The Denver Nuggets that visited American Airlines Center Friday night have missed the playoffs in five consecutive seasons.
They are a lock to make the postseason this year and have a realistic chance to be the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. Or at the least have a home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
They came into Friday’s action two games behind top-seeded Golden State in the West standings and two games ahead of No. 3 Oklahoma City.
It’s a tribute to the Nuggets building a quality roster – and to the patience management and ownership have shown with the process of rebuilding and coach Michael Malone.
It wasn’t long ago, the 2015-16 season, to be exact, when Malone was in his first season leading the Nuggets and they were suffering through a 33-49 season.
In the last two seasons, they have improved to 40 wins and, last year, 46 wins. Each of those two seasons, they missed the playoffs by a single game.
And yet, the Nuggets stuck with Malone.
It’s not unlike what happened in Philadelphia when the Sixers were awful for Bret Brown’s first four seasons, but made the playoffs and went to the second round last season and now are one of the top threats in the Eastern Conference.
Quin Snyder has gone through very similar circumstances in Utah.
And, closer to home, it’s going on with the Mavericks, too. At least they hope the dividends of going through some lean seasons are on the horizon. They bottomed out last season at 24 wins. They surpassed that total with more than two months left in this season.
And like the Nuggets, they have a rising foreign-born superstar to build around. Two of them, in fact. Denver has the multi-talented Nikola Jokic and the Mavericks have Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis.
“It’s great to see,” said Rick Carlisle, who is president of the NBA coaches association. “The pattern in the last few years has been that ownership across the league understands the importance of coaching and continuity. And so, a lot of these franchises have stayed the course.
“And we’re going through a difficult three years here. And we got to stay the course here and keep getting our guys better. We got to keep making it a little better each day. And we got big decisions to make in the offseason.”
Malone had bounced around as an assistant coach for 10 seasons before getting his first head-coaching job in Sacramento in 2013. He was fired midway through his second season but was hired by the Nuggets six months later. Now, he’s considered one of the brightest coaches in the league and his job security is rock-solid in Denver.
Asked about what he tells his team now that they find themselves in position to make some noise in the playoffs, Malone said:
“Well, you would hope that after two years of missing the playoffs by one game, if they’re looking to me to give a Knute Rockne ‘Win One for the Gipper’ speech every night, we’re in trouble. Coming out of the break, like going into it, is a tough time and sometimes it takes team a couple games to get back. We don’t have that luxury. We have to make sure we hit the ground running and get off to a good start.”
No worries there. Without Luka Doncic playing for the Mavericks, the Nuggets cruised to a relatively simple 114-104 victory on Friday. That improved their record to 40-18. The Mavericks are 26-32.
The Nuggets’ showing has surprised many in and around the NBA, including Carlisle.
“To be first for a significant chunk of the season in the West is a nod to the job he’s done,” Carlisle said of Malone. “I don’t think anybody expected him to be coaching in the All-Star Game.”
But Malone was, indeed, leading the Western Conference after his team posted the best record in the West through the cut-off date.
The Mavericks have their ducks lined up correctly to follow in Denver’s steady-rise path. Now all they need is patience and a little luck.