A Return to Losing in Order to Win a Championship?

With all the consternation surrounding what the Denver Nuggets will or will not get in return for Carmelo Anthony we may be missing a significant component of building a champion.  Losing.  There is little doubt the Nuggets are going to be worse off with Carmelo playing in a different uniform, but the future success of the franchise could rest upon pulling off a trade that transforms the Nuggets into a big time loser.

Instead of worrying about whether or not the front office should be holding out for Danilo Gallinari or Landry Fields or if Andrew Bynum is worth more than Wilson Chandler and a first round pick they should worry more about what combination of players will make the team too competitive next season.

If you look back at the past 30 plus seasons there is one common thread amongst NBA champions, drafting a championship caliber player at the top of the draft.  The Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers set themselves up for domination by drafting Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.  Boston nabbed Bird a season before he was done playing college basketball after their first losing season in 20 years while the Lakers drafted Magic with a pick that originally belonged to the Jazz.

The Detroit Pistons drafted Isaiah Thomas second overall in the 1981 draft after a 21-61 campaign.

The Rockets drafted Akeem Olajuwon first overall after winning 29 games in 83-84 which was preceded by a horrendous 14 win season in 82-83 after which they selected Ralph Sampson first overall.

In Chicago a 27-55 record in 83-84 resulted in the third pick in the draft and a bloke named Michael Jordan.

San Antonio won only 21 games in 88-89 and 20 games in 96-97.  Both seasons the Spurs won the lottery and ended up with a couple of MVPs named David Robinson and Tim Duncan.

The Miami Heat were 25-57 in 02-03 and the result was the selection of Dwyane Wade who has a finals MVP under his belt.

The only teams who have won championships without bottoming out and acquiring a franchise player in the first few picks of a draft are the 82-83 76ers, both the 80s and 2000s Lakers and the 2004 Pistons.  The 76ers acquired Dr. J and Moses Malone via trades.  The Lakers were able to maneuver their way to enjoying the first pick in the Magic Johnson draft and pulled off the same feat again in 1981 when they landed James Worthy with the top pick.  Jumping ahead a few years they did acquire franchise cornerstone Kobe Bryant on draft night although it was not with a high pick earned through futility.  Finally the 2004 Pistons, the most inexplicable champion since the 77-78 Washington Bullets who finished the regular season with a 44-38 record, were pieced together largely through trades.

The common thread for nearly all championship teams is posting at least one pathetic season, but as Nuggets fans can attest being terrible is not enough.  There needs to be some luck involved.  The Nuggets have not enjoyed the glow of good fortune very frequently during the past 20 seasons.  All you need to know is Denver has never once moved up, not even one spot, in the draft lottery and it is not for a lack of ping pong balls over the years.

Not only do you need to be fortunate enough to get a high pick, you need that high pick in a season where there is a champion caliber player available.  Winning the lottery only to find someone like Michael Olowokandi or Kwame Brown staring you in the face is certainly not the solution to what ails a franchise.  It is not an easy combination to master as evidenced by the small number of franchises to win championships over the past three decades.  It is undoubtedly a long shot, but it is difficult to ignore the fact that most champions are forged through the fire of a dreadfully bad season.

I hear what you a muttering to yourself and of course we have to mention that landing that one star player does not mean the work is complete.  It took the Bulls years to get the right mix around Jordan, the Lakers have had to build and rebuild their team over the past ten seasons, the Spurs would not be the amazing team we all know without Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.  Look no further than the Cleveland Cavaliers as evidence further evidence that losing and luck must be followed up with competent management.

I will leave you with one final thought.  The most confounding moment in the recent history of the Nuggets franchise was when Bernie Bickerstaff allowed Dikembe Mutombo to walk in the summer of 1996.  The next season Denver only won 21 games and had a very good chance to win the lottery in the spring of 1997.  Things did not work out in favor of the Nuggets on lottery night, but imagine how the future of the franchise might had been different if lady luck had granted the Nuggets the top pick in the 1997 draft.  Tim Duncan would have been a Nugget and letting Mutombo go very well could have proven to have been a positive turning point in the history of the franchise.

There is a fate worse than being terrible and that is being mediocre.  The best trade the Nuggets can make, may not be the best trade for the future of the franchise.  If you value playoff appearances and dread the prospect of repeating the 1990s, I understand you will find this post completely asinine.  However, if you value championships over being competitive it is clear Denver must bottom out after they part ways with Carmelo.

Letting Carmelo go with little compensation will certainly make the 2011-12 season much more difficult to suffer through, but it also could end up triggering a series of events that could result in Nuggets winning their first championship.

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  • k

    I agree with you that winning 35-40 games and fighting for the 8th seed is not going to be fun. But if that’s the case, shouldn’t the nuggets try to unload billups/jr/birdman/everyone else for draft picks now. Might as well go all in for the rebuilding. Meanwhile george karl keeps using the word “retooling” or something along those lines. Maybe its not wise to resign george karl ( I like him most of the time) and get a new coach that likes defense. He might lose his mind only winning 20 games or so. The biggest thing the nuggets have going for them is the cap situation. With the exception of birdman and harrington ( who some team may want in a trade) there are no bad long term contracts. So at least the nuggets won’t be a crappy team with no cap room/no hope. I feel like you should have talked about the bulls post jordan though. I don’t remember the years or specifics but they had top picks over and over and never got it right. Elton brand put up #’s but the team sucked. Then there was tyson chandler and eddy hamburgler curry. Then jayson williams went all evil kinevil on his motorcycle. Not until derrick rose did things start going right for them. So luck has just as much to do with it as having a high lottery pick……one last thing, it was wrong of you to not credit the pistons for picking Darko 2nd overall for them winning their chjampionship!

    • http://www.roundballminingcompany.com Jeremy

      Hey K, great point on Darko, LOL.

      I agree that Karl may not be the right coach going forward and I think that is why after months of talk about it, he has not received an extension. As you pointed out retooling is fine if you want to remain a fringe playoff team, but you limit your ceiling severely by going that route.

  • Mike

    This is ridiculous. This player you speak of getting in the draft is Carmelo Anthony. How would getting rid of him to be terrible work out, I hardly think we can draft someone of his caliber again and have different luck this time.

    • http://www.roundballminingcompany.com Jeremy

      Mike, the player I speak of is certainly not Melo, but a player much better than Melo. I was very open about how the likelihood of Denver getting that player is slim, and the work is far from over once you draft that player, if you are lucky enough to do so, but I am willing to risk another stretch of misery in order to have the best chance to win as opposed to slogging along as a good team with little hope of anything great happening year after year.

      I think the fact the Nuggets were so bad for so long in the 1990s Denver fans have been almost programmed to appreciate having an All-Star player to cheer for and making the playoffs every year. As fans I believe we should want more.

      • Mike

        Your examples seem to forget that they had other people around. All the players had other tools around them(Duncan and Robinson, Wade with a little guy named Shaq, MJ waited till Pippen), the only one I can say is true is Olajuwon. The likelihood of getting that instant turnaround player to come is crazy(Lebron couldn’t win it in Cleveland and is the greatest for a long time). The best bet is to keep the superstar we have and go for the best we can get in FA(maybe David West to take KMarts spot). Superstars are rare, hold on to them as long as possible.

  • k

    I don’t get why people get mad at melo for all this. He has come to the realization that the nuggets are going to be a 2nd tier team unless something changes. Jeremy makes a good point in is that what you want, and waste melo away? Or do you try another route and see what happens? Too bad melo and the nuggets can’t make an under the table agreement to suck next year, clear all the cap space, then melo resigns as a free agent with his 2 friends cp3 and dwight howard. Isn’t that how the heat and dwade did it?

  • Andy

    This is an interesting idea, Jeremy, but also very risky. Not sure if you are just being provocative or really think Nuggets fans should accept tanking a year just so we can huddle around the TV set in May 2012 and get screwed again. Suck does not equal luck.

    The common thread of top-draft picks among championship teams is compelling but I’d wager that many more teams fail rather than succeed at this strategy because there are simply so many unknowns. Players like Jordan, Kobe, Wade and possibly Melo and Durant more often fall into the laps of future champions while aspiring ones make unlucky choices like Bowie, Darko, Oden or ones that never live up to their potential. A much better strategy appears to be to build around established players like Boston and San Antonio have done rather than rolling the dice. By the way, the only reason why the Spurs lucked into drafting Duncan is because of Robinson’s injury the year prior.

    The sad thing is that I really thought the Nuggets were on the verge of becoming a championship-caliber team two years ago. Two bad inbounds passes, a few key injuries and a freakish bout of cancer later, we’re talking about starting from scratch and a return to losing.

    • Tim

      Amen, brother. I don’t think summing up the Nuggets’ fortunes in the past three seasons could be done any better.

    • Clayton

      So glad to hear a voice of reason! I thinkin Jermey has lost it on this idea. Tanking/Trading everyone away just to get excess draft picks is a terrible idea. We’ve been there and done that and every year the ping pong ball hates us. Even if they do get a good pick, and the player does pan out, they will just end up leaving when their contract is up. Build with strong veterans that know how to play the game and will sign up for the team philosophy.

  • KW

    Very interesting on the day Jerry Sloan resigns. I wonder what Jazz fans would say?

    • Clayton

      Pretty clear the inmates are taking over the asylum there… FINALLY. Funny part is that there is still no way D.Will says in Utah when his contract is up.

  • Adam

    With the next CBA, I’m encouraged by all the cap space the Nuggets could possibility have. Depending on the CBA, they could be in a position to pick up some quality players from teams needing to unload salary due to a hard cap or other factors.