In the health sphere, symptoms are the manifestation of deeper issues. A symptom by definition is, “a physical or mental feature that is regarded as indicating a condition or disease.” In other words, symptoms are the outcrop of the imperceivable. They convey, through often painful displays, what’s gone wrong below the surface.
It’s important to note how in isolated instances — i.e., a single outburst during a single game from a single frustrated player — the term “symptom” is not applicable. As is noted above, a symptom must betray an underlying condition and must therefore be propelled by mechanisms operating on a consistent basis behind closed doors.
According to these standards it’s not a stretch to suggest the Denver Nuggets have a symptom, and because they have a symptom are hence suffering from a condition or disease. The symptom has presented itself in the form of malcontents, notably the former Nugget, Jusuf Nurkic, and current Nugget, Wilson Chandler. Kenneth Faried is also known to have been dissatisfied with the Nuggets for years, though whether he still harbors these beliefs is debatable. As for the condition or disease, playing time and minutes distribution is by all objective standards the most likely culprit given the rash of interview quotes (including this one courtesy of Nurkic) from the aforementioned trio above.
And so by this logic it would appear we’ve arrived at a conclusion: Too few minutes in too erratic of a distribution has resulted in a condition in which core members of the Denver Nuggets roster are now disaffected and no longer want to be members of the Denver Nuggets. To clarify, the condition (playing time) authors the symptoms (dissatisfaction) and not the other way around.
Of course, this is by no means a justification of Nurkic’s attitude with the Nuggets, but rather an explanation of one factor that contributed to his moroseness and eventual departure. Nurkic is by all means thrilled to now be in Portland and his numbers prove it, as he’s averaging 17 points, 10 rebounds, five assists two blocks and nearly two steals since the trade, in addition to coming off a 28-point, 20-rebound, eight-assist, six-block performance against the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday night. But more germane to this conversation is the fact Nurkic is now averaging 30 minutes per game with the Blazers, including five games with more than 30 minutes of action and three with at least 35 minutes. To put this into perspective, Nurkic never averaged more than 18 minutes per game over the course of a single year in Denver and has already logged as many 35-plus minute games with Portland as he did in two and a half seasons with the Nuggets.
Aside from the fact Nurkic supposedly quit on the Nuggets, the other inescapable narrative put forth by fans since he was shipped to the City of Roses is that Nurkic and Jokic could have never played on the same team due to similarities in positioning and playing style. After all, this experiment was tried to start the season and failed abruptly when Jokic suggested he come off the bench, to which Malone easily abided. With Nurkic at center the starting lineup continued to flounder until eventually Malone flipped their roles, sending Nurkic to the bench, starting Jokic and in the process antagonizing Nurkic who then decided he no longer wanted to remain in Denver.
This theory is clean, pretty and easily understood, but given Nurkic’s play and mentality in Portland — both disparate contrasts to what he showed in Denver — it’s also one that’s beginning to show some cracks and begs a closer examination of what really transpired while Nurkic was a member of the Nuggets.
For example, what evidence do we really have that Nurkic and Jokic couldn’t have played together? Clearly there was some confusion when they started the season at center and power forward, but isn’t this to be expected from two young players of a similar ilk who’ve yet to play alongside one other? And is eight games really ample time to decide whether a frontcourt duo is compatible, especially when each player is averaging no more than 25 minutes per contest? No fan in their right mind would quarrel with the fact Jokic deserved to start, but does Jokic starting then justify a series of DNP-CDs followed by drastically rationing Nurkic’s playing time to a measly 15 minutes per game as occurred under Malone?
No amount of repetitive affirmation amongst fans can further cement the notion that Nurkic was wrong in the way he handled his situation in Denver. Everyone knows this. He was and still is a primma donna. But what also needs an equal amount of repetitive affirmation — and is unfortunately receiving hardly any — is the reality that Nurkic is correct in suggesting he never really had a fair shake in Denver. He never really had an opportunity to start and play starter minutes. In the 25 games he started for the Nuggets this season Nurkic only once saw more than 30 minutes of playing time and instead saw 20 minutes or less on 12 separate occasions. And in the seven games he saw more than 25 minutes he produced, averaging 16 points, nine rebounds, two assists, one block and one steal per contest.
Why Nurkic never even had an opportunity to play, at minimum, 25-plus minutes per game as backup — much less as a starter — is beyond perplexing. Seven different Nuggets are averaging more than 25 minutes per game this season, including Will Barton and Jameer Nelson, and of the 13 players who’ve been in and out of the rotation all year only Darrell Arthur and Juancho Hernangomez average less time than Nurkic did whilst donning a Nuggets uniform. With a combined 96 minutes at power forward and center to be distributed each game and Jokic still only occupying 30 (despite playing at an all-NBA level) it’s difficult to comprehend how 66 minutes could not somehow be distributed primarily between Nurkic and Faried.
Despite the above, it’s still not unreasonable to suggest Nurkic and the Nuggets were always heading towards an eventual split. With Jokic’s emergence as one of the most productive players in the NBA and therefore in need of increasing minutes, it seems fair to speculate how the Nuggets would have considered moving Nurkic at some point prior to his rookie deal expiring at the end of next season. And yet the annulment of this union could not have occurred under worse circumstances.
For the second time in as many years Tim Connelly refused to trade a once-simmering commodity until value was at its nadir. And in Nurkic’s case, much unlike Lawson’s, the Nuggets appear to have been duped into surrendering one of their most prized assets before even reaping the benefits of that asset for themselves. Not only did they actively participate in the depreciation of one of their own stocks, they then sold it for pennies on the dollar due, in part, to the repercussions of their own mismanagement. Adding insult to injury the Nuggets then decided to ship an untapped and likely vindictive asset to one of their arch rivals where he will not only act as a major factor in preventing the Nuggets from reaching the playoffs for the first time in four years this season, but also in every following season for years to come.
Looking back at Nurkic’s time in Denver the Nuggets front office will undoubtedly reflect on what went wrong and how they can prevent a similar scenario from unfolding in the future. What they should instead be asking themselves is why this disintegration occurred in the first place and what their role was in fostering a set of symptoms that got out of hand, in turn requiring immediate intervention to prevent from further metastasizing. Blaming young men for being emotional and arrogant is easy, but it also reduces a multifaceted, interpersonal breakdown into a one-dimensional blame game without asking why these men are upset in the first place. As I’ve tried to illuminate above, Nurkic was justified in feeling he deserved starter minutes and being irked for having never really been given that opportunity with the Nuggets no matter how unjustified he was in expressing his frustrations in an infantile manner. And yet it’s worth asking how justified we are to expect those who forgo college and much of their teenage schooling, who mature in different cultures in different corners of the world to act like seasoned professionals in dealing with strife on the job.
Nurkic may prove to be the ugliest symptom of the Nuggets’ roster overload as Connelly continues to transition from Masai Ujiri’s fast-paced franchise into one of his own liking, but as we’ve already seen, he’s certainly not the last. With Chandler longing for greener pastures, Emmanuel Mudiay the latest victim of Malone’s starter-to-DNP-CD pipeline, Malik Beasley and Hernangomez increasingly ready for a shot at playing time and Faried still reeling from his latest flavor-of-the-week indignation, Connelly certainly has his work cut out for him when it comes to satiating his roster. What’s more than evident, however, is that playing Whack-a-Mole with each new transgression and yelling “JUST GET ALONG, DAMNIT!” at all the kids in the back of the caravan who just want to stop at different roadside attractions isn’t the healthiest route to deliver an entire family to the promised land.