Just a week ago I drafted an open letter to Andre Iguodala hoping the swingman would re-up with Denver and make a confusing, lackluster Nuggets off-season thus far into something more palatable to Nuggets fans. Even though that was only seven days ago, it feels as though a month has gone by - a period during which Iguodala (whom The Denver Post's Woody Paige accurately referred to as Benedict Arnold Iguodala) signed with the team that eliminated the Nuggets in this year's playoffs, the Golden State Warriors, Dwight Howard signed with the Houston Rockets (single-handedly changing the balance of power in the Western Conference), the Los Angeles Clippers acquired perhaps the NBA's best head coach and re-signed perhaps the NBA's best point guard, and the reigning Western Conference champion San Antonio Spurs stole Marco Belinelli while re-signing center Tiago Splitter.
Oh, and during this time period I somehow managed to watch the entirety of Thunderstruck and, despite how awful that movie is (it's a combination of Teen Wolf and Space Jam but worse), was reminded that Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder aren't going anywhere anytime soon. Remember those guys?
Given this turn of recent events, even the casual NBA fan probably understands that the Nuggets have dropped from a team competing among the Western Conference's elite (as they did just a season ago) to a team that will be among the Western Conference playoff bottom feeders - after the Thunder, Spurs, Rockets, Clippers, Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies.
Which means rather than reverting to 1996 as my esteemed colleague Jeff Morton has suggested, I believe the Nuggets have reverted to 2006 ... minus the big ego "Thuggets" loitering around Denver night clubs, of course. During the mid-aughts, our Nuggets weren't the 50-win regular season juggernaut we've become accustomed to these last five seasons, but were instead a 45-ish win Western Conference playoff participant as an easy first round out.
Or, in other words, the NBA's version of "never never land": Not good enough to compete for a championship now, not potentially good enough to compete for a championship as the roster develops and not crappy enough to get a top-three lottery pick anytime soon ... and maxed out salary-wise.
To be clear, even if Iguodala had re-signed the Nuggets weren't necessarily going to ascend to the top of the Western Conference. And after hitting the "publish" button on last Sunday's open letter, I started thinking to myself: "Do we really want to pay a 33 year old who's a crummy free throw shooter and a poor man's (at best) Scottie Pippen $12 million a year?" But at least with Iguodala, if the Nuggets had their other "get way better" X-Factors in place like JaVale McGee and Ty Lawson's vast improvement, a conference finals run could potentially be had. Now, anything short of a monstrously great season from both McGee and Lawson ensures the Nuggets will be fighting with the likes of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Dallas Mavericks, Portland Trailblazers and Los Angeles Lakers just to make the playoffs rather than fighting with the heavyweight Thunder, Spurs, Rockets and Clippers for home court advantage in the post-season.
Alas, never never land is upon us again.
That being said, the Nuggets have one important difference when compared to most teams that find themselves in the "never never land" predicament (including their own "never never land" predecessors like the 1988 through 1990 Nuggets, the 2000-01 Nuggets and the 2005-2007 Nuggets): They're young with upside. We Nuggets fans believe, perhaps myopically, that Lawson and McGee, along with Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried, Evan Fournier and even Jordan Hamilton, haven't reached anything near their potential. Could new head coach Brian Shaw be the one to maximize these players' potential? Or did his predecessor, George Karl, already do so to the tune of an NBA franchise-record 57 regular season wins last season and we just didn't know it / appreciate it? I'll answer that question in April 2014.
But among all the head scratching and questioning justifiably being done by Nuggets fans this off-season, perhaps the one big question not being asked is: Are we indeed in "never never land" and, if so, how are we getting out of it - and in which direction, better or worse?
I do believe we are in "never never land" and am afraid I don't have good answers for how to get out of it. One possible answer is the wait-and-see approach - i.e. see if Shaw and his yet-to-be-named coaching staff can coach up McGee, Lawson, Gallinari et al to a level Karl couldn't reach and keep the Nuggets among the primo Western Conference outfits even without Iguodala's services. Another would be to combine several of the Nuggets young assets and attempt to trade for an impact player, but those players are few and far between and aren't readily accessible via trade.
Or, the answer Nuggets fans feel coming with great trepidation, is to depart with their young assets in exchange for future draft picks and flexibility, essentially tanking.
In looking at those three options, only the wait-and-see approach makes sense, which is the least worst of the three choices. I fundamentally hate tanking because it rarely, if ever, works and the consequences of a bad tank job can last more than a decade (see the Nuggets from 1990 through 2003, minus the positive two-season blip from 1992 through 1994). And I don't see any of the NBA's very few impact players coming to Denver anytime soon (unless the Nuggets can swing a deal for the Boston Celtics' Rajon Rondo ... which was sort of, almost, possibly, yet probably manufactured as a rumor to be considered before Rondo went down with a nasty ACL injury last January).
So let's give Shaw the opportunity to get this team - as presently constructed - farther than Karl could. For whatever it's worth, I've been asking around about Shaw from several of my league sources, including one closely associated with the Indiana Pacers, only to hear nothing but high praise. One league source went as far as to tell me that "Shaw is absolutely the right guy for that team [in Denver] right now." If there's one thing to be optimistic about it's Shaw.
Moreover, as my other esteemed colleague Nate Timmons pointed out last night, by signing J.J. Hickson and trading for Darrell Arthur, the Nuggets are forming a formidable front court (assuming Timofey Mozgov re-signs, too). With Faried, McGee and Hickson on board the Nuggets should never get out-rebounded. Ever. And more often than not, that's where a lot of games are won and lost.
But as is typical with most teams who fall into the "never never land" space, the Nuggets are missing something big. In our case, we're essentially missing two things: an everyday impact player and a true shooting guard (which could change if Randy Foye is indeed coming to Denver as rumored over night). So unless Lawson, McGee or Gallo - all three occasional impact players - evolve into a player they haven't been to date, or Hamilton or Fournier miraculously become bona fide NBA shooting guards THIS season, it's back to "never never land" for our Nuggets and the bottom of the playoff bracket.