After last year’s playoff elimination and the disappointment that has followed in Denver, the Nuggets needed to win today against the Lakers. They didn’t.
Instead, the Nuggets, who were eliminated by the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round last year, suffered through a 27-point defeat, embarrassing a sub-.500 team. The upshot: with the the losses of Will Barton and Paul Millsap in trades in October, the Nuggets are now tied with the Pacers for ninth place in the Eastern Conference standings. Not terrible, but not fantastic either.
Given the offseason losses of Barton and Millsap and the three first-round draft picks acquired from the Thunder in a trade for Carmelo Anthony, many around the NBA figured that the Nuggets would tank to get as high as possible in the draft to select their franchise player and develop him for years to come.
That isn’t their mindset. In fact, the Nuggets — maybe because they aren’t as popular with fans as the Thunder or as politically aligned with the Trump administration — are not downplaying their upcoming draft picks.
“We plan on being in the top five,” said coach Michael Malone. “I think it’s a no-brainer for us because we feel like our pick could be a long-term franchise player in the NBA.”
Because the Nuggets may not be a good team, but they are probably the second-best draft pick available in the draft behind Duke freshman Zion Williamson, who is widely expected to be the top overall pick. The right player at the right time could mean a great opportunity to start up a program that, for now, just feels cursed.
But after a 110-100 loss on Friday, Malone brushed off the idea that now is the time to tank.
“Nate McMillan will make that decision,” he said. “I think the younger guys will do a great job of competing and showing what they can do in their second year.”
If the Nuggets miss the playoffs this year, and they are perhaps close to the worst playoff team in the Western Conference, the great thing about the lottery system is that the Nuggets — whose general manager was in charge of drafting Paul George — will still have four first-round picks in their five-year tenure in the league. The Nuggets may not win any championships, but at least they will get top picks that could get them to any league championship.
The problem with tanking is that the players don’t care. If you are tanking to get a top-five pick, then what happens if you get top-five picks as compensation, a player that you can groom for years or that becomes an All-Star? Might a game against a sub-.500 team, over all, be worth the minor spoils of tanking?
Never the less, with the Nuggets possibly heading for the lottery and no legitimate talent outside the draft, it is clear that they can’t continue to win without either getting on a downward spiral or getting better through trades.
This season, Malik Beasley, who just started his rookie season and wasn’t the plan, has proven to be one of the Nuggets’ best players. He averages 14.3 points and 4.2 rebounds per game. The Nuggets need consistency, which they could get if they trade Mason Plumlee and Danilo Gallinari to improve their interior defense. Gallinari, a star forward, has struggled with injuries and Austin Rivers is not playing as well as he did in his first season in Denver.
Yes, the Nuggets do not have enough talent, but they could also win 10, 20 games this season if they just lost some more.
Still, it is an unfortunate cycle for them. They tried to win at the right time last year. Now they could have to win at the wrong time. Right or wrong, that is what they will have to do.