In Greek mythology, sirens would sing a song that lured sailors to their death, smashing their ships on rocky shores. Just making the playoffs has proved a similarly destructive lure to recent playoff teams, and Denver needs to be careful not to be the latest to succumb as they navigate this season.
In 2014, the Phoenix Suns missed the playoffs while winning 48 games. This convinced them their rebuild was ahead of schedule leading to a trade for Knight - and the beginning of the disastrous next 3 years that will leave them at the top of the draft again. In 2015, the New Orleans Hornets looked to be in good shape by achieving the 8th seed with rising star Anthony Davis, then fired their coach and have wallowed since. Last year the Portland Trail Blazers had a tremendous run after losing LaMarcus Aldridge that landed them at the #5 seed, but uncorrected roster isssues would have them already out of the playoffs in a more challenging year.
The Nuggets should understand quite well what it’s like to misunderstand your own roster limitations. George Karl messed up the self-evaluation of this team in a big way, which is one reason the team under-performed in the playoffs. When you have a coach who can take your specific collection of players to the playoffs every year you feel like you're one piece away, and your GM knows what sort of pieces should fit your coach.
Without Karl or Ujiri, the pieces simply did not work together under the next coaching staff. Maybe no roster would have, but Shaw and the Denver roster were an extremely poor fit. It was that selection that Josh Kroenke is still paying for (Connelly was here for a week before Shaw became the coach - it wasn't him driving the choice).
Denver added pieces like Afflalo thinking they were the same 57-win team, and that Gallo would be back that year. They weren't, he wasn't, and that first year was a mess. Deciding what to do with the remaining Karl players and what vets to build around while the kids become the hopeful stars we need is the next step.
Denver's not doing their rebuild any more slowly than others have, though. The rebuild started with the 2013-14 trade deadline (Hi Will Barton) and continued with the 2014 draft. The teams at the top of the 2014 draft: Cleveland (swapped #1 Wiggins to Minny for Love, added LBJ, basically cheated), Bucks, 76ers, Magic, Jazz, Celtics, Lakers, Kings, Hornets. Denver’s right in that pack with the Kings, Lakers, Bucks (yes, Bucks), and 76ers.
So what happened to the Celtics / Jazz / Hornets, who are a bit more out in front?
1) They switched coaches and picked good ones. Brad Stevens and Steve Clifford took the reins in the 2013-14 season, and Quinn Snyder got the job in Utah one year later. Whatever else you’re doing with your roster, it doesn’t hurt to have a talented coach heading up the show.
2) They had guys coming off rookie contracts who were ready to step up. Those three rosters are the 5th, 15 and 17th youngest in the league. The Celtics are throwing off the age curve with all their young draftees, but their best players are all on the other side of 25. The cores of all those teams are past their rookie deals, which means their push to the playoffs was really their second talent load, not their first.
3) Timely GM appearances. Ainge keeps working for assets even with a roster that makes it hard to squeeze in time for more young players. The Jazz added George Hill in a move they hope pays off short and long-term. The Hornets didn’t let Kemba Walker get out of town. Turning a roster of players into a consistent contender requires big moves and little ones, and the work is never done. None of those teams have shown themselves to be contenders yet, but they look built for a longer shot at it than the rest of the pack so far.
And unlike Phoenix, New Orleans and Portland, they didn’t make snap judgments based on playoff seeding and leave themselves with gaping roster wounds. Denver can't be fooled like those particular teams. Carmelo's legacy here was a lot of What-If, but this one comes up a lot: what if the Nuggets had gotten one last top-10 pick to add to Melo and Nene? Andre Iguodala was drafted 9th in 2004, the year after Melo. After seeing what one year of Iggy did for the 2012-13 Nuggets, how much better could those prime Carmelo years have been with Iguodala playing next to him?
The Nuggets are a couple of years behind those other rosters and the jury is still out on their coach, but they have a chance to find their young Iguodala in this draft or via trade. If they had not blown those early games things might be different, but Denver is once again being presented with the chance to tank or to hold steady with their current assets. Tanking for Mudiay was an accident of poor planning and bad karma. Tanking for Jamal Murray was a product of injuries and coaching turnover. The Nuggets didn't have to tank for their actual centerpiece, Nikola Jokic - but betting on finding another player like that outside the lottery is a longer shot than picking early.
Denver has a choice to make, and if I were Tim Connelly I would choose to trade some veterans, play some rookies, and head back to the top of the lottery to pan for gold one last time before this roster takes off. But the argument to add players now works as well - as long as the Nuggets understand that focusing on this particular playoff spot alone (which might not take even 40 wins to achieve) is foolish and short-sighted. Wrangling a lone playoff spot does not make you a contender; as Denver should know, getting a decade full of playoff spots doesn’t do it alone. The Nuggets had their two best teams when they added talent (Billups, Iguodala) that could amplify the core.
Connelly and Kroenke need to get the roster ready for long-term contendership and their moves should be for that goal alone. Any team can sneak into the playoffs with a good year but there’s no George Karl now to mask roster deficiencies, and the altitude will have less effect thanks to NBA schedulers. The roster will actually have to be built to sustain its own success, not crash out of the sky like Icarus when his wings burnt off thanks to too much scrutiny from the sun. “Made the playoffs” looks good on paper, but that’s flammable too; the Nuggets don’t need any more paper tigers. Denver’s moves have to make the team better long-term, and whether or not that comes with a playoff berth this year is almost immaterial. Just stay off the rocks, fellas - the song’s not that pretty.