For the second consecutive calendar year, the Denver Nuggets are going to move into a new year mired in a spate of losing. The end of 2014 is certainly better than the end of 2013, when our Nuggets finished out the year with seven straight losses (on their way to eight) and 10 losses in 13 tries. Finishing out 2014, the Nuggets delivered their fans two consecutive (home) losses with 10 losses in 14 tries. But in both instances, the team completes a calendar with no more than 14 wins (13 this year).
And a belated bah-humbug to you all.
Completing 2014 with a 13-19 record in the brutally competitive Western Conference all but assures that the Nuggets will not be a playoff participant for the second straight season, while simultaneously making any October pre-season "talk" about a return to 50ish wins and a playoff seed sadly laughable. Even my pre-season prediction of a ninth seed seems somewhat comical at this point.
Regardless of whether it's shoddy coaching, a clunky roster, injuries or a combination of the three, it's clear to this fan that the Nuggets are going to enter February - i.e. trade deadline season - with a critical internal decision to make: radically re-build the roster now or later. But such is life in the NBA. If it's not working, it's best to tinker with the roster sooner than later and move on to (presumably) better days ahead. Former Nuggets general manager Kiki Vandeweghe understood this in 2002 when he essentially traded the entire roster to the Dallas Mavericks for expiring contracts and picks. And just two seasons later, the Nuggets were on their way to 10 straight playoff appearances.
But before we write the obituary for the 2014-15 Denver Nuggets season ... given that it's not yet 2015 anyway ... let's bounce around the NBA and put the Nuggets' recent woes in context among their competitors.
... the Cleveland Cavaliers are going to regret trading Andrew Wiggins (and a 2015 first round pick) for Kevin Love. By rushing to build a would-be "Big Three" around LeBron James, the Cavaliers gave up the opportunity to build a 20 year dynasty in Cleveland a la what the San Antonio Spurs did in the transition from David Robinson to Tim Duncan from the late 1990s through the early 2000s. James could have been to Wiggins what Robinson was to Duncan, a current superstar mentoring a could-be superstar by sharing his championship wisdom and experience with the young Wiggins as the Cavaliers build a championship culture for nearly two decades. God may hate Cleveland, but god didn't force the Cavaliers to trade for Love who is clearly a mismatch with James anyway.
... don't be surprised if Love, currently on a one-year deal, exits Cleveland at season's end for the Los Angeles Lakers. And don't be surprised if Love's fellow UCLA alum (and current Nugget) Arron Afflalo does the same. Although it will be tempting for Afflalo to get his (player option) $7.8 million for the 2015-16 season right before the NBA's new television contract kicks in which is sure to vault player salaries into a new stratosphere beginning in 2016.
... speaking of the Lakers, say what you want about Kobe Bryant's selfishness and curmudgeonly ways this season but (in person at least) he looks great for a 36 year old with multiple surgeries and over 55,000 career minutes played. And while I wish nothing but bad fortune for the Lakers, as an NBA fan it would be nice to see Bryant mentor his teammates rather than distance himself from them. Maybe, just maybe, his triple-double against our Nuggets on Tuesday night is a start of things to come? Ah, who's kidding ...
... as I wrote earlier in the season, I'd rather have the Lakers roster than the Nuggets roster. At least the Lakers are forced to clear the decks and drastically rebuild during the summer of 2015. The Nuggets, conversely, could be on the hook for about $65 million in salary next season with largely the same roster that's delivered zero results this season and last. Most regrettably, I could probably say the same thing about most NBA rosters versus the Nuggets roster.
... for example, I love the Minnesota Timberwolves roster. Yes, the Wolves (five wins to date) suck worse than our Nuggets (13 wins) do. But at least the Wolves have the chess pieces on the chess board to become a force in the Western Conference in a few seasons plus they have more high lottery picks on the immediate horizon. I'd take the upside of youngsters like Wiggins (19 years old!), Ricky Rubio (only 24!), Gorgui Dieng (24), Shabazz Muhammad (22), Zach LaVine (19) plus the 28 year old Nikola Pekovic over the Nuggets clunky collection of tweeners without any future star power. Remember, the Cavaliers will regret trading Wiggins. Just watch.
... breaking up the Nuggets roster, a likely inevitability come February, will be sad. With the exception of Nate Robinson and Darrell Arthur, I really really like the players on the Nuggets roster. And while no NBA team should ever fall in love with its players, no single Nugget on this current roster should be spared from trade consideration. How Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly pulls this off without coming across as desperate / impatient will be quite the challenge.
... just how bad was that Arthur trade? I think most Nuggets fans (me included) wish we had Kosta Koufos back. Koufos might be a lifetime backup center, but undersized power forwards like Arthur are a dime a dozen in the NBA. Of course, if Joffrey Lauvergne ever comes to Denver and plays well, this trade could look very different. The Nuggets' 2012 draft day trade of the 7'1" Rudy Gobert for backup guard Erick Green just might also prove to be a mistake in the long run ... you can't coach 7'1"!
... now that we're on the topic of bad Nuggets trades, the Evan Fournier-for-Arron Afflalo trade - in hindsight - will soon rank among the bigger blunders on Connelly's watch. In fairness to Connelly, by dealing away the raw Fournier for the seasoned Afflalo the Nuggets were making a statement that playoff contention will be the primary goal of the 2014-15 campaign (and I must admit I was on-board with the trade at the time it happened for that very reason). But with Fournier nearly outplaying Afflalo this season - and being seven years younger - combined with the Nuggets' playoff hopes having all but disappeared, I'd like Connelly to take that one back. Unfortunately, it looks likely that two separate Afflalo trades will poison the Nuggets twice in a three-year span. The first, when Afflalo was traded (along with a lottery pick!) in 2012 for Andre Iguodala on a one-year rental, came back to haunt Denver. And now the second, receiving Afflalo back on a likely one-year rental, will do more of the same.
... at least Connelly hasn't yet made the mistakes that his long-ago predecessor Dan Issel did. Unlike Issel, who as president of the Nuggets in the mid-to-late 1990s routinely gave away future first round draft picks in favor of building a 40-win team, Connelly has kept the Nuggets 2015 lottery selection and their right to swap first round picks with the New York Knicks in 2016. Ah, the Carmelo Anthony trade ... the gift that keeps on giving.
... clearly, Brooklyn Nets general manager Billy King didn't get the memo about hanging on to first round picks. In his hurriedness to build an expensive, aging squad that had no prayer of winning a championship, King gave away first round picks in 2011 and 2013 (to Utah for Deron Williams, picks became Enes Kanter and Dieng), 2012 (to Portland for Gerald Wallace, that pick became Damian Lillard ... egads!), 2015 (to Atlanta for Joe Johnson, Hawks have option to swap picks in 2015), 2014, 2016, 2017 pick swap and 2018 (to Boston, all for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett). That's right, Nets fans, you have to swap picks with the Hawks in 2015 and the Celtics in 2017 and have no first round pick in 2016 and 2018.
... meanwhile, the Celtics have two 2015 first round picks (plus a possible third from the Rajon Rondo-to-Dallas trade), three 2016 first round picks, one 2017 first round pick and two 2018 first round picks. Keep this mind when Connelly and the Nuggets sell us on rebuilding in February.
... re-reading the last few paragraphs, you see why the Western Conference simply dominates the Eastern Conference. While eight elite Western Conference teams (Warriors, Grizzlies, Clippers, Trail Blazers, Rockets, Spurs, Mavericks and Thunder) vie for the top-eight playoff spots (with the talented-but-not-quite-there Suns and Pelicans on the outside looking in), the Eastern Conference once again features four sub-.500 teams overtly rebuilding (76ers, Magic, Celtics and Bucks), two franchises decimated by stupidity (Knicks and Nets), one franchise crushed by injuries (Pacers) and two hoping for the playoffs but simply playing horribly (Pistons and Hornets). Only in this Eastern Conference could the Washington Wizards be considered as a possible 2015 NBA Finals participant.
... with both the Toronto Raptors and the Trail Blazers having fabulous seasons (including a hard fought overtime battle between the two on Tuesday night), it's about time former Nuggets head coach George Karl got some respect for his "coaching tree" as both the Raptors' Dwane Casey and the Blazers' Terry Stotts - plus the Thunder's Scott Brooks - are former Karl assistants. Meanwhile, Phil Jackson's coaching tree (or playing-for-tree) is 1-2 for this season, with Steve Kerr excelling in the Bay Area while Brian Shaw and Derek Fisher fumble away their seasons in Denver and New York, respectively. Current Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle also gets kudos for Casey and Stotts as they were Carlisle's assistants on the 2011 champion Mavs squad that bested James' Miami Heat in six games.
... like the Cavaliers, the Pelicans impatience to build around their superstar will cost them in the long-term. Rather than amass lottery picks like the Oklahoma City Thunder astutely did when building around Kevin Durant, the Pelicans panicked themselves into surrounding Anthony Davis with better-than-mediocre-but-expensive players like Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson. But at least the Pelicans have a definable star, something the Nuggets desperately need.
... that definable star won't come in the form of Jusuf Nurkic, but you have to love the Nuggets' 16th overall selection from the 2014 NBA Draft. Is Nurkic a week away from overtaking Timofey Mozgov as the team's starting center? Two weeks away? Nurkic's infectious enthusiasm, decent footwork and great hands will pay dividends for the Nuggets for years to come and the young Bosnian may be the team's only untrade-able player.
... what exactly did Kenneth Faried do to piss off Shaw? From what I can tell, Faried's motor continues at the highest rate above his teammates. But the Friday game against the Wolves was a tell all: Faried was having the game of his life and yet Shaw gave Faried the fewest minutes of all the starters.
... the news for Denver Nuggets fans isn't all bad and I believe it's important that we end 2014 on a supremely positive note. Nuggets fans worldwide can hold their heads up high knowing one thing and one thing only: at least we're not the Knicks.
Happy New Year, fellow Stiffs!