During last Thursday's NBA Draft the Denver Nuggets' brass - including team president Josh Kroenke, general manager Tim Connelly and assistant general manager Arturas Karnisovas - proved to be a combination of calculated, aggressive and highly tolerant of risk when they shipped their safe selection at 11, four-year Creighton University star Doug McDermott, for two latter first round draft picks at 16 and 19 with the Chicago Bulls.
Those picks at 16 and 19 became 6'11", 280-pound, 19 year old Bosnian big man Jusuf Nurkic and Michigan State sophomore shooting guard Gary Harris, respectively. And with the 41st overall selection, the Nuggets took a flier on a 6'11" teenager from Serbia named Nicola Jokic, whom it's assumed will be playing in Europe for a year just as Joffrey Lauvergne - the Nuggets' 2013 second round acquisition from France - will be doing next season.
And while it's way too early to tell if Connelly and his team's 2014 NBA Draft strategy was brilliant or forgettable (Nurkic could be the second coming of Nikola Pekovic or a 2016 Denver Stiffs Hall of Fame inductee), one thing is for sure: they're willing to gamble with their draft picks to make the Nuggets competitively relevant again in the NBA's brutal Western Conference.
And really, what choice do they have?
The only uniform that players of the caliber of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Blake Griffin or Stephen Curry will ever wear inside the Pepsi Center will be that of the opposition. So if our Nuggets are to regain their status as one of the NBA's more stable playoff participants, they must build through drafting (extremely) well late in the first round and be willing to look far and wide to do so. In hindsight - and with the 2014 NBA Draft now behind us - it's no accident that Connelly had assembled a front office team that includes a former Lithuanian basketball superstar in Karnisovas, another former Lithuanian standout in manager of basketball analytics Tommy Balcetis and Polish international scout Rafal Juc (who according to my colleague Nate Timmons spends 150 days of the year on the road scouting in Europe), because no one knows the hotbed of Eastern European basketball better than those three. In fact, the 2015-16 Nuggets just might look more like a Mock United Nations than a basketball team if the likes of Danilo Gallinari (Italy), Timofey Mozgov (Russia), Nurkic (Bosnia), Jokic (Serbia) and Lauvergne (France) stick around past this upcoming NBA season. While they're at it, the Nuggets might as well get Nigeria's Chu Chu Maduabum to finally come over and play while the organization still controls his draft rights.
In the wake of the small market San Antonio Spurs and their nine international players winning their fifth NBA Championship, it's no accident that Connelly and his team are looking globally to assemble a Nuggets roster that can be competitive today while rebuilding for tomorrow. It's a "have your cake and eat it, too" strategy that's tough to pull off in the NBA, but a strategy that's apt to keep ticket-paying fans (like yours truly) happier than the old "tank and hope" strategy deployed by former Nuggets GMs Kiki Vandeweghe and Bernie Bickerstaff a generation ago. Because even though tanking works (sort of), all it has ever done in Denver is get the Nuggets to be a mid-level playoff team - something they might be next season thanks to Thursday's myriad of transactions, including the draft day (re) acquisition of two-guard Arron Afflalo from the Orlando Magic.
No one should confuse the justifiable optimism coming from Nuggets Nation after Thursday's deals as a sign that our Nuggets are close to the NBA's promised land. I for one am still trying to figure out which among the Western Conference's eight playoff teams the Nuggets will supplant just to qualify for the post-season next April. But you have to like the strategy and the purposefulness behind it. Opposite of the 2013 off-season - when the acquisitions of the competent but certainly not inspiring Randy Foye, Nate Robinson, Darrell Arthur and J.J. Hickson were met with a collective "that's all?" from Mile High basketball fans - the Nuggets organization is showing their fans that they're willing to gamble and be aggressive to improve their roster. And should the Nuggets pledge the farm for a one-year rental of superstar power forward Kevin Love, the aggressive gambling will have hit an all-time high.
Assuming Love remains a Nugget opponent rather than a teammate for the 2014-15 NBA season, on the face of it the Nuggets appear to be back to having one of the NBA's deepest rosters (when healthy). And even though there's not a superstar (or even an All-Star) among them, head coach Brian Shaw should be able to deploy enough talent on the floor on any given night to wear out the opposition ... especially at home.
Thanks to the events of last Thursday, the Denver Nuggets are back in the conversation of a team to be leery of in the Western Conference. But just how far that conversation goes will depend on how much more Connelly and his cohorts are willing to gamble.