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A series of missteps has rendered the Nuggets as a non-factor

(Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

The Nuggets are a pro sports example or “The Little Engine that Could.” They play in a medium-sized market, can’t attract big-name free agents and get ignored by the national media, but they still managed to make it to the Western Conference Finals.

Behind homegrown “stars” like Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, Denver has been able to overcome the odds stacked against them. In an NBA built for big cities and mega-stars, the Nuggets have managed to be a contender.

Given that backdrop, it’s not surprising that that franchise escapes criticism. Already overachievers, it seems nitpicky to call them out for missteps.

But 13 games into the season, Denver is 6-7. They seem nowhere near a team capable of winning the Western Conference, a huge fall in a few months span.

It all begs one question: What in the heck happened?

The simple answer is that the Nuggets stripped themselves of their biggest strength. A year ago, they were perhaps the deepest team in the league. Now, they’re woefully thin, unable to withstand the loss of one key player.

This season, Denver is getting an MVP-caliber effort from their best player. Jokic is arguably a top-five player in the league, averaging 25.0 points, 11.4 rebounds and 10.3 assists.

His sidekick has been equally good, as Jamal Murray has built upon his performance in the bubble, averaging a career-high 20.3 points per game this season. While he could be more consistent, the point guard has still been good this season.

The problem is that the Nuggets have no one behind them. They’re a two-man band at this point.

Gary Harris should be the third star. After all, he earns $21 million per year. But as has been painfully obvious for at least two years, the guard is nothing more than a role player.

Michael Porter Jr. is the player most people said would become the Nuggets next best player. He certainly has the talent. But his youth and inexperience, problems on the defensive end of the court, and a seemingly never-ending absence due to some sort of Covid-related issue have rendered him MIA.

Thus, the problem. The players the Nuggets would’ve called upon a year ago are no longer around.

They traded Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez last February for a first-round pick. It was supposed to be the first of many moves, but that never materialized. Instead, it turned into Zeke Nnaji, a rookie who has played 11 minutes thus far in 2021.

That deal was also supposed to free up money for the Nuggets to sign key free agents. They’d sacrifice Beasley and Juancho in order to keep Jerami Grant, Mason Plumlee and Torrey Craig.

That sounds great. But when all three left during the offseason via free agency, it feels like Denver was spinning a salary dump during a playoff chase.

Speaking of which, the explanation for Grant leaving also feels like a bunch of poppycock. When the Nuggets whiffed on their No. 1 priority during the offseason, the spin doctors said he took the same money that Denver offered in order to sign with Detroit.

In what world does that make sense? The same money to move from a contender to an also-ran? To move from the Mile High City to the Motor City?

That doesn’t pass the smell test. The “bigger role” with the Pistons was more than being a starter who averaged 34 minutes in the playoffs with the Nuggets? That doesn’t add up.

A year ago, Denver was loaded with young talent. Now, they’re a two-man band.

Twelve months ago, the Nuggets were an up-and-coming, dangerous team. Now, they’re no threat in the West.

That’s on Tim Connelly. Yes, the Nuggets president of basketball operations deserves credit for building a strong team. But he also deserves blame for not being able to get it over the hump, for not keeping it together.

He’s the poker player who drew pocket aces, but still managed to lose the hand. He’s the lottery winner who picked the right numbers, but still went broke.

The Nuggets once had a championship window. It’s something they should be right now, with the next three to four seasons a prime opportunity to win a title.

Because of mismanagement, however, Denver appears to have missed their chance. A series of missteps has robbed them of their biggest strength, a problem for which they might not be able to recover.