Although the Denver Nuggets have not yet been mathematically eliminated from making the playoffs, their road to the postseason has now become so implausible as to be nearly insurmountable.
After the Portland Trail Blazers defeated the tanking Phoenix Suns yesterday, extending their current winning streak to six games, they are now a full two games ahead of Denver in the standings, though that number is effectively three, as the Blazers hold the tiebreaker between the two teams. With just six games remaining for Portland, and seven for Denver, this means that any combination of Nuggets losses and Blazers wins totaling four will officially end Denver’s postseason aspirations.
And realistically, though some Nuggets fans are still holding onto that last sliver of hope, it is now a near certainty that Portland, and not Denver, will clinch the 8th seed in the Western Conference. This point is unambiguously driven home by FiveThirtyEight’s NBA forecast, which gives the Blazers a 99 percent chance, and the Nuggets a mere 1 percent chance, of making the final cut.
The silver lining for the Nuggets, however, is that it is not too late to meaningfully improve their draft position by tanking. Let’s first take a look at the current draft standings as presented by Tankathon.com:
As you can see, the Nuggets are currently near the bottom of the draft lottery, in 13th place. Importantly, however, they share the same total of 35 wins with the two teams in 12th and 11th, the Charlotte Hornets and the Detroit Pistons.
Additionally, the Nuggets have two more games with the New Orleans Pelicans, who are currently in 10th place in the lottery standings with 33 wins – which just happens to be two less than Denver.
What this all adds up to is that if the Nuggets lose out the remainder of their last seven games, and finish with a 35-47 record, they can do no worse than finish in a four-way tie for 10th. The Pelicans, however, are not tanking, having won their last two games and seven of their last 10. And while Detroit and Charlotte both have fairly brutal closing schedules, it seems unlikely that both teams would finish the season without at least one single win.
So if the Nuggets do finish 0-7, they have a very good chance of climbing from 13th to 11th or even 10th in the draft lottery standings. And while even a jump to 10th would only improve their odds of landing a top three pick from 2.2 percent to 4 percent, the difference between the best player available at 10 and 13 could very well be quite significant.
When the Nuggets continue their five-game road trip at the Miami Heat tonight, Jameer Nelson and Will Barton will both be out, and as the Denver Post’s Nick Kosmider reports, Denver has called back Malik Beasley from the D-League, and he along with Emmanuel Mudiay are both expected to see “extensive” minutes:
This opens up what may be the Nuggets’ last best chance to finish the season with a positive outcome by tanking the rest of the way out, and thereby increasing their chances of landing a player this summer who can truly make an impact as part of Denver’s young core of the future.