Three small market teams are on the march in the 2012 NBA playoffs: the Thunder, Spurs and Pacers. Should the success of these three franchises provide hope for Nuggets fans?
While visiting with Sandy Clough on FM104.3 The Fan last week (you can listen to the entire segment here: Andrew Feinstein with Sandy Clough 5/16), Sandy suggested that the San Antonio Spurs provide a blueprint of sorts for our Denver Nuggets to follow with their balanced attack and ability to use 10 players whereas most playoff teams cut their rotations to 8. The Spurs have also been able to assemble a squad of presumed-to-be nobodies surrounding two aging superstars - Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili - and one All-Star in Tony Parker (Parker was more than just an All-Star this year as he garnished some MVP consideration).
Of course, it helps when you have a superstar like Duncan in the first place. And while the Nuggets, too, could go 10-deep this season, they have no equivalent talent and leadership-wise to Duncan. Nor Ginobili or Parker for that matter. So while the Spurs are the rare small market team to bust through the NBA's cabal that favors big markets, lest we forget that their fortunes have essentially been tied to two drafts: 1988 (when the Spurs first overall pick became David Robinson) and 1997 (ditto with Duncan). Lesson learned, when you really suck and land the first overall pick, hope to do so when a once-in-a-generation player is on the board.
The Spurs' (and Nuggets') fellow small market competitor in Oklahoma City has also been the beneficiary of sucking at the right time. When Kevin Durant was available in 2007, the Thunder - then the Seattle Supersonics - held the second overall pick and watched Portland err by drafting Greg Oden first overall leaving Durant available at two. Even with Durant, the Sonics sucked badly enough to land the fourth overall pick a season later - which became Russell Westbrook. And even with Durant and Westbrook, the then-Thunder sucked badly enough to be able to draft James Harden third overall in 2009.
As all Denver fans can recall, the Nuggets tried the suck-and-build-through-the-draft strategy twice in the last 20 years. The early 90s netted the Dikembe Mutombo, LaPhonso Ellis, Bryant Stith and Rodney Rogers picks that built the 1993-94 squad that should have gone places. And the early 00s netted the Nene Hilario and Carmelo Anthony picks that formed the foundation for the 2003-04 squad that resulted in nine-straight playoff appearances. Unfortunately for Denver, while once-in-a-generation players were available in those drafts (Shaquille O'Neal and Alonzo Mourning in 1992, Yao Ming in 2002, LeBron James in 2003) the Nuggets never had a higher pick than third overall. Anthony is a perennial All-Star, but he's no once-in-a-generation player.
As I said to Sandy, to me the model the Nuggets should want to emulate now is what the Indiana Pacers have been able to do. Without ever having a first overall pick or anything even close to such a pick, the Pacers have somehow, someway built a squad that is giving the superstar-led Miami Heat all it can handle right now (in fact, before James and Dwyane Wade combined for 70 points on Sunday, I was convinced that the Pacers would be up 3-1 in their series by now).
Like the current incarnation of the Nuggets, the 2011-12 Pacers possess no superstars but rather a collection of solid players that run 9 deep and many are interchangeable within the lineup. The Pacers get contributions nightly from a different source and play tough defense, which has befuddled the Heat somewhat in their second round series.
Unlike our Nuggets, however, the Pacers have two All-Stars in center Roy Hibbert and small forward Danny Granger. The Nuggets have three possible future All-Stars in Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari and JaVale McGee ... they're just not there yet.
It should also be noted that the Pacers are the beneficiaries of playing in the Leastern Conference. On "pace" (pardon the pun) to win 52 games were the NBA to have played 82 games this year, the Pacers were assured home court in the first round. Not the case with the Nuggets. In the Western Conference, you have to win 54-55 games if you want home court in Round 1.
Regardless, the Pacers should give all small market teams - including the Nuggets - hope that you can compete in the playoffs without having to get lucky by drafting a Tim Duncan or a Kevin Durant. But most unfortunately, as we saw Sunday with the performances by James and Wade, until proven otherwise superstars still rule in the NBA post-season.
A few links of interest ...
NUGGETS: Nuggets executive Masai Ujiri keeps focus on big picture
Aaron Lopez catches up with Masai Ujiri now that the Nuggets season is over.
Kiszla: Nuggets should trade some of their depth to get Austin Rivers in NBA draft - The Denver Post
Mark Kiszla wants the Nuggets to go after Duke's Austin Rivers by trading away some of their players for a high draft pick.
NUGGETS: Nuggets F Al Harrington has successful knee surgery
Big Al should be ready to go next season!