Sunday night recalled many a night in my life from 2008 through 2013.
My girlfriend and I were hosted at a nice dinner party with good friends and just before taking our seats, I couldn't help but check on the Denver Nuggets versus New Orleans Pelicans score on my phone. When I saw that the score was within a few points to kick off the fourth quarter, rather than participate in the lively conversation at the table I (kindly) asked our host to a) turn the television on, b) change the channel to Altitude TV and, c) seat me at the end of the table and angle the television in a way that I could see the rest of the game - a la Robin Williams from The Best of Times.
Nuggets fans who were fortunate enough to watch Sunday night's thriller at New Orleans know what my table side manner was like throughout dinner on Sunday at our friend's place. If you had seen how I contorted my body to watch every moment of the fourth quarter and subsequent double overtimes, you'd think our Nuggets were on their way to a long playoff run. For the first time in a long time, I actually yelled aloud with joy when Danilo Gallinari hit a dagger three-pointer near the end of the second overtime to seal the Nuggets victory. I was oh-so-proud to be a Nuggets fan again.
All of this, of course, doesn't square with the reality of a 26-41 team that has absolutely no prayer of making the NBA Playoffs and squandered it's first 59 games due to a poor nightly effort, awful execution and general cluelessness from the preceding coaching staff.
But in the post-Brian Shaw Era, the 6-2 Nuggets are once again fun to watch. Really fun to watch. And the fans are excited.
Or are they?
While being an extremely rude house guest as I watched the non-playoff bound Nuggets take on the fighting-for-the-playoffs Pelicans ... IN New Orleans ... I thought back to last week when I attended both the New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks visits and overheard several fans inside the Pepsi Center utter phrases like:
"Why is this team winning now?!"
"Don't they realize that we NEED to lose?!"
"Why the @#$% did we fire Brian Shaw?! He guaranteed us a top-three pick!!"
This line of thinking traces back to an undeniable fact that all NBA fans (and owners, executives and coaches) know: without a top-three NBA Draft pick, it's highly unlikely that your city will be hosting an NBA Championship parade anytime soon. If ever. In fact, since 1980 no team except Larry Bird's Boston Celtics has won an NBA Championship without a top-five pick and only five teams have advanced to an NBA Finals without a top-five pick (four of those five being the Karl Malone/John Stockton Utah Jazz and the Clyde Drexler/Terry Porter Portland Trail Blazers, the fifth being the Julius Erving/Moses Malone Philadelphia 76ers). And with interim Nuggets coach Melvin Hunt coaching the Nuggets back up to the level seen two seasons ago when many members of this roster guided the team to an NBA franchise-best 57 wins, Hunt is all-but-guaranteeing that the Nuggets will be left out of top-three pick territory during May's looming NBA Draft Lottery.
Even though I totally understand where those fans concerned about the Nuggets newly found winning ways are coming from (I even recently wrote that keeping Shaw was a good strategy if the franchise's intentions were to secure a lottery pick), many of these same fans were calling for Shaw's head just weeks ago. At that time, they/we were collectively hoping that Shaw would be replaced by Hunt who would in turn develop a culture of effort not once experienced under Shaw ... but that the team would lose anyway for that desperately needed top-three draft selection.
Unfortunately, we cannot have it both ways and are seeing first-hand the folly of such thinking.
Under Hunt, the Nuggets have undergone a revolution (or evolution?) of great magnitude. It's not just that they're 6-2 on Hunt's watch - including impressive victories over the East-leading Atlanta Hawks, West-leading Golden State Warriors (I know, sans Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, etc.) and Sunday's awesome win at New Orleans - but it's how they're winning. It's as if they jumped into a time machine back to 2012-13 when they played fast, loose and free and scored a minimum of 100 points in each game along the way.
But what's good for the franchise's immediate culture and the recent win/loss record is - mathematically at least - not good for franchise's long term future. The way the NBA Lottery works is that a team either lands a top-three pick OR gets slotted outside of the top-three according to their record, which today means the Nuggets would be selecting eighth. And as has been documented here many times, in the history of the NBA Draft Lottery (going back to 1985), the Nuggets have not only never landed a draft pick higher than their projected draft position but whenever they've had a theoretic top-10 pick they've been slotted lower than the pick they should have received!
Which brings me to why the Nuggets winning now is actually important because all other historical efforts for the Nuggets to tank their way into the NBA Draft Lottery have failed. And failed miserably. So why not try something different? Why not try actually trying?! Why not try to put an earnest effort on the floor every night, develop a culture of care and hope that the basketball gods (whoever they are) reward our beloved Nuggets with a higher pick than they're technically entitled to? If there's any justice/karma in this world, aren't the Nuggets - after removing Shaw - entitled to just a smidgen of good lottery luck?
Besides, it sure is fun to root for a team that cares again. And cheering for a great guy named Melvin along the way!
Don't forget to enter our SuiteHop Stiffs in a Suite challenge for your chance to win a spot in a Pepsi Center luxury suite with your fellow Stiffs during the Jazz / Nuggets game on March 27th. Entries are due before Thursday's game versus the Rockets!