Why The Nuggets Need To Get Worse Before They Can Get Better

The Denver Nuggets are trapped in NBA limbo.

After five heartbreaking first-round exits between 2003-04 and 2007-08, the Nuggets finally broke through in 2008-09, making it all the way to the Western Conference Finals before falling to the Lakers, who went on to win the title. The team had a well-defined identity built around Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, and Nene's inside presence, and an impressive supporting cast including Chris Anderson, Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith gave the team versatility and grit. While it didn't win a championship, the team had the personnel and the potential to get there.

After the 2009-10 team was unable to get by the Utah Jazz in the first round, Carmelo Anthony made his exit...and that's where the Nuggets made the first in a series of critical mistakes.

The stage was set for Denver to bottom out and rebuild. With the Western Conference already an absolutely brutal juggernaut, only the most perfectly-constructed teams could legitimately call themselves contenders. While Masai Ujiri did a remarkable job of keeping the Nuggets respectable through trades and free agency after Carmelo's departure, he robbed them of the chance to truly start over from scratch.

The team Ujiri cobbled together before leaving for Toronto was good enough to make the playoffs in the West...but not good enough to make an impact once it got there. While there was undeniable talent on the squad, the pieces of the puzzle never really came together like a championship team needs to. Denver ended up right back where they were before Carmelo left - only without a superstar - and four more first-round exits followed. If Danilo Gallinari had stayed healthy and the front office hadn't inexplicably fired George Karl for failing to build a Lamborghini with a set of spare parts, that streak would probably have extended into 2013-14 as well.

Now, heading into Brian Shaw's second year, Denver is right back where they started - good enough to make the playoffs, but not good enough to win a title. As much as the Nuggets hate the idea of tanking, no NBA team has gone from mediocrity to the NBA Finals without bottoming out first (seriously, look at the list of recent Finals teams - with the exception of the Lakers, who don't play by the same set of rules, every single one bottomed out before they became contenders). It's easy to forget that to get Carmelo and plant the seeds of that 08-09 contender, the Nuggets first had to go 17-65 in 2002-03.

As currently constructed, this Nuggets roster can't make that leap. That leaves the front office with two options:

- Stay the course, continue to make marginal improvements through trades and the draft, and continue watching the Finals from home

- Use the wealth of tradeable assets in Denver to stockpile draft picks, bottom out, and build a contender with a cohesive skill-set and philosophy

No fan wants to see their team actively get worse, especially not when there are exciting young players like Ty Lawson just starting to reach their potential. The harsh truth right now, though, is that you can't get to the NBA finals without a superstar or a cohesive team philosophy that preaches defense. Right now, the Nuggets have neither.

While the Nuggets' aversion to tanking and commitment to good basketball is admirable, it isn't going to bring a championship to Denver. If that's truly the goal, this team needs to get worse before they can get better.

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