ESPN has recently been running a series of articles regarding "tanking" - i.e. the methodology by which NBA teams intentionally sink a season in hopes of landing the first overall pick in the draft the following summer. While reading their assortment of articles on the subject, I can't help but think about where our Denver Nuggets fit into all of this and look back at our history of mixed-results tanking.
Before getting to my thoughts on the subject, the Nuggets own GM - Tim Connelly - recently came out emphatically against tanking in an interview with The Colorado Springs Gazette's Paul Klee, stating:
"I think there's a handful of teams that have collectively waved the white flag already," Connelly said ...
To squash any conspiracy theories, I asked if throwing the season to earn a high draft pick is in the Nuggets' playbook. He said, "No."
"Our goal is to win as many games as we possibly can," Connelly said. "And then, like I said, we'll be judged by how we do in the playoffs."
I agree 100% with Connelly.
And yet when looking at the Nuggets collection of off-season moves, it's hard to argue that they're getting closer to a championship with the roster as presently constructed. In fact, if anything, the Nuggets will likely take a step backward entering the 2013-14 season (see my "Nuggets are in never never land ... again" column from a few months ago). And thus - and with the tantalizingly talented Andrew Wiggins (pictured above) sure to be available in next summer's NBA Draft - many Nuggets fans have argued for tanking this summer with some justification.
But should the Nuggets have tanked (they would have had to do that beginning on last June's draft day) the 2013-14 season rather than compete for a playoff position as Connelly says they will?
The funny thing is, the Nuggets have tanked seasons before and it has actually worked. Well, sort of. It depends on your definition of "worked".
The Nuggets first "tank job" came in 1990. Coming off a 43-win season with an aging roster that had just been bounced out - handily - in the first round of the playoffs for the second year in a row, the Nuggets organization - led by then GM Bernie Bickerstaff - decided to blow the whole thing up. Literally. Gone were aging stars Alex English, Fat Lever and all-time great head coach Doug Moe, and using high drafts picks over the next few seasons in came Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Dikembe Mutombo and LaPhonso Ellis. That tank job produced only a 42-win, eighth-seeded team a long four seasons later, but that roster was indisputably positioned for greater things (their historic 1994 playoff run was just a harbinger of things to come) had Ellis' devastating knee injury, Bickerstaff's incompetence and Abdul-Rauf's controversial behavior not sunk the ship just years later.
But at no time during that team's era were the Nuggets able to draft the franchise-changing players of that period like Gary Payton (three NBA Finals appearances, one ring), Larry Johnson (amazing before back injuries ruined his explosiveness), Shaquille O'Neal (five finals appearances, four rings, enough said), Alonzo Mourning (one finals appearance, one ring, instantly made the Hornets and Heat contenders), Chris Webber (one of the best power forwards of his generation), Penny Hardaway (one finals appearance and also the victim of some freak injuries), Jason Kidd (three finals appearances, one ring) or Grant Hill (a human triple-double before injuries took him down, too).
The Nuggets second tank job (1996 through 1999) came more organically than planned thanks to the ineptitude of Bickerstaff's decision making skills during the mid-1990s. But despite winning just 11 games in 1997-98 and following that up with just 14 wins in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, the Nuggets missed out on being able to draft the next round of franchise-changing players like Tim Duncan (five finals appearances, four rings), Vince Carter (made Toronto a contender almost upon arrival), Dirk Nowitzki (two finals appearances, one ring) and Paul Pierce (two finals appearances, one ring). In the Nuggets' defense, other than 1998 the drafts during that era were just dreadful to begin with - when Kenyon Martin is the first pick in an NBA Draft, you know its devoid of any depth. But nevertheless, the Nuggets mid-to-late 1990s tanking got nowhere and led to a lost decade of basketball here in Denver, something current would-be tankers in Charlotte, Minnesota, Sacramento, Washington and Toronto are experiencing right now.
The Nuggets third and final tank job took place from 2001 through 2003. Inheriting a crappy roster going nowhere thanks to his predecessor Dan Issel, new GM Kiki Vandeweghe did the right thing and dumped all of the Nuggets expensive assets (at the time, Raef LaFrentz, Nick Van Exel, Tariq Abdul-Wahad and Avery Johnson) on the Mavericks in trade for short-term or expiring contracts and future draft picks. By the time the 2002-03 season came about, the Nuggets threw away the season in advance by refusing to sign any free agents and hold open tryouts at training camp (no joke). 17 wins later, the Nuggets were in position to draft high in one of the deepest drafts in a generation with the likes of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh coming available in the summer of 2003.
That third and final tank job worked. Well, again, sort of. By selecting Anthony and acquiring veterans like Andre Miller and Voshon Lenard to play alongside him, the Nuggets returned to the playoffs instantly as an eighth-seed after winning 43 games. Since then, the Nuggets have made 10 consecutive playoff appearances - the second-longest active streak in the NBA after the San Antonio Spurs - which is certainly nothing to be disappointed by. But again, the Nuggets early 2000s tanking missed on having the opportunity to draft the game-changing players of that era like Yao Ming (amazing before injuries took him into an early retirement) and James (four finals appearances, two rings).
To me, the 2013-14 Nuggets don't represent a "tanking opportunity." The roster isn't old. The roster should be able to compete for a playoff spot. The roster possesses a lot of talent, youth and flexibility. And is the 2014 NBA Draft really that deep? And moreover, as we've seen with our previous tank jobs luck is a huge factor. The Nuggets could just have as easily landed O'Neal or Duncan or James - the guys who have combined for 14 NBA Finals appearances in the last 20 years - during those 1990s and early 2000s tank jobs. But they didn't.
The real problem for the Nuggets isn't tanking versus non-tanking. The problem for the Nuggets is that among the four major professional sports in the United States - the NFL, MLB, the NBA and the NHL - the NBA is the HARDEST to build a champion in. As has been noted (by me) numerous times on this site, only nine - count them, nine! - NBA franchises have claimed a title since 1980. Comparatively, since 1980 the NFL has crowned 15 different franchises as champions, MLB has had 19 different franchises hoist a World Series trophy and the NHL has had 15 different franchises drink from the Stanley Cup.
The reason for this is simple. In the NBA - hence why its my favorite sport, by the way - not only do just five players participate in the action, but those five players play both offense and defense. Meaning, a truly great player has a tremendous impact on every aspect of the game (one could argue that a great quarterback also has a tremendous impact on both aspects of the game as he keeps his own defense fresh and off the field). But in any given NBA season, there are really only four or five truly great players capable of winning a championship ... and the Nuggets haven't had one of them since David Thompson lived in Denver in the late 1970s. But do you know who has? Those nine franchises who have gobbled up every NBA title the last 33 years. In fact, the Boston Celtics and Minneapolis/Los Angeles Lakers alone have combined to participate in 51 of the NBA's 63 championships since 1950 - that's 81% of all the NBA Finals ever played!
So unless a true tanking opportunity presents itself, we in Nuggets Nation are probably resigned to an 11th-straight playoff appearance that won't net an NBA Championship. But if you ask the fans in Charlotte, Minnesota, Sacramento, Toronto and Washington about tanking, 11 straight playoff appearances without a championship doesn't sound too bad.