The Denver Nuggets are playoff bound. With a 114-105 win in Boston on Monday, they clinched a postseason spot for the first time since 2013, the latest step in their progression from punching bag to budding contender.
There are a number of ways to measure the strides the Nuggets have made in the last half decade, whether it’s the offense (Denver is fourth in offensive efficiency), road record (17-16) or even All-Star selections (Nikola Jokic was the team’s first representative this year since Carmelo Anthony in 2011). All of those are worthy answers. But when asked Saturday about the progress this franchise has made, Will Barton gauged it by going in a different direction: the home crowd.
“I remember when I first got traded here,” Barton said. “Nobody was at the games. It was quiet as a church mouse. When it was crowded, they were rooting for the other team. Losing, it wasn’t fun. For us to come this far is very satisfying. I was here from that to where we are now.”
The Nuggets are 12th in home attendance and average 18,491 fans per contest, which is no small feat compared to where they were. When Barton was traded here in February 2015, only 14,700 fans came out every game — the third-fewest in the NBA. Denver had lost its way trying to transition from the George Karl era. Two weeks after Barton arrived, the Nuggets fired Karl’s successor, Brian Shaw, and they finished the season 30-52.
“Me and G (Gary Harris) talk about it a lot,” Barton said of his early days in Denver.
Barton and Harris are the longest-tenured players on the roster. During their first three seasons in Denver, the Nuggets ranked 28th, 30th and 30th in home attendance. That fans are finally flocking back speaks to the work Michael Malone, Barton, Harris and others have done to rebuild this franchise from the ground up. Saturday’s win over Indiana marked the 23rd sellout of the season, up from 14 in 2017-18 and four in 2016-17.
That support has helped the Nuggets go 30-6 at Pepsi Center this season, the best home record in the NBA. They are 9-3 against the other seven teams currently in the Western Conference playoff picture. They also hammered the Lakers 117-85 on Nov. 27 in their lone trip to Denver of the season.
“We don’t want any converts,” Malone said afterward. “You’re either with us or against us. We understand when we play these great teams — LeBron is arguably the best player ever. And when he comes to town, the Lakers, their fans carry. But as long as their fans go home disappointed, that’s all I care about. The Warrior fans can come in here. The Celtic fans can come in here. Laker fans can come in here. But take that L on the way out.”
The Nuggets have shown steady growth every year since Malone took over. They won 33 games his first year at the helm, 40 in his second, 46 a season ago and now sit at 47 with a 13 games remaining. Nikola Jokic, responsible for 21 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists in the playoff-clinching win, has blossomed from an unknown second-round pick into a superstar under his watch. Jamal Murray, Malik Beasley and Monte Morris have all developed into key rotation pieces, too.
And then there are Barton and Harris, the only two players who predate Malone’s arrival. Harris doesn’t have fond memories from his rookie year. He didn’t play much. Less than a month into his pro career, the Nuggets got booed off the court after giving up 84 first-half points to the Trail Blazers.
“We got booed off the court one time,” Harris said toward the end of last season. “Now to see the stands filled and everybody cheering, ‘Let’s go Nuggets.’ It’s amazing. It’s an amazing feeling.”
Together, Barton, Harris and Malone are as responsible as anyone for changing the culture in Denver. They were here from the start of this run. Barton and Harris were both bench players when Malone took over. Now one is the team’s starting small forward and the other is Denver’s starting shooting guard.
Barton had plenty of suitors this summer in free agency. In fact, he spurned bigger offers to come back to Denver on a four-year, $54 million deal. Barton took less money because he wanted to see this rebuild through.
“It means a lot,” Barton said about the playoff berth, “It’s why I re-signed here. It’s why I came back. I’m big on finishing what I started and seeing this whole thing through. It was very big for me to come here and try to change the culture around here.”
These days, Pepsi Center is a raucous environment. Earning back Nuggets’ fans attention wasn’t easy. But Barton and his teammates have done more than make Mile High basketball respectable once again; they’ve made it fun.