The team of the future, eight years later
April 1994: Dikembe Mutombo's face was a vision of pure joy as he clutched the ball to his chest after the Denver Nuggets' clinching victory in game five over the Seattle SuperSonics. It was the rare eighth-seed upset of the first seed (and the best record in the league that year), and the Nuggets looked like a team of the future.
A mere eight years into that future, that memory has been buried under embarrassment after embarrassment: horrendous trades, a botched sale, seven coaching changes, two mid-season resignations by two-time coach Dan Issel, and, most recently, Nick Van Exel intentionally tanking games in order to force a trade. (The last of which is one of the most repulsive examples of poor sportsmanship in recent memory.)
For eight seasons, just about every aspect of this team has been substandard, from its marketing to its management to its play on the court. And the light at the end of the tunnel is looking increasingly dim.
This sort of track record obviously does little to cultivate a fan base. The next few years represent what might be the Nugget's last chance to win back some of the true fans of basketball before they turn their back on the team forever. If next season is a lost cause, franchise PF Antonio McDyess will undoubtedly bolt and leave the cupboard entirely bare. And just ask Messrs. Krause and Reinsdorf in Chicago about that strategy. (At least the Bulls had six championships in eight years to cushion their fall from grace. The Nuggets are already at rock bottom.)
Attracting free agents to this mess is akin to selling return cruises on the Titanic. If a couple of ping-pong balls defy the laws of probability (and the Nuggets don't elect to draft a Tony Battie over a Tracy McGrady), they might show signs of respectability next year. But if they don't, then the franchise might as well just write off the '00s much in the same fashion as the team did with the '90s after that last glint of promise in 1994.
Not that they've shown any ability to follow any model of successful team-building, but Nuggets management would do quite well to take a lesson from their Pepsi Center roommates, the perennially contending Colorado Avalanche. Or maybe just take a few of the following tips from yours truly:
- Change the name. At best, the Nuggets moniker makes people think about processed chicken with soggy breading, not gold. Not many teams have changed names without moving, but a new branding strategy is definitely in order for this franchise. My suggestions: the Denver Boots, the Denver Omelets, or a name
- Don't overlook the talent that's already on the roster. There is a litany of upper-tier ex-Nuggets in every corner of the league: Sixers C Mutombo, Clippers G Jeff McInnis, Raptors F Keon Clark, Bulls G Jalen Rose, and Wolves G Chauncey Billups, to name a few. These are all players that the Nuggets gave up on, gave away, or otherwise dispatched for virtually nothing in return. Players like G Kenny Satterfield, PF Chris Andersen and C Mengke Bateer are intriguing (albeit raw) prospects that should be fostered for more than a fraction of an NBA season. It's better to give them a full year in Denver than let them blossom in Los Angeles, Indianapolis, or elsewhere.
- Keep Mike Evans in the coach's seat for 2002-03. He inherited an impossible situation in the post-Issel meltdown, with Van Exel whining, tanking games, and otherwise complementing his All-Star talent with the worst attitude in any league. A quick firing of Evans at season's end crushes one of the last remaining links to the run-and-gun glory years of Alex English, Fat Lever and Doug Moe. If a new coach is calling the plays next season, GM Kiki Vandeweghe represents the closest thing this team has to a legacy. (Not that Vandeweghe has any job security in the long term, either.) After the mistreatment of Bill Hanzlik (another ex-Nugget who coached a talent-barren team through the woeful 11-71 1997-98 season that was no fault of his own), longtime fans will cringe at a meaningless coaching change, especially if the new coach is just another passenger in this seemingly eternal revolving door. And seven coaching changes in eight years might just indicate that coaching is not the problem.
- Hedge the bets in free agency. Rather than sign one big-name player to one big-time contract, the team should look to sign two or three promising players who can help the team immediately. The key is obviously making strides to respectability next season, enticing McDyess (and possibly Juwan Howard) to stick around. Hitching the team's progress to one big free agent is too big of a risk for next season. And the team will have so much salary cap space after 2002-03 that they'll have a shot at some real top-notch talent, and McDyess will have already made his decision. So it's best to err on the side of caution for these sweepstakes - and not blow whatever pick the lottery hands them.
If all else fails, owner Stan Kroenke should just pull an Art Modell and move the team to St. Louis. In this case, however, the public outcry would probably be more of a whimper, a mix of relief with the sense of loss. Speaking for just one Nuggets fan, the past decade - with the business of basketball beginning to overwhelm the beauty of the game, league-wide - has been infuriating, frustrating, off-putting, and often downright disgusting enough to turn a diehard fan into a wishy-washy, fair-weather, apathetic observer. It's been kind of like watching a car wreck - over and over again.
Eric Peterson is a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com
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