The idea that mediocrity is the worst possible state for an NBA team is an overused cliché. Mediocrity is fine if it contains a plan and purpose, such as remaining close to a reasonable level of contention, keeping a star player happy or even something as vain as putting butts in the seats.
The mediocrity teams want to avoid is that which comes about accidentally and is the result of various bad hires, trades and transactions. That was the state of Nuggets over the previous two seasons. The poor decision to fire George Karl after a banner 57-win campaign in 2012-13, along with several other errors, caused the team to spiral into irrelevancy.
That's the state rookies Emmanuel Mudiay and Nikola Jokic are now starting to overcome. Most cellar-dwellers would kill for the opportunity to build around one promising rookie. The Nuggets stumbled into two that complement each other beautifully at the league's most important positions, stringing together a young nucleus better than anything the Sixers have built throughout their entire rebuilding Process.
Mudiay's talent shouldn't be catching anyone by surprise. He was one of the top high school players in the country two years ago and was considered among the top prospects coming into the draft despite falling to the Nuggets at No. 7.
He's transitioned into the NBA the way most scouts assumed he would. Mudiay's been a relentless attacker and penetrator that's displayed beautiful passing instincts. His crooked jumper and lack of experience have held him back, but the flashes of brilliance matter more. Mudiay is averaging nearly eight drives per game, one of the league's better marks, and creating 13.4 points per game with his passing, per NBA.com. Not bad for a 20-year-old who played in China last year and has yet to learn the nuances of the NBA game.
Jokic, though, has been the real revelation. The 21-year-old Serbian was drafted by the Nuggets in the second round last season, but didn't come to United States until this past summer. Forget just rookies; there may not be a more surprising player in the entire league. The standard numbers (9.9 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.1 assists in 20.4 minutes) don't tell the whole story. Folks have to look deeper -- or just flip on a Nuggets game every now and then -- to see his brilliance.
His offensive game makes him look like a third Gasol brother. He's already one of the best passing big men in the league -- Joakim Noah, Blake Griffin and the Gasol brothers are the only bigs that have assisted on a higher percentage of their teams' baskets this year, per ESPN -- and his post game is light years ahead of most rookies. He's connecting on 71 percent of his shots in the post, per NBA.com. A majority of those makes are on an impressive array of hook shots, which he freely deploys with both hands.
Jokic's soft touch extends out to the perimeter, too, which bodes well for his battery with Mudiay. They've shown flashes of the explosive pick-and-roll combination they may one day become. Mudiay is a blur with the ball and has enough speed to turn the corner even when defenders sag off him or go under screens. When he does, it creates room for Jokic to let his pretty jumper fly.
Sometimes Mudiay finds Jokic flashing in the paint.
Other times, Mudiay hits Jokic out at the three-point line. The big man is shooting an impressive 36 percent from out there despite his size.
The combination isn't perfect, especially not yet. Mudiay often attacks too quickly, and the hitch in his jumper is a real issue. He's shooting just 28 percent on jump shots this season, per NBA.com, so teams can simply go under ball screens and neutralize him. Jokic's issues come on the other end, where he lacks strength and offers little to no rim protection right now.
But any executive building an NBA team from scratch would prioritize finding an explosive point guard and versatile center. The Nuggets got both of those pieces in one year, making it easier to complement their core with fellow youngsters like Gary Harris and Joffrey Lauvergne, as well as veterans like Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried and Will Barton.
While the Nuggets have been frisky under new coach Mike Malone, the wins and losses don't really matter anymore. It's finally all about the future in Denver, and the presence of Mudiay and Jokic has that future looking brighter that it has in years.