Five Years in the Making

  • By Ken Walden, Day 235, 2025

The excitement of winning a championship league is nothing like any other sim league. The immersion, the fellow GMs, the absolutely amazing work of the Commissioner: the JBL is a special product.

I'm especially happy to win the 2025 Championship because it wraps up a five-season project, all with the intent of getting here and hoisting the trophy. Time was running out for this Denver Dragons squad but we scored at the last second.

I joined the JBL at the invite of Tim, who GMed a fictional Portland team in another league, another life. What drew me to the JBL was the convenience of a sim through the web, and particularly the league expansion. I had never taken over a team from scratch and it had always been an interest of mine. I jumped at the Denver Dragons and the chance to do whatever I wanted with a franchise.

To get from that blank slate to here was a series of steps. In the first season we drafted Odell Bracey, Mitchell Van Bree, and put together the best collection from free agency and the expansion draft that we could. We weren't that bad for all that, 28 wins. The idea from the start was to win, not to stink long enough to get better through the draft. I just did not have the patience for it. I traded my 2022 pick before the 2021 draft, in order to pick up van Bree and start developing my players now. And after that one losing season, I decided instead to gamble away the future on the chance of getting better quicker. I sent my 2023 pick to the Skyhawks for Jevon Novak.

Novak has been the star of this Dragons franchise ever since. Not a leader in the locker room, he's always been a bit too full of himself for that. But he showed the Dragons players how to win and turned this expansion franchise into a real one. With essentially the same team as 2021, Novak led the '22 Dragons to a winning season, 43 wins and the playoffs. If you wonder why my championship jersey will feature Novak, that should tell you enough. Novak had the first of four straight All-Star seasons with the Dragons that year, little more than him and OB1 on offense and a stubborn star-less defense.

Free agency in 2023 saw the signing of savvy veteran Orien Young to give these young bucks some spine, and it saw the addition of Tarvis McWilliams, who became a surprisingly key component of the Denver teams going forward. Tarvis joined the team at the ripe old age of 34, yet has gone on to play 4,000 minutes for the team in his quest for a championship. Tarvis had win shares per 48 of .176, .156, and .142 over the next three seasons, often leading the team, and being the glue man from the bench who could play defense, get the hustle plays, and score efficiently. At the age of 36, Tarvis earned his first championship ring after 17 years in the JBL.

The success of Young and Tarvis on the team was a hint of more to come. Seeing that our team's biggest deficiency was in offensive rebounding I decided to make a move and sent my 2024 pick to the Lightning for Wesley Sherman, one of the best on the offensive boards in the league. Sherman "Tank" became an anchor for the Dragons defense, and provided hustle plays, screen assists, and efficient action cutting to the basket on offense. Only a week later, I moved again, seeing an opportunity to obtain a player I had long coveted. Sending my 2025 pick to the Cyclones for Reggie Fortier, I obtained a player I had bid on in my first free agency, my number one target at the time. Fortier was everything I loved in a player: a flexible workhorse who could get you some of everything. Playing Fortier at the 3 and 4 behind Sherman and van Bree, I had a defensive lineup which gave teams no breathing room. With the two new additions after the trade deadline, the Dragons went on to win 52 games, an improvement on the last year. And this season, rather than flaming out in 4 games against the Thunder, the eventual Western Conference finalists, we took the Mexico City Jaguars, the eventual Western Conference finalists, to 7 games. Looking forward to a whole season with the new additions, the next season looked promising.

Fortier and Sherman added defense to a team that was already one of the best in the league. What was missing was offense. Since the addition of Novak, we had banked on him and the development of Bracey and van Bree, along with efficient low-usage front court players, to provide the points. As 2024 ran around though, the Dragons stopped thinking this was going to work. Neither were developing into the dangerous #2 scorer the team needed, and so another trade was planned. This time we would have to move not just a future pick, but a host of players as well. We ended up trading our 2026 draft pick, along with Mitchell van Bree, both our centers, and our entire bench (save for one key player, Tarvis McWilliams) to the Lightning for Antoine Hall. A proven champion and a two-way player who had proven he could be an alpha offensive talent in Houston, Hall was the missing piece to creating a top tier team. Though Hall never put up the numbers in Denver he had in Houston, he provided a dangerous threat that opened up Novak and stymied defenses, while also adding defensive clout to the team. In 2024, with Hall on the roster, Novak reached his offensive peak, scoring 27.9 ppg on .513 shooting. Fortier blossomed as our defensive lynchpin, winning Defensive Player of the Year by leading our defense with 1.98 steals and 2.63 blocks per game, while splitting his time at the forward spots. The Denver team had almost reached nirvana, winning 62 games, winning the division, and coming in 2nd in the conference just behind the Seattle Thunder. The team would lose to the Western Conference Finalist again, however, losing to the Thunder in the Conference Finals in seven games.

I felt the team needed one more thing. Which was a bit of a worry since every player except 2nd round pick Chris Rainey was up for free agency in 2025. Determined to let this combination of players grow cohesion and see what they could really do, I paid through the teeth for every player, seeing them all back on contracts that were higher than I wanted, but not too long. In the process we busted through the salary cap penalties and lost our 2027 pick, but we managed to retain our entire starting lineup, as well as put together a bench including stalwart Tarvis McWilliams and newcomer Isaac Foster. However, I wanted to make one more move.

In a trade which shocked the fanbase, who had followed Odell Bracey since the first game the Denver Dragons ever played, I sent Odell to the Austin Rockets for Aaron Honeycutt and a 2026 draft pick. Honeycutt had the scoring chops which we feared OB1 would never develop, while being a stronger defender as well. Our defense hardly needed the help, but my hope was that a three-headed offensive attack of Novak, Honeycutt and Hall would prove very difficult to defend. And I was proved right. While our defensive rating actually sagged a little from 1st in the league to 3rd, our offensive rating jumped from 15th to 4th. We remained second in the league in net rating, but we now had a top 5 offense as well as a top 5 defense, not because Honeycutt went off for 25 points, or Hall, but because whenever one of these was guarded well, the other went off. In addition, the effect of the three offensive stars led to Reggie Fortier and Wesley Sherman both having the best offensive seasons of their career, getting more open looks than ever before. My theory of the three-headed offense appeared to be legit.

While this starting 5 deserves a lot of accolades, we only reached and won the Finals because of the bench players who kept us float through injury after injury. Each one of them signed for the minimum salary in a free agency where we could make not a single other bid, in the end Tarvis McWilliams, Ryan Collinson, Dorian McCleary and Sean Lawrence deserve some applause for doing what had to be done. And especially Isaac Foster, who filled in for Sherman for significant amounts of time and in fact was the starter in one of the most effective lineups in the league this season. Without the contribution of these min-sal players, we never make it past the Skyhawks, Jaguars, Fireballs or Kings.

And without a lot of luck either. Two game sevens, one in double overtime, and not having to face the #1 seed, thereby keeping home court in the conference finals. Two or three shots fall differently this season and it's Jacks or Fireballs or Jaguars in the JBL finals, not us. But given how this team's story has gone, and is naturally reaching a conclusion, I'm glad it was us.

So, how did this championship Dragons team get built? In the end, it was trading, and usually trading draft picks:

PG - Novak - 2023 1st
SG - Honeycutt - Odell Bracey
SF - Fortier - 2025 1st
PF - Sherman - 2024 1st
CE - Hall - 2025 1st, Mitchell van Bree and others

And in the end that paid off, all of those picks ended up low due to our increased success each and every season. Rather than taking on untested, undeveloped rookies, I decided to focus on proven talent in its prime. And I think the best thing I did is choose carefully, finding players who fit what the team needed most. The true cost of putting this team together came in the salary cap penalty for re-signing every player for this season. Because we had already sent our 2026 pick to Houston, the penalty took away our 2027 pick, which for all we know could be high. Because, in the end, this team is not sustainable.

To win again with this roster would require breaking the salary cap again, losing another future year's pick. It would require finding another 6 players at minimum-salary who can carry a team through injuries and 25 playoff games. To this GM, it doesn't feel do-able. It doesn't feel fun. And so in the end the biggest reason I'm glad we won is that I can put a close to this amazing 5-year run with a smile on my face and know I got each of these players what they wanted: a championship.

Which is to say this particular Denver Dragons team won't be around again. We will make moves in this offseason, in the regular season, in next offseason, which bring us the best value for the champions we hold on the roster. Without our pick there's no reason to lose but we won't realistically be able to contend. So, our focus will be on making moves that make sense for the future of this franchise. Some of these players may not be returning to Denver in 2026, and so I'm especially happy that we won the championship at home in front of the fans.

Thanks to everybody in the league for making this such a great experience. It is especially fun now, but it's been fun for five seasons. Thanks for immersing yourselves enough in this league to make it feel real, meaning the losses sting and the wins sing. I'm going to go make a donation to our Commissioner for this amazing product he creates. Good luck next season everybody! Get out there and trade!