Winning vs. tanking? Pretty much a moot point now

The Denver Nuggets have the most difficult remaining schedule in the NBA, and arguably the most injury-devastated roster to boot. Taken together, these two tough realities suggest that it will be very difficult for the Nuggets to win many of their remaining games.

But while proponents of tanking might take heart in this likelihood of losing, at the end of the day it almost certainly will hardly matter either way. As has been the case for months, Denver’s best chance for a high draft pick remains with the (increasiningly unlikely) hope that the Knicks will crash and burn down the stretch. And even if the Nuggets lose out, they probably won’t move up more than a single spot in the draft.

Here is where the lottery picture stands now:

If the playoffs started right now, Denver would get the 10th lotto draw from New York, moving up two positions, but effectively remaining in the lower echelon of the draft lottery. In this current situation, as has been true for nearly the entire season, Denver’s draft pick is entirely dependent on where the Knicks end up and not at all on how they do themselves.

But what if they really tanked hard, and got lucky with a number of lower teams winning a few?

Denver would move up significantly in the best case tanking scenario. If both the Nuggets and the Knicks lost out through the end of the season, and all their draft competitors won out in the process, Denver’s chances for a high draft pick would increase considerably. (Yes, this scenario is actually impossible since some of the teams play each other, but this is just to illustrate a point).

Mathematically, Denver’s not out of the tanking hunt yet. Under perfect circumstances they could move up about five or six spots, or even more if New York hit the skids.

But that just ain’t gonna happen.

John Hollinger’s playoff odds, which are based on his statistically-derived power rankings, have proven to be fairly accurate in the past, and increasingly so as the end of the season draws near, and the body of data increases.

Here are the final records of the lottery teams as predicted by Hollinger’s model, with the exception of both Denver and New York losing out:

And it is here where we get to the real crux of the situation.

The bottom line is this: Even if the Nuggets lose out, the chances are that they will move up only one draft position (Knicks notwithstanding), from 12th to 11th. In practical terms, this would signify increasing their chances of a top three pick from 2.5% to 2.9%, and their chances of a number one pick from 0.7% to 0.8%.

The truth is, in terms of the odds, there is very little the Nuggets can do of their own accord at this late point in the season to change their draft position.

With their remaining schedule and depleted roster, they simply cannot win out. These last eleven games will be a series of brick walls. They crash through a few, but not most of them.

And given the minimal projected shift in the standings, taking a proactive tanking stance almost certainly won’t help very much. Irrespective of nearly anything within the Nuggets’ control, their best hope remains a New York skid.

Given all this, they might as well play hard and play to win, and simply hope that the Knicks – as they have been known to do – will find a way to screw things up.


You can follow me on Twitter here: @denbutsu

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Joel is a long time Denver Nuggets (and Broncos) fan from Colorado who's been living in Japan since the mid-90s, and blogging about the Nuggets since 2008. You can contact and follow him on Twitter: @denbutsu.
  • heykyleinsf

    I just can’t be a fan of a tactic where you basically cheat to win.
    And that’s what tanking is.
    Look.. every fan base wants their team to improve.
    To me.. it sucks that cheating is not only accepted, but even encouraged.

    Isn’t there a point where you take two seconds and think about this?
    Is it really real.. if it’s not real?
    We wouldn’t have the lottery system to begin with if it weren’t for the concern
    of teams deliberately CHEATING aka tanking.
    Come on.
    Let’s win because we’re good.. not because we’re good at cheating.

    • etlord1


    • Aaron Durkin


  • Aaron Durkin

    Teams who tank creat a losing culture with there teams that they almost never lose. Look at Cleveland, Sacramento, New Orleans, and Washington. They have been in the lottery for over five years. Utah has gotten worse with every top ten pick they get. Creat a culture of winning and you get a team like Memphis that is always good.

    • gimpcom187

      Winning Culture is purely a coaching talent phenomena. Okc gsw etc prove this as they went out of their way to lose or not have talent on the roster and bounced back quickly. Its a REALLY EASY formula. Bad talent and bad to mediocre coaching gets you bad season. Medium talent and medium coaching gets you borderline playoff team (nugs current and near future predicament) good talent and good/great coaching gets you to 2nd round playoffs maybe. Great talent good/great coaching gets you championship run.

      As the numbers show tanking at this point is moot. As has been indicated by numerous pro tankers. If they chose to tank 3 weeks ago proir to ty returning things might be different. As has been indicated numerous times this draft is 4-7 deep in likely all star talent. Getting the 9th pick in this draft is likely a huge dropoff compared to 6th. Hopefully they get lucky with their aggregate 10-15% shot at getting a top 3 pick.

      • Aaron Durkin

        First of all there is 2 at best all stars in this draft and all of those players are freshman. They will take at least 3 years to come close to reaching there potential. If we take your example of GS ( excluding the pick up of bogut, lee, and iggy) and say they actually built threw the draft both curry and Barnes where upperclassman when they came out. Additionally the example of the thunder is bad due to the fact they where horrible for the three to four years after drafting durant. The good teams in the NBA find players with value later in the draft who might not be high picks but bring true value to a team and does not take four years to develop. I bet you where the guy that wanted the nuggets to trade melo to the nets so we could get favors due to his potential. How is potential working for the jazz

        • gimpcom187

          You need to do some research of the 2005-2010 drafts. Almost all drafts have 2 all-star players in the top 10 and more than not have 3-4. This is considered a deeper draft than most if not one of the 3 deepest drafts in that type talent in the last 20 years.

          I know you don’t know what you are talking about but at least look at what you write and edit it after 2 minutes of research. In fact Barnes WAS an underclassman (sophomore) but in no way was that a conversation we were having. Yes underclassmen take 2-3 years to develop. Given the team isn’t going anywhere beyond a 5 game beatdown to a 1 or 2 seed at BEST in the next two season I don’t really see an issue with that.

          The good teams in the NBA find talent in all sorts of places. 15-22 in the draft, occassionally 2nd round or undrafted free agents. But they get their top talent or second best talent from a top 10 usually top 5 pick. That’s the issue some of you can’t grasp. This team has NO All-stars. you NEED TWO all-stars The only team Ive seen develop a team without drafting at least one of their stars is Houston and that was a freak scenario when a top 20 player went on the market after his third season and was completely undersold. As well they traded a lottery pick to get that player which OKC reasonably thought would be more in the 6-8 range when they acquired it. Not to mention another lottery pick as well was in that trade. The nuggets don’t have the assets to put that scenario together and certainly not the front office acumen as Morey is a top 5 GM.

          • LBJ

            About the only team our FO had an advantage over was the Knicks. Alas, that is gone now.

          • etlord1

            I think the only way the NBA can get rid of (to a certain extent) the incentive for teams to lose, is a fundamental change in the lottery system. Give every non-playoff team the same chance to win the lottery. You’ll see every GM s*** themselves before the trade deadline. The NBA is the highest level, and there is no excuse why it shouldn’t be as competitive as it can possibly be for how much revenue it generates and for how many people cater to the league. People will object by saying that the bad teams will get screwed over if they don’t get a decent pick, but every year there has been plenty of solid players outside of the top 5. Purposely trying to lose is immoral in my opinion (I won’t argue against anyone else’s opinion). I can’t think of any aspect in my life where I tried to lose, except when I play Uno with my 4 year old niece.

          • Aaron Durkin

            Ok let’s look at this in a different light. I have gone back and looked at the top 10 picks in the draft from 2007- 2011. I looked for players that played in all star games ( really not an indictment of if they are good) and how many of those teams where back in the lottery each year. Additionally I looked into how many of those teams that had a top 10 pick in the last 7 years have made it past the 2nd round in the playoffs.

            2007 “ Headlined the best draft class in 20 years on ESPN” 1 All star Keven Durant

            2008 3 All stars Derrick Rose Russel Westbrook and Keven Love. Both Westbrook and Love where not picked in to 5. Rose has not played in over 2 years

            2009 3 All Stars Blake Griffin, James Harden, and Stephen Curry. This was the best draft in regards to franchise players but only Griffin was a top 5 pick

            2010 Paul George not in top 5

            2011 kyre Irving if you want to count him as an all star

            2012 Anthony Davis and Damion Lillard only Davis in top 5

            2013 ?? not looking good

            Now if we look at the teams that had top 10 picks during that period there where over 12 teams that had multiple picks between the years 2007 to 2013. In the case of Sacramento, Timberwolves, Washington and the Bucks they all had over 4 first found picks. Of the teams that had top 10 picks in the last 7 years only Chicago, Indiana, Memphis, Oklahoma and recently golden state have made any noise in the playoffs with their draft picks. Teams like Miami, New York, LAC and Houston have built threw the free agency. Of the teams that built throw the draft and won only OKC did it without adding any high end free agent. Of the teams that had a top 10 pick in the last 7 years only OKC has made it to the finals and they did not win ( Miami did not count because there pick was not on the roster)……

            So back to my original point The draft is a statistical crap shoot that you have a higher probability of getting a “ all star “being out of the top 5 picks. So the concept of tanking and building a team threw the draft is mathematically incorrect and you have a much higher probability of having to tank almost every year in order to get young talent. I did not even go into the fact that the NBA has over 12 franchises that have not been out of the lottery for 8 years ….. you add that with the fact that the top prospects are all underclassman ( sorry I thought Barnes was a junior ) and you have to wait over four years for them to develop. By that time there rookie deals are up and you are forced to pay them huge money based on potential. IE our boy Mcgee who everyone knows is over paid.

            In conclusion I say you try to win. Build a culture of winning much like the Bulls and the Spurs and regardless of injuries or players teams fear playing you. Don’t build a team around losing because they will become losers ( no pun intended).

            • gimpcom187

              Let’s look at your stats. I said top 10 (more likely top 5) If you are saying only top 5 guys count then how realistic is it that MORE than 2-3 will become all-stars. You expect an 60-80% rate of All-stars in the top 5. Beyond foolish. You reduced the numbers to make your contention look more valid (in addition you conveniently forgot guys who were top 5 and all-star)
              Second off looking at ANY draft without at LEAST 4 years of evidence is ridiculous. You KNOW this as previously you said it takes most underclassmen 2-3 years to develop as a player. Most non-MVP types don’t make it for the first time until their 4th to 7th year in the NBA.

              So Let’s look at your stats more realistically (and honestly as you made many mistakes) top 10 picks who made an all-star game by year starting in year 2001 (considered a mediocre to bad draft) ending in 2010 (for the last 3 years I will write players that have a decent shot at making an all-star game (evidenced by top 25 PER at least once in their career):

              2001- Pau Gasol, Tyson Chandler (2)

              2002- Yao Ming, Amare S, Caron Butler (3)

              2003 Lebron James, Carmelo, Bosh, Wade, Kaman (5)

              2004-Dwight, Devon Harris, Deng, Andre Iguodala (4)

              2005-Deron Williams, Chris Paul, Bynum (Bogut made all-nba too which means you are top 3 center) (3)

              2006-Lemarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy (2)

              2007- Durant, Horford (3rd pick) and Noah (3) So THREE is more than 1 Conley has a decent shot too

              2008-Rose, Westbrook, Love, Brook Lopez (4) (PS westbrook and Love were picked 4th and 5th. So Im not sure what your definition of “top 5 pick” would be but that meets mine)

              2009-Griffin, Harden, Curry and Derozan (4) (harden was 3rd pick so again you mislabled a top 5 pick as NOT a top 5 pick)

              2010- John Wall, Paul George (Demarcus Cousins is a top 10 PER guy likely will make it in the next few years) (2/3)

              32 all-stars in 10 seasons. That is an AVERAGE of 3.2 per draft in of the top 10 picks. Likely Demarcus will make it making it 33 and Monroe has a decent shot too. The WORST years are 2.

              So your claim “First of all there is 2 at best all stars in this draft” (You don’t claim top 5 or 10, but I gave you that to be nice and didn’t take into the other 4 lottery picks)and the average year gives you 3.5 I think it’s pretty clear you are 100% wrong. Given this year is seen as a much better than most in terms of depth of talent suggesting it is likely to have 4-7 all-star type talents is Very clearly within the range of reasonability.

              No one on here has said you are likely to build a high caliber team only through the draft. What I have said is you get at least one of your top 2 players from a top 10 (usually top 5) pick as the first building block. Drafting other players, trading for other players, Free agents are all part. Adding a coach that is top 10 in the league is important too. It INVARIABLY starts with a top 10 pick who is an All-star.

              • Andrew

                Totally agree, and I am glad you did all the work, so I wouldn’t feel obligated. Ha ha. As you laid out, championship teams need some of all of those things mentioned, but they seemingly (based on history) have no chance unless they have one or two of those top 5 draft picks (that pan out). Unless you pull off an utter heist, you need to get a few of the golden, top 5 tickets.

  • Alice Soefje

    I don’t like how so many members of the media and so many fans just take it for granted that any team than is playing poorly is tanking. They make jokes about it and talk about it like it is a legitimate strategy. Then later whichever team actually gets the first pick is forever tagged with the tanking label, whether they did or not. And no one ever goes back and looks at the season to see if they really did. It is kind of like getting convicted in the court of public opinion for a crime without ever getting a chance to defend yourself.

  • Alice Soefje

    Tanking could be a self defeating process. To be a successful tanker, a team would have to plan to do so. How soon would they have to do this? Before the season, after the season starts, once they realize they are not going to make the playoffs? Could you really ask players to play badly so the team might possibly get a top pick? Now days you would not even know for sure who is coming out until the season is almost over. And how far down the lottery do you want to slide. No one is guaranteed the top pick. You have to have some luck.

    And what about basically good teams with catastrophic injuries? Is every team with an injured star player going to be accused of tanking because they do not bring that player back before the season is over?

    This question of tanking comes up every season and it is pushed and exaggerated by the media looking for a story. It is another case of a story where there is no story. I for one am sick of it.

    • LBJ

      Tanking is not an every year proposition. This year’s highly touted draft class has made it a much more discussed strategy than normal. I suspect that next year tanking discussions will not be nearly as prevalent.

      Most of your points are valid. You are gambling on who is declaring for the draft and ping pong balls. Some teams are bad – and not necessarily tanking.
      Clearly, the 76ers, Celtics and Jazz were tanking before the season started. The Lakers joined them after Kobe was hurt.

      Finally, tanking is done by front offices – players don’t tank.

      • gimpcom187

        Maybe we should call taking 1-3 year losing cycle a “talent regenerating win valley cycle” as opposed to the current run “a dull mediocrity .500 ballclub with no real hope for significant improvement plateau cycle”.

  • Richard Pesicka

    They don’t have the money to sign woody woodpecker. So I wouldn’t worry about tanking or winning. Neither will help the Nuggets. They are finished. Stick a fork in them.

  • COfoEVA

    Lets see if we can play spoiler to a few of the higher teams, remind them we are still around and will be back next year at full strength.

  • Heisenberg

    I’m curious what the anti-tankers plan is with this franchise. Fully healthy they are out in the first round. They need a top 15-20 player to be a serious contender.

    What’s the PLAN for this team? People talk about establishing a winning culture….if the Nuggets do nothing they won’t have a prayer at advancing in the playoffs.

    If you’re content with first round exits, that’s fine. Don’t criticize others who strive to be better than that. I, for one, would like to see the Nuggets win an NBA Championship in my lifetime.

    That all being said, people need to come to grips with the fact that this team isn’t a contender and probably won’t be for several years. The Nuggets have one of the worst cap situations in the league. This team needs to start clearing cap space and put everyone on the market except for Lawson and Faried. If the Nets were dumb enough to take on that absurd Joe Johnson contract, maybe someone will be dumb enough to take on McGoof’s contract.

    • gimpcom187

      Indeed. It’s a question of realism versus magical thinking. A team with less talent than last year a worse coach and multiple players coming off serious injuries is all of a sudden going to do better? It has no realistic way of adding significant talent in the next 2 years without giving up one of their 2 best players.

      In addition, Faried is a nice piece, but would be REALLY difficult to pair with another big man as a starter as he doesn’t space the floor at all, passes the ball mediocre to poorly and is/always will be a poor post defender/rim protector because of his height (his shot blocks come off surprise blocks as opposed to rim protector types like Duncan/Hibbert/Bogut). He’s a GREAT energy guy perfect as a third big if you have a PF who can spot you 15 minutes a game at Center in the playoffs.

  • Kyle Oblinger

    Thanks for the article joel, great read. In response to tanking as cheating, I think that is ridiculous. NBA Basketball is a business, and teams will do what they need to make that business profitable. As a die hard nuggets fan, I would love to tank and grab Jabari. Our roster is made up of NBA drifters (Hickson, Darrell arth, foye, brooks, etc..), injury prone forwards (ya you GALO), not much young talent (love mazi..but..and javelee/quincy, no thank you) and 2 championship pieces (Kenny and Ty). Tanking and picking up a young stud such as Jabari or Wigs would be ideal, and something we can build on.

    Kyle Oblinger
    Tulane Business Student