Denver Nuggets, NBA Playoff Preview, NBA Playoffs, Philadelphia 76ers

NBA Playoffs 2019: The Nuggets, 76ers and the myth of paying playoff dues

If the Denver Nuggets do not win a title this season, a near certainty according to FiveThirtyEight’s NBA projections, it will happen in a predictable way. In four games of a seven-game series, an opponent will score more points than they will. This will happen because the Nuggets will miss some shots they often make. Their good-but-not-great defense will spring a leak or two, in ways both expected and, probably, unexpected. Perhaps a key injury will remove some essential element of their structure and force a player to move up a spot or two in the rotation, taking on slightly more responsibility than they’re prepared to handle.

If the Denver Nuggets lose the last playoff game they play this season it will not be because they’re too young or too inexperienced. It will not be because they aren’t battle-tested. And it will not be because the Basketball Gods demand that they pay some dues, a sacrifice of blood, sweat and tears to cement a future claim on glory.

This trope is endlessly recited about young playoff teams and, like any good myth, it’s a comforting narrative, a blanket of shorthand that can be thrown over a morass of more scientific explanations that really explain a complex ecosystem.

The Nuggets are incredibly young. Four of the five players who were on the court the most for them this season are 23 or younger. No one in that group has ever even played in a playoff game before. And yet, the Nuggets are also incredibly good. Three of those 23-and-under players are estimated to be enormously positive contributors by ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus. Nikola Jokic, at 23, is a franchise centerpiece and one of the most impactful players in the league. As of today, the Nuggets have compiled the fifth-best point differential in the league, with the sixth-best offense and the 10th-best defense.

See, the thing about good young teams is that they get better. The same is not necessarily true for young teams, writ large, because terrible teams also find themselves permeated by youth. But if you have, say the fifth-youngest, roster in the league this season, as the Nuggets do, and were still strong enough to earn homecourt advantage in the playoffs, returning the same core will almost certainly result in progression. Good young players tend to get better, irrespective of the number of heart-breaking losses they suffer in the postseason. There may certainly by some mirco lessons to learn — an essential skill that’s lacking in their toolbox, a mindset that needs focus. But those lessons have been imparted in bits and pieces 82 times already this season.

The 76ers, who also have a less than one percent chance of winning a title this season, according to FiveThirtyEight, will almost certainly be buried under the same explanation. When they are eliminated from the playoffs it will be pointed out, relentlessly, that this was just the second playoff appearance for Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. That they both seem to present a certain amount of immaturity — in Embiid’s enduring brevity and Simmons rigid avoidance of jumpshots — that can need to be exposed and salted.

But if the 76ers don’t win the title this season, it will be because they were beaten by a team that played better. It will be because they didn’t have enough wing depth or because someone figured out how to exploit some systemic weakness. And if they do come back and win a title next year or the year after, it won’t be because they needed to redeem themselves, it won’t be because they were driven to cauterize the salted, emotional wounds they suffered this year. It will be because their young players followed a natural developmental progression, because they had the right supporting cast around them and because they were good enough and lucky enough to clear every hurdle.

Next: Who is facing the most pressing in the NBA playoffs?

Except for the Minneapolis Lakers in 1949-50, every NBA champion has also suffered a playoff loss at some point in their organization’s history. It’s all a learning experience but don’t confuse correlation for causation. No team is too inexperienced to win it all and no team needs to lose before they can win. Which is good news for the Nuggets and the 76ers, no matter how long the odds are.

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