While NBA players rarely acknowledge tanking, fans are usually able to come to terms with the onerous reality when it’s finally time for their favorite team to knock down the remaining dominos and rebuild. The process requires both parties to adapt a tenacious and resolute attitude, as a tanking team is essentially asking its fans to continue spending their hard-earned dollars on tickets, even when the product on the court is hardly worth it. It’s a strenuous procedure, but it provides a sense of direction and hope. Teams that attempt to repudiate the notion of a rebuilding process often risk falling into the forsaken purgatory that is the middle-ground in the NBA.
The propensity of any front office after exploring previously uncharted territory in the regular season would be to swiftly reload over the summer and keep the train rolling. That is exactly what the Denver Nuggets attempted to do following a franchise-high 57 wins, and the team has been hovering in mediocrity as a result. Despite losing their general manager, head coach and arguably their second-best player in Andre Iguodala, the Nuggets refused to concede that it was time to entertain the idea of a roster overhaul.
The likes of JJ Hickson and Randy Foye were brought in to fill the void left behind by the departing players, and Brian Shaw was presented with the task of taking a flawed roster that is not tailored to his coaching style back to the playoffs.
Many teams often find themselves at crossroads during the course of the regular season, having to choose either the path to the draft lottery or the playoffs. No team has found itself in that perplexing situation more times than the Nuggets this year. A seven-game winning streak early in the year offered cautious optimism. The ostensible narrative was that this group of players was capable of holding down the fort until the team’s offensive ace Danilo Gallinari returned to action. However, and eight-game skid was just around the corner.
The up-and-down roller-coaster the Nuggets have been on this season has had fans and pundits reevaluating the ceiling of this team several times. Would Gallinari’s and JaVale McGee’s returns elevate this group towards a late postseason push, or should they aggressively deal for future assets at trade deadline? Amid the pondering and the constant navigation through those exasperating crossroads, Denver finally embarked on a path, albeit unwillingly, which will likely lead straight to the draft lottery this summer.
Gallinari was ruled out for the rest of the season. The news that McGee’s stress fracture in his left tibia would require surgery shortly followed. Nate Robinson tore his ACL. On top of it all Ty Lawson suffered a fractured rib. Injuries are always frustrating, but in the Nuggets’ case they might turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
Throughout the year the Nuggets have operated under a stupefying infatuation with a vision that this group of players is capable of making noise in the playoffs. Even with Gallinari in the lineup, Denver’s roster has some innate flaws and holes that even the dynamic Italian’s presence most likely wouldn’t have patched.
Shaw wants his team to execute in half-court sets and preferably run the offense through a potent post threat. McGee was forced into this role early in the year and failed miserably. Hickson eventually found his way into the starting lineup for a good portion of the season, and formed possibly the most lamentable and defensively-challenged big man duo in the NBA together with Kenneth Faried. When the two players share the floor, the Nuggets have a defensive rating of 110.7, a figure which would rank dead last in the league.
Denver has some intriguing pieces on the roster, but they don’t quite fit Shaw’s basketball ideology and there isn’t enough talent in Mile-High City to build a championship contender. The injury woes have been disheartening, but things have just never truly clicked and likely wouldn’t have even if the basketball deities spared Gallinari, McGee and the others.
While the current direction of the Nuggets isn’t ideal, there is hope for the future. Before abandoning his duties at Denver in order to go across the border, Masai Ujiri left behind a roster of movable contracts. The 2014 NBA draft is supposed to be top-heavy, and the Nuggets will not only have a lottery pick of their own, but also some attractive pieces to package and potentially move up the selection chain.
With that in mind, having established a direction, even if it’s one which will likely result in a couple months of losing, has to be somewhat liberating for Denver fans. At least they will be spared the ambiguity and the false pretense of postseason success.