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Should We Want the Denver Nuggets to Make the 2009 NBA Playoffs?

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Late last season when it was apparent the Denver Nuggets were going to meet another ignominious first round disaster there was a small and unnamed movement amongst Nugget fans.  With all the debate about whether or not the Nuggets are a playoff team I suspect that movement will come to the surface as the season drags along. 

What movement am I speaking of?  The “Nuggets are better off missing the playoffs” movement.

Last spring the thought of having a team trumpeted by some as a dark horse title contender miss the playoffs was just too much to stomach.  Even when it became apparent to almost everyone that the Nuggets would provide little more than a speed bump for their opponent on their way to the second round most of us could not embrace the notion.

I realize I am running the risk of being labeled schizophrenic after coming to the defense of the Nuggets playoff chances and I still stand by my analysis.  Nevertheless, I have to admit that this season is the year that they will be better off having a representative in Secaucus, NJ instead of having their representatives massacred at the hands of the Lakers or Hornets in the first round.  (By the way, now that Turner has taken over NBATV, does that mean the lottery will be held in Atlanta from now on?  I can only hope Secaucus remains relevant from here on out.)

The management has clearly shown that the focus is on the future with the trade of their 2008 draft pick to Charlotte for a future pick and the Camby trade.  Both of those trades took assets for the current season and replaced them with assets to be utilized in the future.  As fans we want to see meaningful games, and we have not been subjected to a meaningless game since April 16, 2003, but realistically how meaningful are games that we know are bound to at best lead up to a sixth straight first round loss?

The debate for the importance of making the playoffs over being a lottery team always hinges around the value of playoff experience.  Well, as a Nugget fan I can assure you that I am not looking forward to any more playoff experiences involving this current roster.  They have garnered enough experience losing.  They have experience losing on the road and losing at home.  The have experience losing in close games and losing in blowouts.  They have experience losing with dignity and losing like spoiled children.  I think they are all filled up on experience.

Even so, we could speculate all day long about whether or not it is better to make the playoffs and gain more experience or draft a few spots higher in the lottery.  Let’s see if we can learn anything from teams who have found themselves in similar situations.  Have teams who have lost in the first round at least three years in a row and then fallen out been able to recover and reach even greater heights?

I have found several teams who fit the Nuggets current situation in one way or another.  We will compare their records, young studs, old fogeys, average age of their core players and their future performance to see if the Nuggets just might be better off missing the playoffs and cranking out a quick one season remodeling project.  (Editor’s note:  All stats and ages are as of the final season of the streak.)

Washington Bullets 1983 - 1988

Streak – Five straight first round losses

Record During Streak – 35-47, 40-42, 39-43, 42-40, 38-44

Young Studs – Jeff Malone (20.5 points, 3.0 assists)

Old Fogeys – Moses Malone (20.3 points, 11.2 rebounds), Bernard King (17.2 points, 4.1 rebounds)

Average Age of Core – 29.7 (Jeff Malone 26, Moses Malone 32, Bernard King 31)

Future of Team – Disastrous, only one playoff appearance from 1988-2004

Conclusions – The Bullets of the mid 1980’s had some talent, but were never a very good team.  They had the misfortune of having to deal with a top heavy conference with tremendously talented teams such as Boston, Philadelphia and Milwaukee being perennial powers.  Despite the fact that this is the only other team along with the Nuggets to lose in the first round exactly five straight seasons I do not believe there is much of a comparison here.  Washington was clearly not a quality team and their core players were nearing the end of their careers.  Add in the fact that they were playoff participants despite such poor records shows how weak the middle of the conference was.

Atlanta Hawks 1982-1984

Streak – Three straight first round losses

Record During Streak – 42-40, 43-39, 40-42

Young Studs – Dominique Wilkins (21.6 points, 7.2 rebounds), Doc Rivers (9.3 points, 3.9 assists), Randy Wittman (4.5 points 0.9 assists), Scott Hastings (just kidding)

Old Fogeys – Dan Roundfield (18.9 points, 9.9 rebounds)

Average Age of Core – 26.7 (Dominique Wilkins 24, Dan Roundfield 30, Eddie Jordan 28, Johnny Davis 28, Doc Rivers 22, Tree Rollins 28)

Future of Team – The Hawks were right back in the playoffs a year after their streak of first round exits ended and they averaged 52 wins over the next four seasons.  The Hawks were in the Eastern Conference semifinals for three straight seasons and would have advanced if it were not for the Boston Celtics (this team gave us the great seven game series in 1987 that featured a seventh game in Boston Garden where Dominique and Bird both had explosive fourth quarters).

Conclusions – The Hawks of the early 1980’s are a pretty good best case scenario for the Nuggets of 2008.  They stumbled in the ‘84-‘85 season as they bid adieu to Dan Roundfield and replaced him with rookie Kevin Willis, who is probably still smashing cinder blocks with sledge hammers on his 46 year-old abs of steel.  As a result of losing their leading rebounder they fell back to a record of 34-48, but were rewarded with the fifth pick in the 1985 draft which they unfortunately expended on John Koncak.

The core they put together during the transition years of ‘83-‘85 ended up  being one of the top teams in the east during the middle of the 1980’s and prove that it is possible to transition quickly from a mediocre team to a high quality one as long as you have a young core to build around.

Cleveland Cavaliers 1988-1990

Streak – Three straight first round losses

Record During Streak – 42-40, 57-25, 42-40

Young Studs – Mark Price (19.6 points, 9.1 assists), Brad Daugherty (16.8 points, 9.1 rebounds), Ron Harper (22.0 points, 7.0 assists and 6.9 rebounds)

Old Fogeys – Larry Nance (16.3 points, 8.3 rebounds)

Average Age of Core – 26.7 (Mark Price 25, Hot Rod Williams 27, Craig Ehlo 28, Larry Nance 30, Brad Daugherty 24, Ron Harper 26)

Future – The only reason the Cavs missed the playoffs in ’90-’91 was because Mark Price only played in 16 games.  In fact, they made the playoffs in ’89-’90 with Daugherty and Harper missing a combined 115 games.  They drafted Terrell Brandon with their lottery pick in ‘91 and with the return of a healthy Mark Price and a healthy Brad Daugherty made the Eastern Conference finals in 1992 to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.  They never made it back to the conference finals, but continued to be a playoff participant for five of the next six seasons.  They were finally done in by Brad Daugherty’s papier mache back.

Conclusions – The Cavs are not a real good match for the Nuggets of ’08-’09 because they missed the playoffs due to injury.  However, there might be some correlation here (stay with me on this).  The Nuggets shipped Camby out for a trade exception that, because of financial reasons, they will not use until the offseason.  Basically what the Nuggets have done is akin to losing a rotation player for the year.  They will not be getting Camby back for the ‘09-’10 season, but they will be adding a quality player.  (OK it may be a bit of a stretch, but the comparison is close enough that I do not want to have to throw out all the data I compiled on the ’88-’90 Cavs.)

New Jersey Nets 1992-1994

Streak – Three straight first round losses

Record During Streak – 40-42, 43-39, 45-37

Young Studs – Derrick Coleman (20.2 points, 11.3 rebounds), Kenny Anderson (18.8 points, 9.6 assists),

Old Fogeys - None

Average Age of Core – 26.8 (Derrick Coleman 26, Kenny Anderson 23, Kevin Edwards 28, Chris Morris 28, Armon Gilliam 29)

Future of Team – If we learned anything in the 1990’s we figured out that any team built around Derrick Coleman is doomed sooner or later and that Eddie Vedder was pretty angry.  Coleman missed 26 games during the ’94-’95 season and he was gone before the ’95-’96 season started.  The real downfall of the Nets was their atrocious drafting (1993 - Rex Walter, 1994 – Yinka Dare, 1995 – Ed O’Bannon, need I say more?).

Conclusions – The red light here is the way the Nuggets have disregarded the draft, which even though the Nets kept their picks they might as well have used them on senior citizens or paralytics.  The Nuggets have a much better young core and are able to overcome opting out of a couple of drafts, but should they continue to trade or outright blow draft picks the New Jersey Nets of the mid ‘90’s provide a cautionary tale.

Minnesota Timberwolves 1997-2003

Streak – Seven straight first round losses

Record During Streak – 40-42, 45-37, 25-25, 50-32, 47-35, 50-32, 51-31

Young Studs – Kevin Garnett (23.0 points, 13.4 rebounds and 6.0 assists), Wally Szczerbiak (17.6 points, 4.6 rebounds)

Old Fogeys – Kendall Gill (8.7 points, 3.0 rebounds), Rod Strickland (6.8 points, 4.6 assists)

Average Age of Core – 25.8 (Kevin Garnett 26, Wally Szczerbiak 25, Troy Hudson 26, Rasho Nesterovic 26) (The core of this team was Kevin Garnett.  There were at least three different iterations of his supporting cast during these seven seasons.)

Future of Team – Prior to the ’03-’04 season Kevin McHale brought in Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell and this team was a Sam Cassell injury away from going to the NBA finals as they lost to the Lakers in six games.

Conclusions – This is the only team that has ever lost seven straight first round playoff matchups since the NBA/ABA merger.  They had a couple of different hindrances that held them back along the way.  One was the ineptitude of Kevin McHale.  The other was directly correlated to McHale and that was the loss of three first round draft picks due to the Joe Smith fiasco. 

While the turn of the millennium Timberwolves do not share a great deal in common with the current Nuggets team roster wise, the situation is very similar.  Did it really do them good to lose in the first round year after year?  I firmly believe the Timberwolves would have been better off being in the lottery at least one of those seasons than losing yet another first round series (that is if they had a pick to use). 

The end of the story does bring somewhat of a happy ending as the KG/Cassell/Sprewell team did make it to the conference finals, but the constant drafting in the 20’s, or not drafting at all, resulted in hurting their overall talent level.  I think these Timberwolf teams are an example of what might happen to the Nuggets if they continue to eek into the playoffs year after year. 

Orlando Magic 2001-2003

Streak – Three straight first round losses

Record During Streak – 43-39, 44-38, 42-40

Young Studs – Tracy McGrady (32.1 points, 6.5 rebound and 5.5 assists), Mike Miller (16.4 points, 5.8 rebounds), Drew Gooden (13.6 points, 8.4 rebounds)

Old Fogeys – Grant Hill (14.5 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.2 assists), Darrell Armstrong (9.4 points, 3.9 assists), Shawn Kemp (6.8 points, 5.7 rebounds), Horace Grant (5.2 points, 1.6 rebounds)

Average Age of Core – 25.8 (Tracy McGrady 23, Mike Miller 22, Grant Hill 30, Drew Gooden 21, Gordan Giricek 25, Darrell Armstrong 34)

Future of Team – The bottom fell out in ’03-’04 as Grant Hill missed the entire season and McGrady missed 15 games.  The result was a 22-60 record and a trade with the Rockets that saw McGrady replaced with Steve Francis.  Oh yea, and they won the lottery and landed suture Olympian and all around beast Dwight Howard.

Conclusions – Orlando is an example of what can go wrong when you dismantle a decent team.  They made massive changes to their core of promising players and if it were not for a lucky bounce of the ping pong balls that brought them Howard, they would still be struggling to recover.  If the Nuggets want to learn a lesson from the Magic it would be to beware completely revamping the roster of a decent team.  Of course, McGrady is still hoping to find his way to the second round and the Magic made it this season so you cannot say the transformation has been a complete disaster.

Memphis Grizzlies 2004-2006

Streak – Three straight first round losses

Record During Streak – 50-32, 45-37, 49-33

Young Studs – Pau Gasol (20.4 points, 8.9 rebounds), Mike Miller (13.7 points 5.4 rebounds)

Old Fogeys – Eddie Jones (11.8 points 3.7 rebounds), Damon Stoudamire (11.7 points, 4.7 assists) Chucky Atkins (11.4 points, 3.0 assists), Bobby Jackson (11.4 points, 3.1 rebounds)

Average Age of Core – 29.4 (Pau Gasol 25, Mike Miller 25, Eddie Jones 34, Damon Stoudamire 32, Shane Battier 27, Chucky Atkins 31, Bobby Jackson 32)

Future of Team – Pau Gasol injured himself playing for Spain in the summer of 2006 and missed the first month of the season.  That, along with the advanced age of the core, was enough to demolish the Grizzlies.  Two seasons later Gasol was shipped to the Lakers and the Grizzlies are in full rebuilding mode, albeit with some nice young players.

Conclusions – I do not see much of a correlation between the Grizzlies and Nuggets.  As stated above, Memphis had a very old core.  It is the oldest core among teams in this little study.  The Nuggets are in a much better position to build on what they have than the Grizzlies were.

Denver Nuggets 2003-2008

Streak – Five straight first round losses

Record During Streak – 43-39, 49-33, 44-38, 45-37, 50-32

Young Studs – Carmelo Anthony (25.7 points, 7.4 rebounds), J.R. Smith (12.3 points, 2.1 rebounds), Nene (5.3 points, 5.4 rebounds), Linas Kleiza (11.1 points, 4.2 rebounds)

Old Fogeys – Allen Iverson (26.4 points, 7.1 assists), Kenyon Martin (12.4 points, 6.5 rebounds)

Average Age of Core – 25.8 (Carmelo Anthony 23, Allen Iverson 32, Kenyon Martin 30, Nene 25, Linas Kleiza 23, J.R. Smith 22)

Future of Team – Unknown…

Conclusions – After studying the predicaments of several teams that have floundered in at least three straight first round playoff series without advancing the year before nor the year after I believe the Nuggets can certainly be better off missing the playoffs this season than they would be to make the post season and get bounced again.  While the prospects are not extremely promising for teams who have missed the playoffs after at least three straight losing appearances, the prospect for mediocre teams who were never able to add talent during their playoff appearances are far worse. 

The best correlation between the current Nuggets is the Hawks from the mid ‘80’s where they added to a young talented core of players and became a force to be reckoned with for the next four seasons.  Like Atlanta, Denver has the assets to experience a temporary bump this season and bounce back stronger than ever.  When a team is capped out and is not adding talent through the draft they can only trade their junk for someone else’s junk or bring in players with the mid level exception, which has a dubious history at best.  Right now, that is the plight of the Nuggets.

Can the Nuggets make the playoffs and still have a bright future?  I would say yes, but who knows what the difference between the 20th pick and the 12th or 14th pick may be in next year’s draft.  If I can spare myself another playoff disaster and move up a few spots in the draft, I will take my lumps this season and come back strong for the ’09-’10 season. 

With that in mind, trading Allen Iverson, sooner rather than later, becomes my number one priority for this season.  And then do not be surprised if Melo sits out the last few weeks of the season with some kind of malady. 

Like Andy Dufresne says in The Shawshank Redemption, “Either get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’.”  The same is true in the NBA.  Get busy winnin’ or get busy loosin’.  Mediocrity is a waste of time. Just ask most of the teams in this post.