(If you’ve been reading BSNDenver.com with any frequency as of late, you’re likely aware of how important the New York Knicks success (or lack thereof) is to the Denver Nuggets this season. I’ve tried to mention this several times in various articles but in fact this topic is of such importance that it deserves an entire post unto itself. Please be advised, however, that this article was written prior to the Knicks’ fifth preseason game against the Charlotte Hornets, therefore some of the stats used may be slightly altered by the time of its publishing.)
Four and half years ago Masai Ujiri, the then general manager of the Denver Nuggets, traded Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks. At that time, the amount of assets Ujiri received in return for Anthony was considered absolutely absurd — and justifiably so. Ujiri essentially robbed the Knicks of nearly all their top resources not only in 2011 but for many years to come. Considering Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler will have spent the vast majority of their careers in Denver by the time their new contracts expire, many Nuggets fans are likely convinced the best of that legendary 2011 trade has already come to fruition. But if this year’s Knicks team resembles anywhere near its 2014-15 17-win campaign, the Nuggets may very well see the most valuable aspect of Ujiri’s craftsmanship manifest five years later in the 2016 NBA Draft.
As one of the stipulations of the Carmelo Anthony trade the Nuggets obtained the rights to swap two of the Knicks’ future first-round draft picks if they so desired — one in 2014 and one in 2016. Of course, at the time this was considered a mere throw-in by pundits who dubbed the Knicks, with the addition of Anthony, instant title contenders for years to come, rendering these picks as nothing more than guaranteed late-first rounders. The Nuggets would surely be worse off than the Knicks after jettisoning Anthony, therefore why would they swap their early lottery selections for a couple picks twenty or so down the line?
What the Knicks seemed to forget somewhere between trading for Anthony and being handed the Larry O’Brien trophy was that they actually needed to construct a team, hire a great coach and build a winning culture (something they haven’t consistently had in decades) in order to nullify the value of the Nuggets’ rights to those first-round draft picks. And as we all well know, this is exactly the point where the Knicks dropped the ball, so to speak. Since trading for Anthony the Knicks actually have a worse overall record than the Nuggets and lost more games last season than ever before in their near 70-year history!
Why Ujiri chose to extract the Knicks’ first-round selections in the years 2014 and 2016 is anyone’s guess. And though it appears somewhat arbitrary, the fact is Ujiri couldn’t have targeted a better year for the latter pick if he met with a gypsy clairvoyant on east Colfax Ave. prior to phoning James Dolan’s cronies in The Big Apple.
Before writing off the 2015-16 Knickerbockers it’s important to note several factors that will surely differentiate them from last year’s team, likely resulting in more wins this year:
1.) Carmelo Anthony
As Nuggets fans are well aware, Anthony is one of the most lethal offensive threats in the NBA. He won the league scoring title two years ago averaging nearly 30 points per game and has consistently carried his team through much of his tenure in New York. Anthony was injured half of last year, which is big reason why the Knicks were so abysmal, but now that he’s healthy chances are the Knicks will win a handful of contests this winter solely thanks to his contributions. If ‘Melo avoids the injury bug, the Knicks are a totally different team.
2.) Roster Upgrades
This past summer was supposed to be The Year for the Knicks. They were gonna sign one high-profile free agent, then perhaps another, then sign two or three explosive role players, and life would once again be effervescent in New York as the Knicks would be winning basketball games by 10-plus points on a nightly basis. Instead, they signed no real high-profile free agents and only snagged a few solid role players. But make no mistake about it, the free agents they did sign are talented dudes.
Robin Lopez is one of the best defensive-minded centers in the NBA. Former Nugget Arron Afflalo is one of the more potent “3-and-D” perimeter players in the league. Rookie Kristaps Porzingis has already showed signs he’ll be one hell of a utility guy on any given night this upcoming season and former No. 2 overall pick Derrick Williams seems to be undergoing a career renaissance with the Knicks this preseason averaging 19 points in only 23 minutes per game off the bench over his last four games.
3.) Derek Fisher
Judging Derek Fisher strictly on his success as a first-year coach in 2014-15 is somewhat unfair. Though the Knicks roster was no doubt atrocious from the start, Fisher was also missing his three or four best players for more than half the season. In fact, only Jason Smith played in all 82 games and only Tim Hardaway Jr. and Shane Larkin (not exactly top-of-the-rotation talent) played more than 70. Assuming the Knicks remain relatively more healthy than last year there’s a good chance Fisher could get his team to string together some spirited win streaks. After all, they are 4-1 this preseason and are playing a pretty tantalizing brand of up-tempo basketball, something that has been known to win regular-season NBA games at a substantial clip (see: Karl, George).
4.) The East
Though the East has been steadily improving over the last few years the fact remains that as a conference it is still overall much weaker and much less talented than the West. Aside from the Cleveland Cavaliers there’s really no team in the East guaranteed to give New York a flogging each time they face off; in the West I count at least six: San Antonio, Golden State, Los Angeles (Clippers), Memphis, Oklahoma City and Houston. Last year there were 10 teams in the East that finished with even or losing records and only three teams with at least 50 wins; in the West only six teams had losing records while seven won at least 50. Furthermore, of the five teams in the Knicks’ own Atlantic Conference only one finished above .500 last season. In the event you’re not counting at home, that’s more than 50 games the Knicks will play this season against teams from the Eastern Conference — a true blessing for a team attempting to eclipse 17 wins from the year prior.
Knicks and Nuggets fans should rejoice collectively knowing there’s a good chance their teams will finish with much better records than last year. Both teams will likely be much more fun and easier to root for given their roster upgrades. But come April 2016, the ultimate record of both these teams — thanks to Ujiri — will affect only the Nuggets, and the worse that one of those records is, the better the Nuggets will eventually become.
Luckily for Nuggets fans, Tim Connelly has proven to be one of the better draft analysts among management circles in the entire NBA. Jusuf Nurkic and Emmanuel Mudiay (the Nuggets’ most precocious young building blocks) were each selected 16th and seventh overall. We’ve also seen Connelly pluck improbable second-round studs like Nikola Jokic and Joffrey Lauvergne from the back end of the draft, confirming his eye for talent isn’t just relegated to the lottery. And yet both of the last two years Connelly has had somewhat of an auspicious advantage when making his first-round selections given these drafts have been some of the deepest over the last decade. Guys selected in the late lottery — Jusuf Nurkic, Zach LaVine, Dario Saric, Elfrid Payton, Myles Turner, Justise Winslow, etc. — would have likely gone five to 10 spots higher in the two drafts prior, which of course begs the question: Just how good is the 2016 NBA Draft shaping up to be?
As is the case with most drafts, it’s extremely difficult to predict how talented the lottery will be before any of the top prospects have played a single organized game of collegiate hoops. Every year guys who are ranked as good, but in no way spectacular coming out of high school, end up solidifying themselves as top-five selections on Draft day. D’Angelo Russell is the most recent example of this trend. And so, a draft that may appear average in October, come June of that following year could just as easily be viewed as elite. A lot can happen on the court in the span of six months.
Modesty aside, the early grand prizes of the 2016 draft appear to be Skal Labissiere and Ben Simmons. But with Labissiere being a true center and the Nuggets already in possession of their own ferocious paint-protector in Nurkic, it seems obvious that Simmons is the golden ticket to the Promised Land — at least for Nuggets fans. After Simmons and Labissiere there appears a substantial drop off in superstar potential where roughly three to five players — Brandon Ingram, Jaylen Brown, Dragan Bender, Malik Newman, etc. — occupy a range comprised of gifted athletes with All-Star potential but who could just as well flare out as nothing more than solid role players. Still, if the Nuggets could land any of these appealing young players they’d be in excellent shape to contend for a perennial playoff spot come the start of next season.
The panacea for the Nuggets finally advancing past the NBA’s middle class — which they’ve seemingly occupied forever — is one very simple equation: The New York Knicks have to lose as many basketball games as possible in 2015-16. The more games the Knicks drop, the higher the Nuggets’ draft pick in 2016, the better the player, the more star-power the Nuggets subsequently accrue, the better their chances of finally competing for an NBA championship in the near future. It is as simple as that.
This isn’t to say the Nuggets won’t be good in the future if their pick isn’t top three or even top five. As stated above, Connelly is clearly more than adequate at his job come late June. But the difference — or rather, the guarantee in terms of talent — between players drafted top five annually as opposed to the rest of the draft is substantial. This is where the superstars dwell: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, James Harden, Blake Griffin, Dwyane Wade and on down the line — all top five picks.
The Nuggets have such a bright future. They have what appears to be a good general manager. They have what appears to be a very passionate and intelligent, defensive-minded head coach, which you absolutely must have in order to win come playoff time. They have what appears to be a star point guard; they have what appears to be a quasi-star center. And we know for a fact they have an excellent supporting cast, most of whom are locked down on multi-year contracts. But the one piece the Nuggets are still missing in order to truly contend for a title is a superstar. They need another Mudiay. They need a better Nurkic. They need a Batman. And if the Knicks continue on the same path they’ve been on for the last several years — after all, why would they not? — then the Nuggets may very well land the superhero they need to unify their own Mile-High Justice League once and for all.
Let us hope for catastrophe in Gotham this winter.