The 2014 NBA Draft edges ever-closer, and with every day more questions emerge. It’s not merely about who to pick (as Kalen is listing so brilliantly in his Prospecting posts this week), or how to go about selecting the best player for Denver in this draft, but what this draft will reveal about the Denver Nuggets’ direction; The Nuggets’ future. With the silly season in full force, the Nuggets are linked to blockbuster trades as well (see: Love, Kevin), but until those actually happen, I will treat them as if they won’t, and treat the roster status as it officially stands today.
Next Thursday, the Nuggets will have a big decision to make. Do they go for a player of need, treating their squad as if it could contend for a deep playoff run with an incremental improvement (and hopefully a lack of injury news)? Do they trade the pick for a veteran player, even including some of their current players? Or do they decide this roster is not going to be championship material, make the painful call to ‘blow it up’ and start again?
First, let’s be clear on one point. Stan Kroenke (and by extension, Josh Kroenke) does not tank. His teams have precisely zero history of sacrificing a whole season to rebuild. He is a business man and always makes sure his teams are doing their absolute best to stay profitable, if not contender material.
That means, quite rationally, that the last option above has hardly been raised at all in recent Nuggets discussions. Of these three options, it is the least likely one by quite some margin. But there is one reason to at least present the hypothesis.
After a period of playoff appearances led by star players (Alex English, Fat Lever, Kiki Vandeweghe) in the late-1980s, a new lineup was assembled, including Dikembe Mutombo, LaPhonso Ellis, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and other talented non-stars. Injuries hampered the experiment, so after a step back in 1995-96 instead of a complete rebuild, three pivotal and fateful decisions were made.
- Abdul-Rauf was traded away for famously strong-armed veteran Sarunas Marciulionis and a draft pick that became Jeff McInnis.
- Promising rookie Jalen Rose, veteran Reggie Williams and the Nuggets’ first round draft pick for Indiana’s nine-year borderline star Mark Jackson, ageing sharpshooter Ricky Pierce and the Warriors’ first round draft pick.
- Free agent Dikembe Mutombo walked, replaced by up-and-coming center Ervin Johnson, signed from Seattle.
The results were absolutely disastrous. While Denver’s original draft pick would become Erick Dampier, the Nuggets themselves picked Efthimi Rentzias, who would go on to play 23 games in the NBA, none of them for Denver. Marcioulionis and McInnis would play a total of 30 games for Denver, and in a thoroughly bizarre turn of events, Jackson and Pierce both left before the next trade deadline, Jackson returning to the same Indiana team he’d played for only eight months earlier. Ervin Johnson was gone before the start of 1997-98.
What was left was a smoking ruin, devoid of any meaningful assets to rebuild a team capable of contending for a spot in the morning queue at McDonald’s, let alone an NBA championship. In a fit of panic, the only valuable player on the team, Antonio McDyess, was traded in the summer of 1998 for five draft picks. Only two of those would ever put on a Denver game jersey, one of whom (Dan McClintock) would only do so six times. Meanwhile, Mutombo, Rose, Jackson, Johnson and Dampier would all play in the NBA Finals in their playing career.
The desert walk would last an agonizing seven years, before the Nuggets finally managed to bottom out and luck out at the same time, when Carmelo Anthony fell into their lap. (Mostly) because of that terrible, terrible summer of 1996, when Denver completely failed to make anything of their wealth of assets and/or utilize any of their draft picks.
Even if only in light of that calamity 18 years ago, we should entertain the notion of looking at the Nuggets’ roster and asking ourselves if it can bring the ultimate trophy to Denver, and how.
Is it by putting those players on the floor and hope they can win it themselves? The answer is difficult to admit for any Nuggets fan, but rationally obvious: No. A fully healthy 2013-14 roster would make it into the second round at best. Is it by adding a promising rookie to fill a lone remaining need to push the team over the top? Sadly not. Is it by trading the pick and a surplus asset or two for a veteran leader? It’s a crapshoot, but history is not on the Nuggets’ side. Apart from the 2008 Boston Celtics, there aren’t many successful examples of this tactic, and even that example included a bona-fide superstar.
Is it maybe, just maybe, by Tim Connelly and Josh Kroenke taking a long, deep breath before acquiring all the lottery picks they can get, leasing professional veterans for a year and hitting the PR circuit to entice future star free agents that they’ll be surrounded by a blend of complementary veterans and young, smart and talented co-stars?
First, we need to look at which draft picks can realistically be acquired. The 2014 draft is loaded with talent, if not superstars. Still, a number of lottery teams are looking to move their picks for proven players. Utah Jazz is reportedly looking to trade out of their #5 spot, the Lakers are apparently open to getting a veteran for their #7 pick and the Kings would love to bypass another year of waiting and get into the 2015 playoffs, so their #8 pick is only lacking a neon-lit “For Sale” sign. A rebuilding Denver team would be doing whatever it could to get at least one or two of these picks.
Here follows a purely hypothetical scenario, executed to the extreme.
First, the Nuggets trade the #11 pick for Chicago’s #16 and #19 picks.
The Jazz: They have young talent at PF and PG already, which would make it possible to trade something like the #16 pick, Kenneth Faried and Wilson Chandler for the #5 pick, and then drafting Noah Vonleh. They could then sign Richard Jefferson for the vet minimum.
The Lakers: First we need to ascertain what the Nuggets would do with the #7 pick. Would it to be pick Doug McDermott (which could make Danilo Gallinari expendable), Julius Randle or Marcus Smart (if he’s still available)? Lights-out shooter Doug McDermott gets the call to complement Vonleh. Gallinari and Fournier or Hickson go to the Lakers with the #19 pick. A player might have to follow the Lakers’ pick to the Nuggets. Insert any expiring contract here.
The Kings: Here it gets emotional. The fan in me loves Ty Lawson. But the analyst in me knows the PG position is the most loaded with talent in the league and the SG position is the scarcest. The Kings trade Isaiah Thomas and the #8 pick for Ty Lawson and the Nuggets’ later second round pick. The Nuggets select Marcus Smart if he’s still on the board or Nik Stauskas if he and Julius Randle are both gone.
If Spencer Dinwiddie is still on the board at #41, he is snapped up.
After the summer, the Nuggets No-Star Experiment is over. Instead, it now consists of the following core:
C: Javale McGee, Timofey Mozgov
PF: Noah Vonleh, Darrell Arthur
SF: Doug McDermott, Richard Jefferson
SG: Randy Foye, Nik Stauskas, Spencer Dinwiddie
PG: Isaiah Thomas, Nate Robinson
This team would not make the playoffs in 2015. That much is obvious. 30 wins would be a massive achievement, in fact. But the immense talent is there, ready to blossom and even potentially attract one of the 2015 star free agents. They will be molded by a good player developer in Brian Shaw. Any star, short of LeBron, would have to take a long, hard look at this roster before deciding they wouldn’t just have a chance of going very, very far indeed with a supporting cast like this (or close to it). Add in a high 2015 draft pick (a talented big like Willie Cauley-Stein, Kristaps Porzingis or Karl Towns wouldn’t be a bad shout) and the Nuggets will suddenly have built a team on their own terms (or my imaginary ones).
As rebuilding scenarios go, this represents an extreme, simplified, idealized one. That caveat cannot be emphasized enough. This may be a highly unlikely prospect. It may also be unrealistic to many. It may very well be worse than splashing out for fantasy monster Kevin Love or continuing the incremental development of the existing core. Myself, I’m far from convinced about the tactic of rebuilding at all. If the San Antonio Spurs have shown us anything, it’s that lasting success is built on cultivating a winning culture above anything else; be it huge risks, tanking for draft luck or superstar signings.
But however realistic (or not) this scenario is, it couldn’t possibly be worse than the summer of 1996, could it?
What’s your opinion on the option of rebuilding? Is it better/worse than the team’s current options? Sound off in the comments.
Also, you can follow me on Twitter, @erlingureinars
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