It has been really fun watching the Denver Nuggets play during their recent seven-game home stand. They've won five out of seven, including four straight, and the two games they lost were an overtime thriller versus the Brooklyn Nets and a tough loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. Over the last six games, the Nugget scored over 110 points in them all and dished out nearly 26 assists per game - four above their season average.
And those are just the numbers.
Using the eyeball test, the Nuggets players appear to be coming together and having fun. The "young combination" of rookie point guard Emmanuel Mudiay, rookie center Nikola Jokic and second-year guard Garry Harris seems to work great. We may very well be looking at the Nuggets core for the next five to seven seasons. And others are stepping up when needed, like we saw with veterans D.J. Augustin and Darrell Arthur on Saturday night versus the Washington Wizards, sixth man sensation Will Barton versus the Phoenix Suns last Thursday and Kenneth Faried versus the New York Knicks last Tuesday, spoiling Carmelo Anthony's return to Denver. Even second-year center Jusuf Nurkic has gotten back in the act, playing terrifically in 17 minutes off the bench against the Wizards and being enthusiastically embraced by his teammates, who must have sensed that his days in head coach Michael Malone's dog house were beginning to wear on the young big man.
Even before this recent home stand the Nuggets thrilled their fans with a big win at the Los Angeles Clippers in late February followed by a tough overtime loss in Dallas versus the Mavericks (the Nuggets repaid the favor by besting the Mavericks in overtime at Pepsi Center two Sundays ago). For Malone to be doing all of this without his best player in Danilo Gallinari (ankle) and starting two-guard in Wilson Chandler (hip) is somewhat remarkable and it shows what a good hire Malone was.
Thanks to all of this winning, the Nuggets have catapulted over the Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans in the Western Conference standings and have the ninth-seeded Utah Jazz not too far in front of them. And with the way both the Kings (five straight losses) and the Pelicans (three straight losses) have been playing, it's highly unlikely that they'll catch the Nuggets in the standings this season.
And yet, despite all of the winning, the Nuggets remain the longest of long shots to sneak into the Western Conference Playoffs (read: will not happen) and with every win the Nuggets move further and further towards the back of the NBA Draft Lottery in what many are suggesting is a weak 2016 NBA Draft.
Meaning, the Nuggets short term gains in the win column could be detrimental long term for the franchise.
As a fan, it's in my DNA to root for the Nuggets on every possession. Every possession. I can't help but cheer for them to win and I've had a great time watching the Nuggets take down their various opponents at Pepsi Center these past few weeks. (As have the few fans in attendance alongside me.) But down deep, I know that every win for the Nuggets means that crummy teams like the Pelicans, Kings, Minnesota Timberwolves, Los Angeles Lakers and their Eastern Conference cellar-dweller counterparts have a better shot than Denver does at landing a top-three pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. Having already amassed 28 wins - one or two more than Las Vegas projected before the season began - the Nuggets are likely to be around 10th in the NBA Draft Lottery and there's no looking back. Fortunately, the Nuggets get the better of their or the Knicks' lottery selection and the Knicks are doing their best to drop games as the season wraps up.
To be clear, I am NOT advocating for tanking the remainder of the season away. Sadly, we as Nuggets fans have been forced to engage in this debate endlessly since Brian Shaw was hired to be the team's head coach in 2013. And at various times, depending on the circumstances, I've strongly advocated against it as well as advocated for it.
Before debating tanking ... again ... it's important to keep in mind that organizations tank while coaches and players coach and play to win. Organizations tank by disallowing certain players from playing due to "injury", replacing head coaches with interim head coaches, trading away solid players for future first round picks, stashing foreign prospects overseas and so on. Otherwise known as the 2013 through 2016 Philadelphia 76ers. While this strategy might work with bountiful lottery picks to be had at the end of the rainbow, it runs the risk of permanently alienating a team's fan base if it doesn't work. And one has to only look at the 76ers to see how the strategy can run amok as the 76ers have missed on all of the great lottery talent since 2013.
In the Nuggets situation, I cannot in good conscience advocate for tanking. First, it's way too late to tank. The Nuggets have already won too many games to be a real contender for a top-three lottery pick (even with the advantage of having the Knicks' pick, too). Secondly, Coach Malone has done a terrific job of changing the culture of the Nuggets locker room (remember last season when the Nuggets were laying down and dying nightly?) and his aforementioned young core is just now coming together, albeit late in the season. And thirdly, to "rest" any of their key players now - such as Mudiay, Harris, Jokic, Barton or Nurkic - would send a bad message to the entire team and reduce the on-court time those players very much need to build good chemistry with each other. Moreover, I cannot imagine the hard-nosed, no-nonsense Malone agreeing to unnecessary rest for key players anyway.
That said, I wouldn't be the least surprised if we don't see Gallinari, Chandler or Jameer Nelson play again this season, forcing Malone to move forward with D-Leaguers like JaKarr Sampson and Axel Toupane to fill out his roster alongside his healthy core players. Because while Gallinari, Chandler and Nelson might be able to play again this season, there's simply no reason to risk further injury to them in a non-playoff season (and a few extra losses wouldn't hurt for that improved lottery selection).
All of this leaves Nuggets fans with a dilemma: Knowing a playoff seed is all but impossible and every lottery ping pong ball counts, are we rooting for victories or losses? Unfortunately, we've had to wrestle with this dilemma for a third straight season and, frankly, I'm tired of worrying about it. My message to Nuggets fans would be to enjoy this ride. Enjoy watching Mudiay mature before our very eyes. Enjoy watching Jokic's irrational confidence going against experienced big men. Enjoy watching Harris prove his doubters wrong by showcasing that he could be a long-term starter in the NBA, and not just a backup. Enjoy watching Malone jump up and down the court like he's coaching Game 7 of a playoff series.
And maybe - just maybe - the basketball gods will reward the Nuggets for doing things the right way by sending a top-three lottery selection our way anyway.