Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images
“I used to think that my life was a tragedy, but now I realize it’s a f****** comedy.”
I was never one for Shakespeare in high school.
Frankly, I was never great with literature in general. The only great literature I have genuinely enjoyed came from fictional stories. I’m a Harry Potter nerd. Ask me anything about that series and you will get dragged into a discussion about Hermione Granger needing more respect or Minerva McGalleon McGonagall and her addiction to sports betting (shouts to Mallory Rubin and Jason Concepcion of The Ringer).
I was also a fan of Greek and Roman stories, possibly because of how blended they are with mythological tales of gods and heroes and extraordinary things that couldn’t possibly be grounded in reality. I enjoy suspending my reality for a good story.
But back to Shakespeare, the poet and playwright who is as foundational to our culture as most any historical figure. His plays are renowned as the standard for literature, and most of them can be boiled down into three categories: histories, tragedies, and comedies.
The reason why I’m thinking about Shakespeare is not what you’d like to think though. It’s a line from Joker that came out in 2019 featuring Joaquin Phoenix. The scene is disturbing.
“You know what’s funny? You know what really makes me laugh? I used to think that my life was a tragedy, but now I realize it’s a f****** comedy.”
The line was clearly an idea in this character’s mind taken from Shakespeare’s teachings, and it’s fascinating, given that the distinction between tragedy and comedy is actually fairly small. Shakespearean tragedies are often distinguished by their main characters having a fatal flaw. They were once high and mighty but due to their own characteristics are subject to fall from grace. Comedies, on the other hand, are focused on events rather than main characters, have complex plot lines and generally include false identity or misconceptions of some sort. They take an idea, turn it on its head, and the slow reveal of what they really are piques the interest of the audience.
By definition, the 2020 Denver Nuggets are a comedy rather than a tragedy, boiled all the way down to the hilarity of how the NBA season played out for their team and their peers.
Media Day on September 30th, 2019 was defined by the outlining of championship expectations for a young Denver Nuggets team.
“We want to have expectations,” said Gary Harris when asked about the progression over his career from no playoff aspirations to championship intentions. “We want to expect to go far, we want people to expect us to be a good team. We’re not trying to shy away from it.”
“I want to win a championship,” Nikola Jokic said to reporters and local media.
For the first year since Michael Malone became head coach of the Nuggets in 2015, his team was expected to legitimately compete for a title. Denver’s previous season was about taking the next step to become a playoff team. After succeeding, the next logical step in the process was to advance further.
Here’s where comedic elements start to trickle in.
The Nuggets made two major additions to their rotation from the 2018-19 to 2019-20. First, they traded for Jerami Grant, who struggled to adjust to his role in Denver before ultimately becoming the third most important player on the team as soon as the playoffs began.
Second, 2018 first round pick Michael Porter Jr. was dominating behind the scenes in Nuggets scrimmages after returning to full health for the first time since 2017 when he underwent his first back surgery during his freshman season at Missouri. After a slow rehabbing process, Porter was back, and he was kicking ass. Well, offensively he was.
Given hindsight, the situation with Porter was unequivocally hilarious. From night to night, him learning how to play in the NBA was a wild ride. Michael Malone was put in a no-win situation every game given how many mistakes he consistently made. In the playoffs, Porter was targeted on defense incessantly to the point of being unplayable; however, the offensive talent continues to shine. Look no further than Porter’s second game in the bubble.
It’s genuinely funny that the situation involving Porter evolved the way it did, and the absence of Will Barton, Denver’s regular starting small forward, opened up the need to play Porter and his combination of explosive scoring and rebounding. Porter and Barton play the game in drastically different ways, and Barton’s ball handling and playmaking at 6’5 was night and day with Porter’s physicality and contested shot making profile.
The Nuggets were unprepared for playing heavy minutes with Porter in the bubble, and it was completely justifiable given how irregular his regular season minutes were and how unique he is as a player. That will change going forward as the Nuggets integrate him into the starting lineup next season. He’s too skilled offensively to sit on the bench going forward, and his presence will bolster what the Nuggets currently have.
Managing the regular season
Back at media day, Denver’s expectations were set at a high bar. Players were talking championship. Coaches and front office were talking championship. The below quote from Malone was especially telling about Denver’s mindset.
Malone: I told our guys we have to prepare our minds and our bodies to play 110 games.
— Mike Singer (@msinger) September 30, 2019
Part of Denver’s dilemma though: how to handle the regular season. The Nuggets received a taste of playoff basketball in 2019 and weren’t about to focus heavily on the regular season for 82 games. They locked in when needed in the second half on many nights, but their propensity to go through spells of lax focus allowed for some bad losses to creep into the picture.
That lackadaisical play often caused national pundits to question their resolve as a legitimate contender.
The Nuggets are committed to making it exceedingly tough to believe in them. https://t.co/h2zm3wOYau
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) March 4, 2020
Rightly or wrongly, the Nuggets were developing a reputation of being unserious, a talented team that had something missing. The killer instinct of a normal championship contender is usually plain to see. For so much of the regular season, it was difficult to find. The Nuggets finished third in the Western Conference by record, but their regular season Net Rating of +2.2 per 100 possessions ranked sixth in the West and 11th in the NBA. There was reason to doubt them.
A star is born through adversity
Shakespeare often dealt with death in tragedy and birth in comedy. It’s one of the simplest diversions between the two styles and by far the easiest to appreciate. Unlike other stars in the NBA playoffs dimming, the birth of Jamal Murray as a star on the biggest stage was bright as day, and there were signs of an explosion back in July.
The Denver Nuggets came to the bubble with eight players. Jamal Murray, Paul Millsap, Jerami Grant, Mason Plumlee, Troy Daniels, Noah Vonleh, Tyler Cook, and Bol Bol were on the initial plane to Orlando. Nikola Jokić soon followed to make it nine after he was reported to have contracted COVID-19 in Serbia prior to returning to the United States. Five of Denver’s regular season rotation members weren’t with the Nuggets initially, and another four were also away from the team for various reasons.
Being the only true ball handler available on the roster was bad enough for Murray. What made it worse was a minor injury Murray sustained during the ramp-up training period prior to the seeding games. He missed two of the three exhibition matchups and the first four seeding games as Nuggets rotation players rejoined the team in the bubble. It wasn’t until Murray returned that Denver became close to whole again though, and it was clear from Murray’s first game how important he was to the Nuggets becoming great. He hit multiple clutch shots in a double overtime victory over the Utah Jazz, and his return to the two-player dance between him and Jokić was a sign of things to come.
When the Nuggets lost Game 3 to the Utah in the first round of the playoffs and appeared utterly defeated, it was fair to assume that the Nuggets would go away quietly.
Not on Murray’s watch.
In the next three games, Murray put together three unbelievably powerful performances. 50 points in Game 4. 42 points in Game 5. 50 points again in Game 6. He contributed in other ways as a playmaker, defender, and especially as a leader. In a series where Jokić was contending with the best defender at his position in Rudy Gobert, Murray used his own matchup advantages to do something the world has seen but only a few times before. He brought the Nuggets back from the grave, and at that moment in Game 6 when the Nuggets had tied the series to force a Game 7, Murray’s star was truly born.
But not because of what he did on the court, though that helped.
Murray was one of many young players heavily impacted by the events outside the bubble. With the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and the shooting of Jacob Blake, NBA players were justifiably frustrated that their message and actions continued to fall on deaf ears while sequestered in the bubble to compete in basketball games. Murray, who shared stories with the Denver media about his own experiences with racism earlier in the summer, was impacted heavily. The weight of carrying the Denver Nuggets combined with the weight of his emotions as a black man in America was plain to see in his postgame interview following Game 6.
Murray made many fans that day with a raw and heartfelt message on why he wanted to win, and it was his character as a leader and human being that won me over. He could have stopped playing well from that moment on and it wouldn’t have mattered. Murray became a star that night in the face of overwhelming adversity, proving on the biggest stage the quality of his play and the character of his heart.
But it didn’t stop there. Murray made important plays to help the Nuggets complete their first comeback and win Game 7. He carried that resolve into a series against the Los Angeles Clippers featuring Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, and Patrick Beverley who were to take turns guarding Murray as physically as they could. It took an adjustment period, but Murray eventually figured some things out, culminating in a Game 7 performance for the ages to help the Nuggets upset the heavily favored Clippers. Murray had one of just 17 games in NBA playoff history with 40 points in a Game 7. He also had just the 11 game in playoff history with at least six made threes. Nobody in NBA playoff history had ever done both in a Game 7, and Murray did it against the championship favorites.
There were incredible moments for Murray in the Conference Finals as well, from the above layup maneuvering around LeBron James to the dagger three-pointer Murray hit over Anthony Davis in Denver’s lone win of the series. Those were just bonus points to what Nuggets fans had already learned about Murray though. Even though the Nuggets fell short against the Los Angeles Lakers, Murray rose to the challenge throughout, doing things no player has ever done before and leading by example both on and off the floor.
Jamal Murray is the first player in NBA history to average
in a single playoff run (min 10 games). pic.twitter.com/9xsQtWI2ry
— StatMuse (@statmuse) September 27, 2020
He’s going to be a star for the Denver Nuggets for a long, long time.
Nikola Jokić is the embodiment of comedy over tragedy.
How this entire article started was with a nickname inspiring by the supervillain in the intro. Nikola Jokić developed his namesake through his incredible passing, tricky moves in the post, and joking, unserious nature when he entered the NBA. A happy-go-lucky 20-year-old who was just enjoying the moment, it became clear early on that there was more to Jokić than met the eye. He was more than a gimmick but rather a skilled, thoughtful, and ultimately exceptional player that became the foundational member of the Nuggets from an early age.
When Denver lost in Game 7 of the second round of the 2019 playoffs, Jokic earned a restful summer only interrupted by a disappointing trip with Serbia to the FIBA World Cup. The Jokić that returned lacked the same intensity and killer instinct he had in the playoffs, and for good reason. After competing in playoff basketball in the spring and for his home country in the summer, November basketball wasn’t the most alluring of competitive venues for Jokić (and for the rest of the Nuggets).
Then, Anthony Davis embarrassed Jokić on national television in early December, and Jokić was visibly frustrated and upset in the postgame locker room.
“I never thought I’m struggling, but I’m struggling right now,” Jokić said. “I cannot make shots.”
From that point onward, Jokić dedicated himself to his craft over and over again, starting with his body. He would work out every day in an effort to lose excess weight and build his body back to wear he wanted it to be, and he even began undergoing workouts after games to reinforce what he wanted to accomplish. It was a methodical process, but by February, Jokić appeared to be a different person. When spotted in Serbia in June, “Skinny Jokić” became a thing.
Nikola Jokic with a Kevin Love level glow up getting thin and improving his style is not something anyone could have expected during quarantine lol pic.twitter.com/quKlQQ7OSR
— Kevin O’Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) June 11, 2020
There were apparently concerns around the NBA about whether a thinner Jokić could still dominate games offensively. Those questions were quickly answered in the postseason. While Jokić dominated in a slightly different way against the Jazz while facing Rudy Gobert, Game 7 saw Jokic score 30 points, grab 14 rebounds, and hit the series-winning shot over Gobert with 30 seconds left in the game.
In the next series, with Kawhi Leonard as the presumed best player in the world, Jokic abused a Clippers team that had no answer for his combination of size, skill, and intelligence. After scoring 34 points in Game 6, the Clippers decided they were not going to let him win the game as a scorer in Game 7. Jokić was happy to oblige, absolutely annihilating the Clippers to the tune of 16 points, 22 rebounds, and 13 assists.
Jokić averaged only 21.8 points per game in Denver’s five games in the Conference Finals against James, Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard, and the physicality of the Lakers, but his story was already a positive one after the first two playoff series wins. He overcame adversity in his own right, offered some misdirection at the beginning of the first round, and had Nuggets fans cheering and laughing by the end of Game 7 against the Clippers. His game continues to grow into the mold of a future Hall of Famer.
Positives in the face of defeat
Here lies the crux of Denver’s comedic 2020 season: as good as they were this season, they have several paths to becoming a perennial championship contender. The Lakers will always be the Lakers because that’s how the NBA is, but for almost every other franchise, contention usually comes with a price. The Los Angeles Clippers traded several first round picks and young players to acquire a star duo that couldn’t get past the Nuggets in the second round. The Houston Rockets acquired Russell Westbrook for some reason, and their core of Westbrook, James Harden, Eric Gordon, PJ Tucker, and Robert Covington has little room for growth. The Utah Jazz may soon be locked into a core of Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert that the Nuggets defeated in the first round. The Oklahoma City Thunder are facing a rebuild and a likely trade of Chris Paul. The Portland Trail Blazers are locked into a trio of Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Jusuf Nurkic. Only the Dallas Mavericks with Luka Doncić have a similarly upward trajectory to the Nuggets among West playoff teams.
The fact of the matter is simple: the Nuggets are just beginning to tap into their potential and have more avenues to championship contention going forward than almost any team in the NBA.
Jokić is 25. Murray is 23. Porter is 22.
Those three figure to factor into Denver’s championship core for the next few years barring unforeseen circumstances, and there are other young players that will almost certainly aid in that success. Jerami Grant, though he’s expected to decline his player option and explore free agency, is reported by Mike Singer of the Denver Post to prefer staying with the Nuggets moving forward. Gary Harris and Will Barton remain under contract as veteran options on the wing. Monte Morris and PJ Dozier offer alternative options as backup guards.
The Nuggets also have yet to tap into the potential of 20-year-old Bol Bol. His 7’2 frame and impressive combination of athleticism, defensive instincts, ball skills, and shooting touch project to give the Nuggets an interesting wrinkle in a front court featuring Jokic, Porter, and Grant.
There are avenues that will give the Nuggets options going forward, despite the impending free agency of veterans Paul Millsap, Mason Plumlee, and Torrey Craig. All three have contributed to the growth of winning basketball in Denver and deserve credit for the success of the franchise, but a natural changing of the guard appears imminent with Porter ready to step into a larger role and Bol waiting in the shadows.
These positive implications are what soften the blow of Denver’s postseason failure. To become great, the Nuggets first had to become good. To become elite, the Nuggets first had to become great. The Nuggets are now elite, and their next step as a franchise is to put all of the talent together that they’ve assembled and become a champion. Very few teams can boast the talent the Nuggets have cobbled together over the years. Next season, it will be time for that talent to translate to postseason success at the highest level.
Ultimately, this is why the term tragedy falls short. There was nothing tragic about the Nuggets this season. There was no fall from grace, nothing to be disappointed about. No fatal flaw to exploit and prove why they were never good enough. That may still happen in future years if they never get over the top, but there’s plenty of time to worry about that.
No, the 2020 Nuggets are a comedy, filled with hilarious ups and downs of a young team seeking their own path of fulfillment. They are growing together, built upon a foundation of unselfishness, trust, and resilience born in the face of adversity. They have multiple leaders, from Michael Malone and Tim Connelly to Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray, who have all prospered off hard work and dedication to see the growth with their own eyes. It is pure comedy to watch Michael Porter Jr. for multiple reasons, knowing he could be the key to Denver’s ultimate success or downfall.
There are moments watching this team when I can’t stop laughing, knowing that history is unfolding before our very eyes. The Nuggets are known for their cycles of success and failure and the ultimate glass ceiling that comes from being based in the city of Denver. If there was ever going to be a group of people to shatter that glass ceiling, it would be this group.
I’m going to enjoy this.