Paul Klee: Veteran players - not Nikola Jokic - must lead Nuggets to playoffs
DENVER - The Nuggets dig their future the most.
How bullish is the local hoops club on what it could become? When the Indiana Pacers were shopping proven, perennial All-Star forward Paul George at the trade deadline, the Nuggets declined to offer up a 20- and 22-year-old who have proven only that someday they could reach that level. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray are here to stay for the long haul.
But no league feasts on young players as ferociously as the NBA. While it says here Jokic is destined to become the best center in the league, and Murray's heat checks dialed up the temperature during All-Star weekend, they're still kids in NBA years.
If the Nuggets are going to hold onto a slim lead for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, it's the old heads who must validate their hefty contracts. Jokic is their MVP. But with each of the 24 remaining games holding playoff ramifications, veterans like Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Jameer Nelson are the MIPs.
"There's a lot of pressure on a 21-year-old kid - who just turned 22, I guess - to kind of lead us to the playoffs," coach Michael Malone said, referring to Jokic, whose Feb. 19 birthday someday will become a state holiday. "The guys around him have to help him out. If we're not cutting, if we're not running, we're not allowing him to be the player he is."
Jokic is slowing down. Between an Olympic run with the Serbian national team and his sudden ascension as the centerpiece of an NBA franchise, his basketball schedule could use a full timeout. From Christmas Day until the All-Star break, Jokic had 22 straight games scoring in double digits. The past two games he's scored a total of six points.
The homestretch must be about the veterans. Gallo was robbed of a shot at the Warriors when a horribly timed knee injury sidelined him for Denver's last trip to the postseason, in 2013. Perhaps no other high-profile athlete adores this city more than Gallo. What better way to return the favor to the Nuggets for not trading him away than to lift them back into another playoff series against the Warriors?
Nelson is 35, a grandpa in one of the league's youngest locker rooms. But don't dare call him old. After a win against Orlando, where he played for a decade, Nelson said, "A lot of people gave up on me." What better way to prove a point than to captain a run to the playoffs and show the next wave of Nuggets how it's done?
"Playoff experience is invaluable for young guys," Nelson told me. "And we've got a lot of young guys."
Yes, from Malone to Tim Connelly's deadeye talent evaluators in the front office, the organization is stoked on a future that revolves around Jokic, Murray and Juancho Hernangomez. But by sticking with their vets at the trade deadline - aside from the previous acquisition of jumping-jack center Mason Plumlee and center Roy Hibbert - the Nuggets sent a message that anything short of a playoff appearance would be a huge disappointment.
Instead of wheeling and dealing to stock up for the long winters ahead, the Nuggets elected to keep all hands on deck for this season. The Nuggets desperately want the pair of home playoff games that would come with a first-round series against the Warriors. Even while the series would last just long enough for a quick snapshot of the Golden Gate, a return to the postseason would offer tangible evidence Denver is headed in the right direction. A little positive affirmation would do wonders for a fan base that's been stung more than once before.
The Nuggets hold a precarious lead for the No. 8 seed over the Kings (by one game), Blazers (1.5), Pelicans (three), Timberwolves (three) and Mavericks (3.5). The Pelicans and Mavericks beefed up by trading for DeMarcus Cousins and Nerlens Noel.
Now it's up to Denver's veterans to prove its non-moves were the smart moves.