"Tanking does not exist in my vocabulary or in the organization's vocabulary."
Those were words spoken by Denver Nuggets head coach, Michael Malone, just one week ago. It was just a day before the Nuggets began a two-game winning streak, beating the lowly Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers. Those two wins helped push the Nuggets passed last year's win total and ahead of four teams in the league-wide standings. They also lowered the Nuggets chances of winning a top three pick in this summer's NBA draft by 8%. That is the trade-off in today's NBA, where the price of winning can be quite steep.
Tanking is an NBA issue more than it is a Nuggets issue. The league's rationale behind tanking is sound and the logic goes something like this: the league is best when there is parity therefore it is best to provide bad teams with the opportunity to improve themselves through the draft. Unfortunately, in practice, the end result is that all non-playoff teams have an incentive to lose. Whether or not the benefits of a high draft pick outweighs the cost of building a losing culture is an argument for another discussion but looking at the landscape of the league, it is clear that several teams have found tanking worthwhile.
Of the 14 teams currently in the lottery, four have been overtly tanking throughout all or most of the season, including the 76ers, Lakers, Suns and Timberwolves. One, Pelicans, began tanking a few weeks ago when it was clear that the team was not going to make a playoffs spot. Three are still fighting for a playoff spot, including the Mavericks, Bulls, and Wizards, while another two - the Knicks and Nets - don't have any incentive to tank since they don't own their draft pick. That leaves just four teams in the lottery that are neither tanking nor good enough to compete: The Kings, who are one of the most dysfunctional teams in all of sports. The Magic, who collapsed after the first half of the season. The Bucks, who are experimenting with different lineups and positions for their young core. And the Nuggets.
As things sit right now, the Nuggets have just a 2.9% chance at receiving a top 3 pick in the draft with their own pick (they do have rights to swap with the Knicks who currently have a 9.9% chance at winning a top 3 pick making the Nuggets total odds 12.8% at winning a top 3 pick). However, the Nuggets are just 2 losses ahead of the Pelicans who are currently 5 spots ahead of them in the draft order and who currently holds an absurd 21.5% chance at a top 3 pick. That means if the Nuggets somehow manage to fall behind the Pelicans in the standings (they play the Pelicans in New Orleans this week), they can increase their own personal odds at landing a pick by over 18%! That is PLENTY of incentive to tank.
Tanking is a nasty word that carries certain connotations with it but there are degrees of tanking. The 76ers lowered the bar for what tanking can mean by going on a three-year (and counting) tank job in which the roster was gutted so that the team would lose record amounts of games despite trying night-in and night-out to win. In other words, the front office stacked the deck so that the team would lose despite the coaching staff and players' best effort. The Pelicans have adopted a version of this over the last few weeks when their playoff hopes were shot down and their star player, Anthony Davis, ended his season with a pair of injuries. Their latest lineups have featured a bevvy of D-League call-ups and players on 10-day contracts.
The next level up from that is the tank job that the Lakers and Wolves have done this year in maintaining sub-par coaches and/or maintaining some degree of a flawed roster while creating playing time for young prospects. This level of tanking is only slightly less disingenuous than Philly's in that the team is still constructed in a way that will allow them to compete most nights with any team in the league.
Lastly, there are the Bucks who competed for a playoff spot for most of the year before pivoting into a more sneaky tank job in which the staff began experimenting with different lineups combinations and placing young players in new roles. In addition to helping them fall higher and higher in the lottery, the pivot to experimenting with some fairly unconventional tactics has allowed coach Jason Kidd and the front office a chance to better evaluate the talent and fit of the roster.
The Nuggets may be opposed to tanking on principle, but they shouldn't be above this kind of tanking, this late in the season. There are just seven games left and if the Nuggets do it right, they could lose all seven of them. The trick is, how can a team lose games while not sacrificing the culture of consistent effort and accountability that they've built all season? By using these final seven games to experiment with the roster.
Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic have been an awful pair in very limited minutes this season but their ability to play minutes together may be an integral part of the Nuggets future. What better time to see if the two can gel that right now? It's a win-win situation. If it works out and the two develop a chemistry on offense while gaining familiarity with roles and rotations on the defensive end, then the team has gained a new weapon going into next season. If the two fail on that end, the front office and coaching staff will have more minutes of footage to study in the offseason and more information to draw from when determining if they need to make changes to the roster over the summer all while moving closer and closer to a top 3 pick.
The twin tower lineup isn't the only experiment that can be made in the final two weeks of the season. Another experiment is to place Emmanuel Mudiay alongside as many shooters as the team can fit on the floor. Mudiay has looked his best when he is playing alongside at least two other reliable shooters on the wing. The trio of Mudiay, D.J. Augustin, and Gary Harris has provided a 140 ORTG in 91 minutes. The Nuggets would be smart to experiment with lots of lineup combinations that feature a lot of spacing. My hunch is that Mudiay will look like a much different player alongside three reliable shooters. Why not try a Mudiay-Harris-Miller-Kenneth Faried-Jokic combo while placing Jokic in the corner with a green light to shoot when open? Or a Mudiay-Augustin.-Jameer Nelson-Will Barton-Nurkic lineup? Will those lineups fail? Probably. Will they teach the coaching staff and front office something about how to build the roster going forward. Almost certainly, yes.
The Nuggets can lose the final seven games in a way that teaches them something valuable going into the summer, free agency, and the draft. They've done a great job of re-establishing the culture and fighting to win every game. They can afford to lose the final seven games of the season while also trying some new things that should help them figure out what they have with this roster going forward. It might be ugly, but the chance to try new things with the roster paired with the benefit of gaining as much as 18% in lottery odds at a top 3 pick is very much worth it.