Mark Knudson’s 3 Strikes: Avalanche, Broncos and Nuggets

June 18, 2022; Denver, Colorado, United States; Colorado Avalanche players celebrate a goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the third period of game two of the 2022 Stanley Cup Finals at the Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

beat one: The Colorado Avalanche may seem like an unstoppable force, rolling downhill through downtown at breakneck speed toward a Stanley Cup parade. But like the man once said, it’s not over until it’s over.

You can bet the Avs coaching team and front office are convinced right now. You don’t take anything for granted.

After beating reigning cup winners Tampa Bay Lightning 7-0 to take a 2-0 straight lead, Avs supporters can be excused for feeling a crowning glory is just days away. However, within the organization and in the dressing room, the team takes note that the Lightning were trailing 2-0 against New York in their last series. Tampa hasn’t been the most successful team in the NHL for the past three years because they would lie down and quit when they were behind.

Keep in mind that pundits like to say that a streak doesn’t really begin until a road team wins a game. That means the Avs in Game 3 at the Sunshine State can effectively start and pretty much finish the streak on the same night. Win Game 3 in Tampa and Colorado shorted out the Lightning. It’s hard to imagine any team on this planet defeating the Avalanche four times in a row, including twice in the boisterous Ball Arena. So Game 3 is crucial for both teams, not just the guys lagging behind in the series.

This is the point where coaching a team full of star players becomes almost more difficult than trying to get everything out of a limited roster (as Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone had to do last season). Avs head coach Jared Bednar needs to focus his star-studded roster on staying aggressive and not backing down before they’ve truly secured the series. There are many distractions out there. Tampa is going to be a wild and crazy place. Maybe not as dangerous as handling the crazies in St. Louis, but certainly more dangerous than Edmonton during the Avs Western Conference Finals sweep. While it’s okay to be happy with what they’ve already accomplished — which is one of the most dominating runs in NHL playoff history — the work isn’t finished, and that message is being carried by coaches and team leaders always carried home their “Business Class” trip to Florida.

You can imagine how New York Rangers fans felt during the Eastern Conference Finals when they defeated Tampa 2-0. There were Rangers fans already looking forward to playing the Avalanche and wondering how they could slow down MacKinnon and company.

You never had the chance. Looking too far ahead can force you to take your eyes off the immediate goal.

Rest assured that the Avalanche trainers will not allow players to make the same mistake.

Beat two: Like it or not, Melvin Gordon was the Denver Broncos’ best running back a season ago. Go ahead and check it out. Bringing him back for 2022 was a no-brainer.

Yes, last year’s rookie sensation Javonte Williams was – and is – a wonderful young talent who showed tremendous potential and could become the starter and a Pro Bowler in the not too distant future. He became a fan favorite with his relentless running style, leading many to dislike Gordon and label him expendable.

Not so fast folks. In 2021, Gordon had more yards (918-903) and a slightly better yards-per-carry average than the hyped rookie. He also scored more touchdowns (10 to 7). Ironically, both Gordon and Williams had exactly 203 rushing attempts last season.

And while his most die-hard critics are happy to point at Gordon’s fumble — as incongruous as last season — he’s only brought it down three times in 231 touches. Williams dropped the ball himself twice. There’s not a big difference. A total of five fumbles between them in 477 touches. You obviously want that number to be closer to zero, but it’s not terrible either.

They’re clearly best in tandem – a one-two punch regardless of who gets the first or last carry. Together they had almost 2,000 yards for a (at best) conservative offense last season. In the era of rotating running backs, the two Broncos were among the best couples in the NFL. Still, almost for a man/woman/kid, Broncos Country wants — expected — Williams to be the man this season.

It’s actually a mystery why so many people want to show Gordon the door. More importantly, why does Gordon himself make decisions — like skipping voluntary off-season workouts — that add fuel to the fire and set him back? Gordon says he’s “not going to give up” in the competition and is dying to be the starter again, which is great. Says he will prove worthy. Fine. But during a time when he could have dipped into new HC Nathaniel Hackett’s playbook, he was a no-show. He’s already placed a distant second in the RB1 derby ahead of training camp in the eyes of most who follow the team.

Maybe Gordon needs that extra motivation. Perhaps the former first-round draft pick and two-time Pro Bowler needs to feel like an underdog to be at his best. Broncos fans should hope for a highly motivated Gordon coming to Dove Valley who’s really ready to rumble. That’s because the combination of Gordon and Williams is Denver’s best shot at success on Hackett’s redesigned offense.

Beat three: The Denver Nuggets rose from within when team president Tim Connelly went to Minnesota. Calvin Booth was promoted to the position after taking over as general manager in 2021, but who replaced him as assistant GM?

Technically, this gig went into the ownership of young Tommy Balcetis, who hails from Lithuania and has been the team’s analyst for ten years. He too was promoted from within. But that means there’s still one fewer front-office manager at Nuggets HQ than when Connelly was there. There is a position that needs to be filled.

Ironically, it’s Connelly who has already given Denver an up-close, first-hand look at the right person to add to the front-office mix: It’s retired WNBA legend Sue Bird.

In 2019, before the pandemic derailed everything, Connelly had the foresight to invite Bird to be a temporary part of Nuggets’ front office during the WNBA offseason. He titled her “Basketball Operations Associate” and used her to handle scouting, draft analysis, and even a bit of point guard coaching. She was still an active player, of course, so her role had to be limited, but it gave her a taste of what a front office gig would be like, and by all appearances she liked it and was good at it.

Bird announced her retirement last week after 19 seasons as a member of the Seattle Storm. She has won four championships and five Olympic gold medals. Her accolades run the length of her arm, including winning multiple championships abroad. Now she begins Chapter Two. Could this start in Denver?

The Nuggets only had a partial front office season in 2019 because the pandemic forced everything to rethink the following year. Now, arguably the greatest player in WNBA history, Bird is about to ditch her Air Jordans in a few weeks and decide what career path she wants to pursue after the game. She could work in broadcasting (easiest way of course) as a trainer or in the front office. The only thing she’s reportedly holding onto is that she plans to stay involved in the game.

The Nuggets could do that by offering Bird a well-paying, full-time front office position, like they did yesterday.

Nothing against Balcetis, who provided the team with valuable analysis data. But the Harvard graduate’s gaming experience is very limited and it could be very valuable to the organization to also have someone with Bird’s expertise and gaming experience available to help Booth and the coaching staff.

This isn’t about getting a pat on the back for hiring a female front office executive. Bird wouldn’t be the first female NBA manager. Instead, it would be about hiring the best person available for an important job, someone with incredible basketball acumen and communication skills. It would be about bringing in a pair of eyes with a perspective that is rare — if not unique — in the NBA. It could help the Nuggets win. That’s the only thing that matters.

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