Orchestrate or dominate: Should the Denver Nuggets try to fix their playoff seeding?

(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images) /

With a stacked Western Conference, the Denver Nuggets could utilize a series of fortunate matchups. Could they influence this?

The Denver Nuggets, barring disaster, are poised and ready for the stretch playoff run, and with less than two months of regular season basketball, they find themselves in a favorable position. Every seed is within reach (though the 1st seed seems unlikely after the last loss to the Lakers). With this in mind, let’s talk about gamesmanship.

The definition of gamesmanship, according to Merriam Website is, “the use of ethically dubious methods to gain an objective”. As the Nuggets completed their game on the last night of the NBA’s regular-season 2019, many locally were applauding coach Michael Malone’s craftiness and strategy of manipulating the playing field to get his team into the best playoff match-up possible whilst others were outraged.

It was widely believed the Nuggets threw a game against the Portland Trailblazers late in the season so they would not lose footing in the conference battle. In doing so, Portland ended up gaining the 3-seed and Houston, who the Nuggets struggled against in the regular season, landed in the 4-seed.

It was best-case scenario for the young, inexperienced Denver Nuggets team because they avoided the titan Golden State Warriors and forced a Rockets/Warriors second-round match-up that everyone expected to be the Western Conference Finals bout.

As it turns out, the 2019 Denver Nuggets were not ready for a championship run and were bounced from the playoffs in the second round vs the Portland Trailblazers. However, whatever the public reaction was, and with hindsight being 20/20, the question remains: Should teams intentionally lose games if they think it will help their playoff odds and, if they are in the position to do so, should the Nuggets try to do it again?


The Nuggets landed themselves in a first-round series against the San Antonio Spurs. On paper, this appeared to be the best possible adversary. Even though the regular-season series was tied the threat of the Spurs seemed more dangerous in reputation than on the court. Certainly, the names Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray had accumulated more buzz coming into the series than Derrick White and an aging LaMarcus Aldridge but after a 1-2 series start the Spurs looked more than game and were hungry for a first-round upset.

The young Nuggets went to work though and dug themselves out of the hole and eventually conquered the Spurs in an extremely close 7-game showdown where Nikola Jokic averaged 23.1 points, 12.1 rebounds, and 9.1 assists. The strategy had paid off and the youthful Denver Nuggets had won their first playoff series since 2009; a keystone achievement they could hang their hat on.

Portland was next on the check-list; the very team Michael Malone had (allegedly) given away a win to during the regular season. The Nuggets came out with a strong start, Jokic countering Lillard’s 39 point debut with 37 points of his own. They then dropped the next two games, the second of which was an unforgettable 4 OT thriller where Nikola played an evening high 64 minutes.

The Nuggets were considered dead in the water by many but countered with a game 4 win, galvanized by a 34 point showing by Jamal Murray. Following that, the Nuggets took the next game giving themselves a 3-2 series lead and Mike Malone’s voodoo was working at its peak but to the dismay of the Denver Nuggets, it wouldn’t last. The Nuggets put up a valiant fight but were eventually bested by Damian Lillard‘s Portland Trailblazers.

This is the outcome that we saw transpire last year with a little orchestration. The Nuggets saw their young team get their first playoff series win in a decade. They gained a bevy of playoff experience including the sweetness of a game seven victory and the cleaving blow of a game seven defeat.

Jamal Murray showed what he can do in big moments keeping his team in the race and taking them over the top at times. Nikola Jokic showed he was an NBA All-Star and a forced to be reckoned with and would be for years to come. The young rotational players got a taste for true competition and how the game changes during playoff basketball. Mike Malone showed he could take a small market team with an unconventional offense and be successful in the NBA playoffs.

The Nuggets and their fans should look at this as a resounding success. The Nuggets grew through their opportunities and that was essential to the future of this team, but was it worth “desecrating the sanctity of the game?”


This point is a little harder to hammer home because we do know the outcome of Mike Malone’s orchestrations but we do not know what would have occurred had the Nuggets just put their heads down and took care of business, no strategy implemented. It’s fairly safe to assume we would play San Antonio again in the first round. The thrown game really wouldn’t have affected the outcomes of those teams much. However, it could have influenced the Rocket’s chances of landing the 3-seed and put them against Denver in the second round instead of Portland.

The Rockets and the Nuggets played four times during the 2018/19 regular season. In those meetings, the Rockets went 3-1 in discouraging fashion for the Denver Nuggets. Nikola Jokic averaged 21.2 points per game but was an overall – 5.75 on the floor in those four games. Comparatively, James Harden averaged 30.5 points per game and was an overall +6.5 on the court. In a toe-to-toe comparison, it’s safe to say Harden was the more dominant player, and it showed in the winning column.

Who knows what would have happened if that had been the Nugget’s draw in the second round instead of Portland if we are looking to the statistics they clearly point to a very uphill battle. Not to mention James Harden finished the regular season 2nd in MVP voting with and incredible 35.2 ppg and 7.4 assists.

This doesn’t really speak to any sort of proof but I think it is clear the Nuggets were not interested in meeting Houston in the playoffs if they could avoid it. A four-game stomping in the playoffs could have been detrimental to the young Nuggets.

Denver may have won a game or two against Houston but fans would have missed a 4-overtime classic and a heated renewed rivalry. The team likely wouldn’t have had the experience of getting so close to a Western Conference Finals and it seems like the current Denver Nuggets are hungry for that next step.

The Decision: 

Where do you come out in this debate? Is it disgraceful to try and stack the cards in your favor? I can see how that could frustrate fans and rivals alike. If you want to be the best you should beat the best. This isn’t a game of Survivor where you find a meat-shield to take the big blows so you can come in and snatch up the victory.

To be the champ you want to beat the champ. I get it, but shouldn’t the Denver Nuggets be doing everything they can to gain an edge?

As a small-market team, you are already at a geographical disadvantage. Everyone wants to play for the L.A’s and Boston’s and New York’s of the world but very rarely do they choose the Indiana’s and Denver’s and Minnesota’s. They have been lucky to have the success they have because of great drafted players and a few hometown kids like: Chauncey Billips. Oh, and that time we landed Allen Iverson in a trade somehow. The Denver Nuggets have built a culture on hard work, a team centered focus and a positive basketball environment and they have men and women in leadership positions that buy into that culture every day.

Next. The Denver Nuggets are entering the MPJ-Era and it’s Terrifying. dark

The topic will always be a polarizing one and I can see both sides of the coin, I just think that if the Denver Nuggets are serious they need to do anything in their power to achieve that goal. Don’t apologize for you advantages, use them wisely and end up on top. Sometimes you have the chance to orchestrate and other times you will just have to dominate so why not do both?