The case for rebuilding

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.

1996.

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.

  1. Abdul-Rauf was traded away for famously strong-armed veteran Sarunas Marciulionis and a draft pick that became Jeff McInnis.
  2. 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.
  3. 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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Erlingur Einarsson is a sports fan, a Denver Nuggets follower since 1991 and a proud writer for Roundball Mining Company. He is also a culture blogger and reviewer in his own online kingdom, weirtopia, as well as a Production Editor for Imagine Publishing. At any time of day, you can find him digging through NBA box scores on his laptop, watching a bad film in a half-empty cinema, trying to be clever on Twitter (@erlingureinars) or ranting about books, films or music on weirtopia.com to no one in particular.
  • Ckwizard

    I enjoyed reading this even though it left me feeling hopeless and a little sick to my stomach!

  • Heisenberg

    I like the creativity (and I know it’s approached as a stretch to begin with), but there’s no way most of those trades happen. Utah pretty much tanked all year. No chance they deal the 5th pick for that. Lawson and Thomas are about even in value, so that Kings deal seems highly unlikely as well. The Lakers one is in the ballpark.

    In terms of attracting stars, the team’s best hope is trading for Love. If Love wants to stay with the Nuggets, he can recruit other star players. 2015 would be out, obviously. But 2016 is a legit possibility, with quite a bit of cap space clearing. Durant, Dwight Howard (will probably opt out), Kawhi Leonard, Al Horford, Kyrie Irving, and Joakim Noah will all be on the market. While it still may be a bit of a longshot, I see it as being much more attractive than an unproven roster filled with question marks.

    As an endnote, I’m not a McDermott guy at all. He’s just not athletic enough to play the 3, and isn’t big enough to play the 4. He’s also bad defensively. I would be shocked if he went in the top 12 and wouldn’t be surprised to see him fall into the 20’s.

    • Sócrates Manzoni

      Agree on McDermott, he seems to be a (not-so)rich man’s Mike Dunleavy IF he makes it at all.

  • Sócrates Manzoni

    Nooope. Great job but this sounds really, really bad.

  • Matt

    Isaiah Thomas is a restricted free agent. He cannot be traded until July and he would need to agree to a sign and trade…….so the scenario laid out above could not work. You get a C- for your lack of research.

    • Erlingur Grétar Einarsson

      But a pass? Yay. But yeah, you’re right. He can’t be traded until July. My bad.

  • Poz303

    First off, thanks for the history lesson. I was not a Nugget fan till I moved to Denver in 2005. Before that I was a Sydney Kings season ticket holder (lived in Australia) so I had no other NBA team prior to the nuggets. Now Nuggets are my fav sports team in the USA (and am a season ticket holder).

    Those must have been brutal years and glad I didn’t have to support the Nuggets through them.

    I may be more optimistic about the current roster. The 57 win season likely would have ended differently had Gallo stayed healthy. Iggy may have left but the core of that team is still here and should be getting better. Faried showed promise at the end of last season.

    Ty, (FA), Gallo, Faried, Mozgov/McGee. With Foye, Chandler, JJ/Darth, NateRob off the bench. Maybe Fours takes a step like Faried.

    Nuggets have very good depth. Would Love be an upgrade? Absolutely but not at any price. The draft is a lottery and a very risky plan to rebuild on.

  • heykyleinsf

    Cavs, Hornets, Kings, Pelicans, Bobcats..

    Rebuilding.

    For what .. ten years now?

  • Bruce

    I understand your outside of the box thinking but are you crazy? This is a bunch of balony!