Soon after I hit the "publish" button on my pro-tanking column from a week ago, I realized that I forgot a crucial caveat: tanking doesn't mean "no effort-ing."
Given that our Denver Nuggets have virtually no shot at making their 11th consecutive post-season appearance come April, I have no problem with them losing game after game after game and by proxy improving their chances of landing a top lottery pick in a front loaded 2014 NBA Draft.
But what I do have a problem with is the team putting forth zero effort on the court along the way. Because while it's evident that the Nuggets will be lottery participants this summer, the team must guard against fomenting a culture of mailing it in before the opening tip of a basketball game.
Tanking - at times - can be an acceptable strategy. Hell, a lot of fans beg for it (as evident by many of our own readers going back to before this disappointing 2013-14 Nuggets season began). And even though it seems like I'm trying to thread the needle here a bit, the key is to tank while simultaneously developing a culture of effort and hustle ... especially among young, impressionable players.
In other words, even in defeat it's crucial to continue respecting the game.
We've actually witnessed this in Denver, and not too long ago. When Kiki Vandeweghe was hired to be the franchise's General Manager in 2001, he (rightly) recognized that the Nuggets were in desperate need of an extreme makeover. By Vandeweghe's first trade deadline, gone were some bloated contracts and selfish veterans and in came expiring contracts and cap space. The end result was a 2002-03 Nuggets squad that was guaranteed to be so bad, that Vandeweghe conducted OPEN TRYOUTS during the 2002 off-season.
But beyond the mockery of the open tryouts and the CBA-quality roster that followed, Vandeweghe - through the hiring of a no-name assistant coach named Jeff Bzdelik - instilled a culture of effort and hustle. Equipped with a roster that featured the (arguably) worst backcourt in modern NBA history (Vincent Yarbrough and Junior Harrington), two extremely green foreign rookies (Nene Hilario and Nikoloz Tskitishvili), several 11th/12th man journeymen (Chris Whitney, Shammond Williams, Rodney White) and a few guys whose only talent was their ability to hustle (Chris Andersen, Ryan Bowen, Donnell Harvey), the 2002-03 Nuggets miraculously - and I mean miraculously - won 17 games. Or, as I've said countless times on this site, 17 more games than they should have won. How many times can you say that in NBA history? (Well, technically this season as Jeff Hornacek's Phoenix Suns are about to win 25 more games than anyone predicted.)
More importantly than those 17 impressive wins, Bzdelik and Vandeweghe created an atmosphere and culture of hard work that didn't go unnoticed around the NBA. In addition to drafting college phenom Carmelo Anthony third overall in the 2003 NBA Draft, the Nuggets' revamped culture helped Vandeweghe lure free agents Voshon Lenard, Andre Miller and Jon Barry during the summer of 2003 and re-sign center Marcus Camby during the summer of 2004. Within two years of Vandeweghe's hiring / blow up job, Denver was one of the NBA's hottest destinations. Putting it bluntly, the Nuggets "tank job" of 2002-03 led to 10 straight playoff appearances, which included the Nuggets' third Western Conference Finals appearance in NBA franchise history.
10 years earlier - during the 1992-93 season - first year head coach Dan Issel led a collection of rookies, youngsters and role players that also had no prayer of making the playoffs. But like Bzdelik in 2002-03, Issel instilled a culture of effort and hustle not lost on that team or others around the NBA. Finishing the 1992-93 campaign with just 36 wins, the season-ender featured a thrilling 120-118 Nuggets victory over the eventual Western Conference Champion Suns thanks to a Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (then named Chris Jackson) three-point buzzer beater. When watching the clip below, be sure to listen to legendary Nuggets broadcaster Al Albert's commentary (during the timeout) on the exciting season the Nuggets were having and note the team's celebration after the Abdul-Rauf shot ...
THAT moment carried over into the 1993-94 campaign ... a campaign that ended with the single greatest playoff upset in NBA history when our Nuggets defeated the one-seeded Seattle Supersonics in the first round.
This season, I fear something opposite is happening. Not only are the Nuggets losing often, but they're getting blown out routinely. Having won just five times in their last 17 games is bad enough, but during that span the Nuggets have lost by 14 points or more seven times and have lost by more than 20 points in four of their last eight outings. Given all that, how many free-agents-to-be are lining up to sign with Denver right now?
Yes, the Nuggets have been besieged by injuries. Besieged! But does anyone think an injury-riddled Jeff Bzdelik or George Karl-coached team would lay down and die as often as this Nuggets team has this season? Say what you want about Karl's coaching techniques, but his teams rarely - if ever - took a night off. And if they did, it was short-lived.
Hence why the finger pointing is starting to be aimed at current Nuggets head coach Brian Shaw, who for one reason or another has been unable to connect with this crop of Nuggets players ... even when they were reasonably healthy. (For his part, Shaw often puts the blame squarely on the players, a tactic that typically doesn't go over well with modern NBA players. They need to be spoken with, not talked at.)
If the Nuggets are to finish out the 2013-14 season on anything resembling a positive note, Shaw must create a culture of effort and hustle not seen through most of the team's first 55 games, and certainly not seen in the last 20 games. Because while losing often might get the Nuggets a transformative draft pick this summer, losing without any on-court effort could poison the culture in the current locker room while simultaneously cost the Nuggets from luring the free agents needed another 10-year playoff run.