leave the Warriors?
So the window may instead be for the second-best team in the West. This is assuming the Spurs don’t retool around 25-year-old Leonard. The Nuggets would have to beat out James Harden’s intriguing Rockets (age 27) and fend off Russell Westbrook’s Thunder (age 28). Why do five of the six best players reside in the West?
Then there’s the other competition in the West. The Lakers, Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves’ youth movements might pay off. The Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks will compete for free agents. The New Orleans Pelicans, Memphis Grizzles, Utah Jazz and Portland Trail Blazers have interesting options ahead of them.
That totals 13 teams in the West. So congratulations Nuggets—don’t worry about the Sacramento Kings. Maybe the Nuggets best hope is that the NBA abolishes conferences altogether.
The Nuggets think they’re going places with a young roster centered around Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. If either player turns into a superstar, then maybe they do have a window. They have the money to try and add great players. Then they just have to avoid the pitfalls of their past.
The 2009 Western Conference Finals team with Kenyon Martin, Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups had the star power and supporting cast. The team actually looked better around the midway point of the following season. Then Coach George Karl left to battle cancer. Interim head coach Adrian Dantley couldn’t control the personalities. By the end of the season, with a first-round playoff exit, Anthony demanded a trade. The Nuggets rebuilt for their second chance with the pieces of that trade.
The 2013 Denver Nuggets with Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari and Andre Iguodala could play with any team at their best. Then Gallinari went down with a knee injury and the Nuggets never recovered. In a series against the Warriors (before they were champions), the Nuggets couldn’t keep up. Karl was fired and his replacement, Brian Shaw, drove the roster into the ground. Iguodala jumped to the Warriors and Lawson’s life choices demoted his status as a high-caliber point guard.
Maybe this third iteration, behind Jokic, will lead to different results. Maybe the Nuggets can finally string together success as a contender. Unfortunately, there’s no easy path up the Western Conference standings. Here’s the only real window for the Nuggets—they have to get a lot better.