Updated: January 3, 2014 at 6:21 am
DENVER - For an NBA team stumbling through its worst stretch in 11 seasons, the Nuggets sure struck a chipper mood on New Year's Day.
During their morning shootaround at Pepsi Center, a friendly 3-point contest broke out. Jokes ruined the quiet. There were no tears in their champagne.
Maybe they saw the Knicks' record. Even as the Nuggets unravel like a party horn at midnight, hope for their future is alive and kickin' - in New York.
Just like old times, Carmelo Anthony holds the key to the Nuggets' future. The Knicks are so bad, they are aligned for a top-six draft pick. That pick goes to the Nuggets, with a twinge of irony, as part of the trade that sent Anthony to New York.
That's why Friday's result from Nuggets-Grizzlies at Pepsi Center isn't as important to their future as the score from Knicks-Rockets. That's why Andre Miller's two-game suspension makes for a headline but won't determine when the Nuggets return to relevancy. That's why a member of the Nuggets front office recently pulled to the side of the road to watch the end of a Knicks game on his smartphone.
That's why team scouts are attending practices from Kansas to Kentucky and devoting much of their time to the top seven or eight prospects expected to be draft-eligible.
The Nuggets are smart enough not to publicly root against an NBA peer. But when the Knicks lose, the Nuggets win - better odds to score a high pick in the best draft since Anthony dropped into Denver's lap in 2003.
For the Nuggets, here's a proper New Year's wish: lose, Knicks, lose. The Knicks' pick could be as high as 1, 2 or 3, if the pingpong balls bounce in Denver's favor.
Unlike others, I don't see a Melo in the next draft. The basketball hype machine has gone overboard with this one. But it is a very good draft with up to seven impact rookies. So it's a very good draft to have a very high pick.
Duke freshman Jabari Parker is the best prospect, followed by Kentucky's Julius Randle, Kansas' Andrew Wiggins, Kansas' Joel Embiid, Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart, UCLA's Zach LaVine and Arizona's Aaron Gordon. Multiple scouts suggested Australian point guard Dante Exum is a top-five pick.
The Nuggets coaches and players have their own problems. Prior to Monday's game, Nate Robinson was dancing with Rocky the Super Mascot at the free-throw line.
Is that a suitable way to prepare for the world champion Miami Heat?
So the Knicks' record is not on their mind.
"Not at all," Shaw said when I asked if he tracks the Knicks between Nuggets games. "It's still early in the season. ... It's not entering my mind, and it shouldn't be entering anybody's mind, worrying about trying to be in the lottery and getting a pick. Even lottery picks aren't a sure thing to help change your team."
During their New Year's practice, the Tournament of Roses Parade passed by on the 48-foot videoboard that hangs above center court.
This season is passing by the Nuggets. Eight straight losses mark their worst streak since 2002-03, the season before Anthony brought a heartbeat to a team on life support. This season looks a whole lot like that season, a jumbled roster with more basketball mercenaries than chemistry, a coaching message that isn't reaching the players, a lively crowd only when LeBron James or Kevin Durant is in town.
Despite their promising start, I wrote on Nov. 6 these Nuggets looked like a 35-win team. I still want to be wrong.
But if their interests truly are in bringing an NBA title to Colorado, letting Masai Ujiri walk and firing George Karl had to be only the beginning.
The Nuggets committed to major change. Now they are obligated to more change.
Thanks to the messy Knicks, part of that change will come in the form of a precious draft pick. Right now for the Nuggets, it is better to be lucky than good.