Imagine missing the playoffs by one game, two years in a row. This is the world of the Denver Nuggets, who have an indisputably playoff-caliber roster but have not quite gotten there because of poor health, poor luck and poor defense. Nuggets swingman Will Barton believes that is about to change.
"I see a lot of versatility, a lot of guys that can do a lot of things," Barton told CBS Sports. "We're really potent on offense, a lot of guys who can shoot the ball, make plays for one another and can handle. And then when we're locked in, we really get after it on defense. With us, it's all about putting it together consistently, and I think this year we will."
Barton, 27, could have left the place where he established himself in the NBA. An unrestricted free agent last summer, he went through an entirely different experience than when he hit restricted free agency three years ago. Listening to teams' pitches and offers reminded him of college recruiting, and he had to think about what he really wanted on and off the court. In Denver, he had confidence that his young teammates would continue to improve and would give him a platform to win. He returned on a four-year, $53 million contract.
On the phone, Barton said Paul Millsap's return to the lineup fully healthy "changes the game for us," adding that reserves Trey Lyles and Monte Morris have been impressive in training camp. He also discussed the art of playing with Nikola Jokic, the rare pass-first star center; the pain of losing a play-in game and the validation that comes with earning a starting spot years after entering the league as the 40th pick in the draft.
"It means everything to me," Barton said. "I think any guy growing up that had dreams of playing in the NBA always wanted to be a starter. It's something that I take serious and look forward to embracing and taking on the challenge."
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity and flow.
CBS Sports: Last Thursday was exactly six months since that play-in game against the Wolves. How often have you thought about it since then?
Will Barton: I think about it all the time, to be honest with you. That's what drives me this season. It drove me during the offseason to come back as a better player and as a better leader so we won't have to worry about playing in a play-in game at the end of the season -- we'll already be solidified as one of those teams in those top spots. I think that's everyone's mindset in the locker room. We're just going to try to get off to a better start, so we won't have to worry about that again.
CBS: Did you ever actually go back and watch the tape?
WB: Yeah, I watched it a couple times this summer, just to see what we could have done better, so what I could have done better. And, like, I said just to get motivation from it, to keep me hungry and ready to play.
CBS: There aren't many passers like Nikola, especially at his position. What was it like developing chemistry with him, learning how to read him and when to expect a pass to come flying your way?
WB: It's been fun and it's been a challenge. When you're playing with a guy whose basketball IQ is that high, you gotta try to get used to playing with him and try to read his mind before a play starts or before he gets going because he sees a play before it even happens. If you're playing off him, you gotta learn how to cut, when to come get the ball from him, where he likes the ball and just being smart out there. He raises your IQ because his is so high.
CBS: When a guy naturally wants to get his teammates involved but can clearly create his own offense, too, do you guys sort of need to remind him to look for his own shot?
WB: I don't ever want to put him in a box of trying to tell him he needs to average this or get these many shot attempts up. I think the biggest thing with him is always being aggressive looking at the rim. He's such a threat; when he looks at the rim, now you have to respect his jumper, you have to respect his handle, his driving ability and his handle. When he's just passing, the only thing you have to respect is his passing, but when he's looking at the basket, he does so many things that now the defense has to respect all elements of what he brings, and now it's hard to guard him, and, more importantly, it's hard to guard the team.
CBS: What kind of player do you think Jamal Murray is on the verge of becoming?
WB: I think he's on the verge of being whatever player he really sets his mind to. He's a special talent. He's real competitive, he shoots the lights out and he's growing every day at the point guard position, so it's really going to be up to him. He works hard. He wants it. I feel like it's just a matter of time before he even goes to another level, and that's going to be dangerous and scary.
CBS: How do you feel about the Isaiah Thomas addition?
WB: Very excited. Anytime you can get a player of his caliber, what he's accomplished in the NBA, to have him on your team, which is already talented, and then you add a guy like that, it can only be for the better. I'm excited to have him on the team and bring everything he brings with his scoring, his playmaking, his leadership, his experiences and everything.
CBS: Everybody talks about the defense. What have you seen so far in the preseason that makes you optimistic about it?
WB: I think we've come a long way. Still got a ways to go, but I see the improvement. Guys are flying around more, being more active. We're talking more, which is probably the biggest thing, and I think it showed in the preseason. Hopefully we can carry it over into the regular season.
CBS: It took a few years for you to make your name in the league but you always had the respect of your peers, your teammates. I'm thinking specifically about Damian Lillard meeting with Paul Allen and basically asking why they let you slip away. What does that respect mean to you?
WB: Respect from my teammates and peers means more to me than anything, just because they see you working every day, they're around you every day and they get to see you grow. So for them to realize that I can play and that I can be a real good player in the league, that always meant more to me than any accolade or any media or anyone else thinking I could play because they're around me more.
CBS: What has Michael Malone had to do with your rise in Denver?
WB: He just let me be me, man. He doesn't try to put me in a box or anything like that. He just lets me play and tells me to be me, be aggressive and just play my game and don't worry about anything. When a coach believes in you that way, it's always the sky is the limit. I'm always appreciative of coach Malone and how he let me grow and how he lets me just go out there and play my game.
CBS: Were there times earlier in your career where you were wishing for that -- not only the opportunity to play, but the opportunity to be yourself?
WB: Yeah. As a player, you're always looking for that opportunity. That's when you can be your best you: when your teammates believe in you, your organization and your coaches believe in you. Because now you don't have to look over your shoulder, you're not worried about nothing and you can just go out there and play with a clear mind.
CBS: People know you truly love the game and play with joy and enthusiasm. Not everyone is like that. Where does it come from?
WB: When I first started playing basketball. I just realized even back then that's what I loved to do. It was the only thing that could really keep me happy and take my mind off everything, where it got all my attention. I wasn't sidetracked or worried about anything else when I was playing basketball. Once I realized that, I just wanted to play it every day and have that feeling every day. Nothing else matters but the game. I mean, the money is fine, the attention is fine, but at the end of the day I'd play this game for free, if no one was watching. I'll always keep that. And when I don't, that's when I'll know it will be time to stop.