We’re reached the official midpoint of the NBA regular season, and the Denver Nuggets are in first place in the Western Conference with a 29-13 record. That’d put them on pace to go 57-25, tied for the team’s best mark since the ABA merger in the 70s.
For a team that hasn’t been to the playoffs in six seasons and hasn’t won a playoff series in a decade, this is a meteoric rise up the ladder. It’s the kind of rise that totally scrambles expectations and reasonable judgment.
Expectations are completely theoretical, yet incredibly essential in sports. Coaches get fired over expectations. Coaches get new contracts over expectations. Teams that fall short of expectations are dismantled; teams that exceed them are reinforced. Executives constantly play the expectations game and then watch their careers dangle at the mercy of whether those manufactured expectations were met.
How do you set reasonable expectations when a team leaps from outside the playoffs to the top of a really good conference in one year without a singular talent upgrade? How do the Nuggets measure success or failure now?
These question loom over their past, present, and future.
For starters: is this season already a success as long as Denver does make the playoffs? The Nuggets were good enough for the postseason last year with 46 wins, but the West was too deep. Is actually getting in an accomplishment through that prism? Does the 2017-18 heartbreak of being one game short lower the threshold for success in 2018-19?
This is relevant because in the traditional expectations ladder for rising NBA teams, a franchise that simply made the postseason in one year would be expected to win a playoff series the following year. To fall short would mean facing calls for a big trade or a coaching switch. Ask the Blazers how all that goes.
The Nuggets didn’t technically make the playoffs last season, but they might as well have. They had the 11th-best point differential in the league and only missed out because they played in the West.
Viewed from that prism, simply getting into the playoffs this season might not quite be enough. The Nuggets’ wins progression since 2014-15 reads like this: 30 wins, 33 wins, 40 wins, 46 wins, and 50-something wins this season. On that sequence, are we at the “make the playoffs” stage of the expectations game, or the “win a playoff series” stage?
This become more complicated because the Nuggets will likely be a top-3 seed. Top-3 seeds that lose in the first round draw special scorn, no matter their regular-season record. Again, ask the Blazers how all that goes.
This will be felt especially acutely should Denver actually claim the No. 1 or 2 seed. Can you reasonably identify a playoff bid as success when you finish the regular season as the top or second-best team in the conference? Doesn’t that success inherently force new near-term aspirations upon you?
Can a No. 1 seed ever just be happy to be in the playoffs? Probably not.
So we’re in this intractable tugging war between the desire to celebrate progress and to expect more.
Mere satisfaction isn’t a popular concept in high-level sports. If the Nuggets make it to the playoffs for the first time since 2013 but flame out in the first round, it’s hard to imagine any but the most sympathetic observers calling the season a success, no matter how much fun this Nikola Jokic-led run has been.
More nuance could enter the equation should Denver win in the first round but experience ejection at the hands of the Warriors, Rockets, Thunder, Lakers, or really anyone in the second round. Even though the Nuggets have a better record right now, most neutral parties would pick Golden State or Houston over Denver in a best-of-seven series. Oklahoma City didn’t have a successful postseason last year, but things seem to be better now. The Lakers fall under the LeBron James rule: all expectations are void on either side because he’s freaking LeBron.
Losing in the first round can be embarrassing. (Ask the Blazers.) Losing in the second round is, in a way, noble. The Nuggets could lose in the second round and feel really good about the future.
So is that the goal?
That leads to a series of follow-up questions. Is targeting what seems reasonable from an outside perspective a fair way to determine internal expectations? Is that fair to the Nuggets or other teams of whom a little more is perhaps expected that they are judged by parameters they didn’t set themselves? (The Raptors and Celtics are case studies here: Toronto has never made the NBA Finals and this iteration of Boston hasn’t been there, but anything less would be a failure.)
If the answer is yes, that leads to more questions. If Denver is “expected” to win a playoff series in its first postseason in six years, can the Nuggets front office withstand pressure to mix things up if the team falls short? On the other hand, if the Nuggets meet these seemingly reasonable expectations, will expectations then be reset a mile higher for next season?
Then again, given that the Nuggets front office and ownership suite seems stable and reasonable, does any of this really matter? Maybe the best approach is to enjoy Nikola Jokic and not fret.