The NBA is almost back. Professional basketball returns Tuesday with a three-game slate, and on Wednesday, the Denver Nuggets begin their season against the New Orleans Pelicans.
In recent years, passion for the local team has fallen off. The Nuggets ranked dead last in attendance with an average of 14,095 fans coming to the Pepsi Center per game last season. Denver finished 33-49 — the third straight time it failed to qualify for the playoffs.
But there are reasons to feel cautiously optimistic about the Nuggets. They have an exciting young core of players, solid veterans, smart management and a good coach. They should be in the mix for the Western Conference’s No. 8 seed.
If you are on the fence about watching the Nuggets or the NBA in general this year, here is some friendly advice: Do it.
The NBA is fun. Unlike the NFL, it encourages individualism and personality. Its players aren’t ruining their bodies for our viewing pleasure like they do in football. And the NBA is fast-paced, tailor-made for the social media era and has perhaps the deepest collection of talent in its 70-year history.
Here’s what you need to know about the Nuggets and the league in general if you’re thinking about watching this year.
What is basketball?
A game James Naismith invented in 1891. Naismith was a physical education teacher who wanted to create a game his Springfield, Massachusetts, students could play during New England’s cold-as-hell winters. It involved shooting a round ball into a peach basket.
That essentially remains the main goal of basketball to this day, although I promise you it’s much cooler than I just made it sound.
Why should I care about the Nuggets?
A fair question. The Nuggets haven’t won more than 36 regular-season games since 2012-13. They haven’t been good in three years and some change. It looks like the tide might finally be about to turn, though.
Denver has eight players on its roster who are 22 or younger. Those players are Malik Beasley (19), Jamal Murray (19), Emmanuel Mudiay (20), Juancho Hernangomez (21), Nikola Jokic (21), Gary Harris (22), Jarnell Stokes (22) and Jusuf Nurkic (22).
Murray is one of the best outside shooters in college basketball history. Mudiay, who the Nuggets took No. 7 overall in 2015, is a big, athletic point guard with a ton of potential. Nurkic is a skilled, mean center who is on the short list of people I wouldn’t want to anger under any circumstance. And Jokic is coming off a season in which he finished third in Rookie of the Year voting and did stuff like this:
The young guys, mixed in with experienced but still relatively youthful veterans like Danilo Gallinari, Will Barton and Kenneth Faried, should mean Denver is going to the playoffs every year fairly soon.
What’s the Nuggets’ best-case scenario this season?
Winning somewhere between 40 and 42 regular-season games and finishing eighth in the Western Conference, which would allow Denver to sneak into the playoffs and presumably get pounded into dust by the Golden State Warriors.
Everything breaks right. Mudiay shows all-around improvement and proves his improved post-All-Star-break shooting stroke wasn’t a fluke. Jokic and Nurkic remain motivated and hungry inside, no matter if they’re coming off the bench or in the starting lineup. Gallinari stays healthy and plays more than 59 regular-season games for the first time since 2012-13.
Last month, a Vegas sports book set the Nuggets’ over-under season win total at 34.5 games. Finishing, say, 41-41 is not completely out of the question.
What is their worst-case scenario?
Finishing with anywhere between 30 and 32 regular-season wins. Major injuries take their toll. The young fellas don’t show marked improvement. Faried grows unhappy with his bench role and stops trying. Denver still can’t shoot 3s. Or defend them.
What is their most realistic scenario?
Winning 36-38 games and getting a No. 9 or 10 seed — jussssst on the outside looking in of the playoff picture. Denver needs one more season of growing pains before it starts making consistent playoff appearances.
But who knows? Unpredictability, even if there’s not as much of it in the NBA as there is in the MLB of NFL, is one of the fun parts of sports.
[Extreme Brooklyn grandpa voice]: That’s why they play the games.
And one of several reasons why this year’s as good as any to start watching the Nuggets and the NBA.