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The Denver Nuggets’ Battle for Culture

In 2009, the Denver Nuggets had developed into a modern, albeit watered-down version of the Detroit “Bad Boys” Pistons of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s — sans the championships and Hall of Fame players of course.

Their roster was adorned by tattoos, against-the-grain fashion statements and back-stories straight out of The Wire. They were infamous for their on-court demeanor and willingness to push the boundaries between physical and dirty play.

They were universally reviled — hence the Thuggets moniker thrust upon them — and Nuggets fans loved every minute of it.

Sure, they weren’t the poster-children of class the way the San Antonio Spurs had become. Hell, they weren’t even class in the Los Angeles Lakers’ sense for that matter. But they did have a palpable, easily-recognizable and distinguishable identity, and having a clear identity is something people in all walks of life can appreciate.

Since their run to the Western Conference Finals in 2009, and with the gradual and steady disembowelment of that roster over the years to follow, the Nuggets have been wandering around the wasteland of the NBA, a disembodied and indistinguishable corpse searching for the identity that has evaded them.

Ok, there was the 57-win team in 2013, but even that felt like a team that was more prominent for being a sum of their parts, i.e. numerous indeterminate pieces that made up a greater whole. I guess you can call that an identity, but it’s really an identity formed from the absence of one.

When George Karl was fired following that season as reigning NBA Coach of the Year, and Josh Kroenke subsequently opted to lowball the NBA Executive of the Year in Masai Ujiri, giving him no choice but to take the far more attractive offer put on the table by the Toronto Raptors, the wheels that had previously began to loosen had officially fallen off the vessel.

All remnants of their previously distinct identity, one that had catapulted them to the forefront of NBA banter and debate, has since dissipated into the ether.

It hasn’t been for lack of trying however. Kroenke brought in Tim Connelly as general manager, admittedly a very smart NBA guy, but someone without any previous experience in the position. To compound the impact of his inexperience, Kroenke named Brian Shaw head coach of the Nuggets, another man without any real world experience within the position he was hired for.

The impetus behind both of these moves was a deep-rooted motivation to establish a new identity for this franchise, and to move them from playoff punching bag to bona fide contender. In fact, much of Shaw’s introductory press conference was spent belittling one of the primary tenets of their previously held identity — run, run, run.

As is so often the case, especially when attempting to establish something entirely new by denouncing the old, things didn’t go as planned. Since then, the Nuggets have found themselves slipping back into ethereal irrelevance, only surfacing periodically when news drenched in controversy emerges.

I’ve been critical of the Nuggets’ front office over the past few years, but one thing I have to give them credit for this offseason is their recognition of the root cause of their cultural disintegration — an overwhelming lack of character and leadership.

To address this void, the Nuggets brought in Michael Malone to fill their vacant head coaching position. This was step No. 1 in their attempt to rebuild the culture from the ground up.

Malone, since Day 1, has conveyed an all-business demeanor and has clearly communicated the type of players he wants to see on his roster. This was summed up best in an interview with Nate Timmons from DenverStiffs.com:

“I love guys that play hard every night, and that may sound very simple, but playing hard is a skill in the NBA.”

That’s pretty simple, and perhaps more importantly, it’s easy to relate to.

But the most important part of the Nuggets’ new message has actually gone explicitly unstated. They want players on this roster who want to be a part of this team.

This message was clearly sent in their recent decision to re-work and extend Wilson Chandler’s contract, and was reinforced by Chandler’s statement following its finalization:

“I make all my decisions based on what will make me happier in life. That should say everything in regards to why I chose to resign with Denver for the next 4 years.”

This message is evident in the words and behavior of Emmanuel Mudiay since his selection in this year’s draft. This is best seen in his statements captured by NBA.com:

“I’m where I’m supposed to be,” he said. “Denver is where I need to be and I’m happy with the opportunity to be a part of where the team is. I want to bring a winning attitude. I’m all about winning and I want that to be contagious with my teammates.”

The front office also decided to bring back Will Barton and Jameer Nelson, both players of great character who had opportunities to go elsewhere, but opted against it. Why? Because they want to be in Denver.

This is the ushering in of a new era in Nuggets basketball. While Connelly and Kroenke may have overplayed their hand in their gamble to hold onto Ty Lawson until his return value is maximized, I can truly get behind all of the other moves they’ve made this summer.

Lawson now represents the antagonist in this story to recapture an abandoned culture. While he’s racking up more DUIs than an unemployed movie star, or publicly decrying the organization that’s given him the life he’s now overindulging in, the rest of the Nuggets are focused on establishing something special in Denver.

The culture they’re striving for won’t look like the vast nothingness that has permeated the past few seasons. It definitely won’t resemble that which fans became familiar with in the late 2000s. But it’ll be something for fans to grasp onto, and something in this instance is infinitely better than the alternative.

That in and of itself should be enough to give Nuggets fans everywhere the optimism that’s been dormant for so long.

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