The Denver Nuggets were eerily absent from the 2014 NBA All-Star Weekend. You'd think between the Rising Stars challenge, all the nonsense the NBA throws at us on Saturday and the Sunday All-Star showcase, at least one Nugget player would have been a participant.
But not this year.
In fact, the Nuggets were so absent from the festivities that I couldn't even spot Supermascot Rocky during the television coverage throughout the weekend (I'll have to confirm with my colleague Nate Timmons on whether or not Rocky was there).
But in a sense, the absence of Nugget players (and mascots) from All-Star Weekend is just a microcosm of the season Nuggets fans have endured: a forgotten one.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. In the wake of departures to head coach George Karl, star swingman Andre Iguodala and role players Corey Brewer and Kosta Koufos, the 2013-14 Denver Nuggets were assembled to keep the status quo for professional basketball in Denver in-tact - i.e. improve incrementally while making the playoffs for the 11th consecutive season, the NBA's second-longest playoff appearance streak second only to the San Antonio Spurs.
51 games later, thanks to a plethora of fluky injuries and some head-scratching strategic decisions by incoming head coach Brian Shaw, the Nuggets are sitting three games under .500 and six games back of the Western Conference's eighth playoff seed. Throw in the certainty of Danilo Gallinari, JaVale McGee, Nate Robinson and Andre Miller being out for the remainder of the season and the likeliness of Ty Lawson sitting out for several more games while nursing a cracked rib, the Nuggets have as much chance of making the playoffs as my injury-riddled fantasy NBA team does (read: slim to none).
Nearly two months before this current NBA season began, the pro-"tanksters" were invading our commenting section advocating for the Nuggets to throw away the 2013-14 campaign in hopes of landing a top-five pick in the highly anticipated 2014 NBA Draft. In response to that movement, at the time I wrote the following:
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.
Those four sentences made a lot of sense in September. And October. And November. And even December. But with the ugly spate of injuries befallen our Nuggets, the unnecessary losses to the likes of the Utah Jazz, Cleveland Cavaliers and Philadelphia 76ers and facing a Western Conference playoff race that will require at least 48 wins just to get into the post-season dance, the Nuggets' current reality no longer squares with pre-season expectations.
It's time to tank.
The 2013-14 Nuggets should take a cue from the 1993-94 Detroit Pistons and 1996-97 San Antonio Spurs. Those Pistons could have brought star guard Isiah Thomas back earlier from an Achilles tendon rupture to salvage a tough season, but opted not to knowing that a high lottery pick meant a shot at Glenn Robinson, Jason Kidd, Grant Hill, Donyell Marshall or Juwan Howard (the Pistons ended up with Hill and a 54-win team two years later). Just three years later, the Spurs followed suit by resting star center David Robinson for many more games than was necessary as Robinson could have returned from a back injury mid-season, and lucked into the number one pick in the 1997 draft where they drafted some guy out of Wake Forest named Tim Duncan.
Obviously, there are many differences between the state of this season's Nuggets and those aforementioned Pistons and Spurs. Those Pistons and Spurs teams won just 20 games apiece whereas this season's Nuggets have already won 24 and will probably win 12-16 more games. Moreover, those Pistons and Spurs didn't have to contend with so many purposefully tanking teams as the Nuggets do this season (six by my count - Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Orlando, L.A. Lakers, Boston and Utah) combined with teams not trying to tank but remain awful nonetheless (five - Sacramento, Cleveland, Detroit, New Orleans and Minnesota). Sadly, it seems likely that the Nuggets - whether with their own 2014 pick or the one they get from the New York Knicks - will fall right outside the 2014 NBA Draft's top seven picks, a demarcation point where the talent goes from "could be a franchise player" to "crapshoot."
But similarly to those Pistons and Spurs squads of yesteryear, this season's Nuggets are a playoff team when their star player (in the Nuggets' case, Lawson) and complimentary players are healthy. Giving them the unique opportunity to add talent to an already talented roster and real roster flexibility with which to make deals during the 2014 off-season. Meaning, while it might be painful for the Nuggets' 10-year streak of playoff appearances to come to an abrupt end this April, Nuggets fans can reasonably expect them (again, when healthy) to be a bona fide playoff threat in April 2015.
So instead of looking at how many games back of the eighth seed the Nuggets currently are, perhaps we should be looking in the other direction at how many games back they are of the would-be seventh spot in the NBA Draft Lottery. At present, the Nuggets are 5.5 games back of the coveted seventh spot (which comes with a 4.3% chance of actually winning the lottery) while being 5 games back of the eighth (2.8% chance) and 4.5 games back of the ninth (1.7% chance) would-be NBA Draft selection. But the nice thing about the 2014 NBA Draft is that just being in the top-five is a huge advantage in and of itself.
A season once thought to be a transition year with an 11th straight playoff appearance has surprisingly set itself up for a tanking opportunity. The Nuggets should take full advantage of that by telling Ty Lawson to take his time with that rib injury.
Like, at least a month or two.