I'm glad the Denver Nuggets didn't take my advice from a few weeks ago and forgo the remainder of the 2013-14 NBA season by losing their way higher up in the NBA Draft Lottery. Because I saw something during the Nuggets / Wizards game today that I haven't seen at Pepsi Center in a while.
Lots of them.
And I'm not just talking about from the kids in the stands who were enjoying a matinee Sunday game with their parents (something the Nuggets need to do way more of by the way!).
Sunday's game against the former Bullets from Washington was competitive, fun to watch and - more importantly - the Nuggets players and coaches were having fun.
Meanwhile, the fans of the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Lakers, Orlando Magic, Boston Celtics, Utah Jazz and others of their ilk are mired in misery beyond comprehension as they "tank their way" into the 2014 NBA Draft Lottery. As one NBA scout recently remarked to me: "Think about all the kids in Philadelphia. How many of them are 76ers fans right now? How many will ever be 76ers fans?"
The children. Just think about the children!
But he had a good point. And with the performances we've witnessed by the supposed "top crop" of the 2014 NBA Draft Lottery in this year's NCAA Tournament, it's fair to question if all this tanking that's going on is really going to be worth it in the first place. As a ticket-paying Nuggets fan, I'd rather see our Nuggets develop the talent that they have with the coach they're going to keep for next season than purposefully sabotage this season hoping to get a chance at drafting Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker or Marcus Smart - all first weekend flameouts for their respective teams in this year's NCAA Tournament.
In the third round of the tournament against a 10th-seeded Stanford team, Wiggins mustered a mere 4 points on 1-6 shooting (along with 4 turnovers) for his Kansas Jayhawks in a 60-57 loss. Certainly not the way the sensational freshman thought he'd end his one-year tenure at Kansas. (Wiggins' teammate Joel Embiid might have actually improved his draft stock by not playing at all due to injury.)
In the second round of weekday play against the 13th-seeded Mercer University (a school from Macon, Georgia that I had never heard of and I went to college in nearby Atlanta!), Parker's Duke squad was on the wrong end of a colossal upset no thanks to a 4-14 shooting and 4 turnover night from the supposed top-draft pick Parker. How was that one-year rental, Coach K?
Smart gave a better effort for his Oklahoma State Cowboys than either Wiggins or Parker gave their schools, putting up a Fat Lever-like performance with 23 points, 13 rebounds, 7 assists and 6 steals in an 85-77 second round loss to Gonzaga. But Smart connected on just 5 of his 14 field goal attempts and turned the ball over 6 times en route to that heartbreaking defeat. How's he going to stack up against Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry or John Wall?
Meanwhile, other top prospects like Tyler Ennis and Jerami Grant of Syracuse, Rodney Hood of Duke and Doug McDermott (Adam Morrison 2.0?) of Creighton couldn't get past the first weekend despite being heavily favored to do so. And Noah Vonieh's Indiana Hoosiers didn't make the big dance in the first place.
Maybe the Bucks, 76ers, Lakers, Magic, Celtics and Jazz should be careful what they tank for.
This isn't to say that great college basketball players aren't entitled to a bad day every once in a while, nor that all great NBA players were hugely successful as college athletes. After all, the great Kevin Durant couldn't even get his Texas Longhorns past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament despite playing well and having future NBA'er D.J. Augustin playing point guard. Moreover, great college success doesn't necessarily translate into great NBA success, just ask Nolan Smith, Tyler Hansbrough, Taurean Green, Sean May, Khalid Al-Amin, Mateen Cleaves and countless others like them.
But when tanking to get into the lottery, exceptional college performances under the biggest of big lights should give NBA GMs a little extra comfort when they throw away a season and alienate a fan base for a small chance at landing a possible franchise-changing player. For example, after leading his Kentucky Wildcats to the 2012 NCAA Championship thanks to a dominating 16-rebounds, 5-assists, 3-steals and 6-blocks performance (that included just one made field goal!), was their any confusion that Anthony Davis would be an awesome NBA player? Any?! Even today, I'd take only LeBron James and Durant over Davis. That's how good Davis is already.
And what about Carmelo Anthony's dominant performance in 2003 leading Syracuse to the NCAA Championship? Nuggets fans never had to worry about that third overall pick. Or Joakim Noah / Al Horford's back-to-back championships for Florida? Or Kevin Love / Russell Westbrook's Final Four run? In fact, many of today's great NBA players got their universities to the Final Four and beyond, including Dwyane Wade, Arron Afflalo, Derrick Rose, Kemba Walker, Luol Deng and the Nuggets own Ty Lawson. All players who amped up their games when needed during college basketball's biggest moment.
My point in all this is not to declare Wiggins, Parker, Smart and others who didn't survive this weekend's NCAA Tournament as busts. Most of them won't be. But I have to commend Nuggets GM Tim Connelly for sticking by his anti-tanking stance at the beginning of the 2013-14 NBA season. Because even though the Nuggets might land a top-three in the 2014 NBA Draft Lottery, there's no guarantee of gold there and the Nuggets need to be prepared to win games without a savior with many of the players currently on the roster.
And winning 7 of 11 games is a start in the right direction.