ATLANTA – Bruce Brown may have suffered collateral damage in the wake of Brooklyn’s humbling sweep by the Boston Celtics in last season’s playoffs.
Brown started all four games, averaged 14 points on 43% 3-point shooting, and played tight defense on Jayson Tatum, at times threatening to become a part of his shadow. In Games 2 and 3, Brown outplayed his All-NBA counterpart. Tatum managed 18-of-45 from the field; Brown was 18-of-31. In those games, Brown was also far more consistent than either Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving, superstars who underwhelmed at the end of Brooklyn’s disastrous season.
So when Brown entered free agency on the heels of the Nets’ flameout, NBA executives likely had a clouded perception of how impactful Brown, a guard masquerading as a big man, had really been.
A day after the Nuggets scooped up former Nets big man DeAndre Jordan minutes into free agency, there was Brown, still available. He admitted he was upset.
“Yeah, people just don’t care what I do,” Brown told The Denver Post. “I can play extremely well, I averaged, what, 15 in the playoffs. … They don’t care because I was playing with two superstars, so, it makes no sense.”
Brown was also irritated because Brooklyn had told him they wanted to keep him.
“I was (hurt), but once I’d seen the Royce O’Neale trade, I was like, ‘I’m off their books, for sure.’ Because at first, they were talking about, they didn’t want to go into the (luxury) tax or whatever, but then they said that I was a priority. … They wanted me back. They came down to see me in Miami when I was working out. And when I didn’t receive a phone call, I was like, ‘All right.’”
New Nuggets general manager Calvin Booth was desperate to improve Denver defensively. Only days before free agency opened, he landed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Ish Smith from Washington in exchange for Will Barton and Monte Morris. He also needed some level of insurance as Jamal Murray returned from his ACL surgery, and second-year guard Bones Hyland was about to assume a massive uptick in responsibility.
Brown had been a guard in college at Miami, and he’d played point guard in Detroit when he first broke into the league. When Irving wasn’t with the Nets last season, Brown was tabbed to replace him in the backcourt, but he’d had enough success in the frontcourt to raise questions about his optimal position.
“I thought he was more of a guard than anything,” Booth told The Post. “We were aiming for positional size and athleticism, and him playing the four position doesn’t really check that box.”
According to Brown, that was part of the pitch to join Denver. Rather than miscast him as a forward, Denver valued him with the ball in his hands.
“I’ve heard people in front office (positions) say they didn’t think I’d be a guard, that I’m not good enough to be a guard,” he said.
But there were other appealing factors to the signing, too.
“I thought the fit with (Nikola) Jokic, his versatility, his defense,” said Booth. “I thought he was going to be the perfect fit for our team. It’s played out like that. Obviously, Coach (Michael) Malone loved him. That was going to be an important factor going forward. We had the need for him on our team, and we had aspirations of playing deep into the year, which was going to offer him a lot of exposure. I felt like that was an appealing pitch to him.”
When the Nuggets landed Brown on a two-year, $13.2 million deal with a player option for the second year, it was a coup.
And Brown, who has thus far described his time in Denver as “amazing,” has, not subtly, held a grudge against those who said he couldn’t do what he’s currently doing.
With career-highs in points (11.3) and assists (4.7), in addition to another stretch of 40% from 3-point range, Brown has proved them wrong thus far. Though Malone has empowered him at guard, he’s admirably filled in at every position but center. When Malone affectionately deemed him “Elmer’s Glue,” earlier last week, it was a fitting description of how essential Brown’s been to the Nuggets’ bristling start.
Despite the positive early returns, Brown still has an edge to him. There’s an unease that eats at him, or fuels him depending on the perspective.
“I’ve been like that my whole life, man,” Brown said. “Even if I was ranked high, colleges didn’t want me. There’s a lot of things that went on that kept this chip on my shoulder. It literally won’t go away, no matter what. If I’m playing well, if something crazy happens if I’m like an All-Star or whatever, it still won’t go away. I got something to prove.”